Monday, August 23, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Researcher, Teacher, and Philosopher by Pierre Hadot

This is part 2 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

In this chapter, Hadot explains a bit of his journey from his early spiritual experiences toward becoming a researched, teacher and philosopher.

He mentions how he was "attracted to Plotinus' mysticism" which lead him to "a better understanding of the importance of reflection on the notion of nature" (p. 33).

It seems the next stepping stone was in meeting his future wife (ilsetraut Marten), who was "writing a doctorate ... on the theme of 'Seneca and the tradition of spiritual direction in Antiquity'" which he noted "was very close to my own interests, which had been oriented for some time toward the definition of philosophy as a spiritual exercise and way of life" (p. 34).

This was the genesis of the idea of actually living philosophy rather than learning of it as an academic interest.  He said, "I tried to ask myself the questions, What is a philosopher?  Of what do philosophical schools consist?  This is how I was led to conceive of philosophy not as pure theory, but as a way of life" (p. 35).

He read a "book entitled [Guidance of the soul] by Paul Rabbow, which set forth the different possible forms of these practices among the Epicureans and the Stoics, and which also had the merit of marking the continuity that exists between ancient spirituality and Christian spirituality" (p. 36).

He later continues, "Yet Christian spiritual exercises appeared in Christianity only and precisely because of its will, beginning in the second century, to present itself as a philosophy on the model of Greek philosophy, that is, as a mode of life comprising spiritual exercises borrowed from Greek philosophy" (p. 36-37).

Then he observes the positive influence philosophy had on religion.  "From its origins, philosophy developed as a critique of religion: a destructive critique - for example, that of Xenophanes, who said that men made gods in their own image - or a purifying critique - such as that of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and finally the Neoplatonists.  It was a purifying critique in the sense that philosophy finally tends to transform religion into philosophy, either by developing a theology, albeit a purely rational theology, or by using allegory to think about the different divinities in a philosophical way, as did the Stoics, for whom Zeus was fire, Hera air, and so on" (p. 37-38).

The next quote I'll share, should have a bit of the question that was posed to him, included.  In the question, Carlier asks if most religions are simply supplicating gods and includes this tid-bit in the question: "The God of the Bible and the Greek gods let themselves be swayed.  The god of the philosophers does nothing of the kind."  To which Hadot replies, "Yes.  One of the aspects of the philosophers' critical purification indeed consists in denouncing the vanity of prayers of request, and in underscoring their absurdity, because the most contradictory invocations are raised towards the gods, as men ask at the same time for rain and for good weather, for their victory and the defeat of the adversary" (p. 39).  Ancient Greek philosopher would pray to the gods without such requests and this was included an a form of spiritual exercise (e.g. the Hymn to Zeus).

Furthermore, the Stoics would have viewed it as one of their duties to accept the will of the gods, rather than attempting to sway them.

"During the Middle Ages, everything changes, because philosophy is no longer anything by religion's servant" (p. 40).

During Hadot's career, he was nominated and elected to an honor.  He ends up philosophizing about 'elections.'  "An election is very often a matter of luck, of the fortuitous meeting between different interests and different politics ... The fact of having been elected to an institution, however prestigious it may be, in no way proves that the person elected is himself prestigious.  One often speaks of elitist systems, of elitocracies, or of meritocracies" (p. 43).

Later is reflects on exams.  "(a young man's success in a competitive exam, [Balzac said], gives no certainty about the value of the grown man he will become."  He then quotes Father Festugiere, who said, "It is saddening that French students are completely devoid of curiosity.  One sinks into the emptiest routines and watches the essence of the humanities, which is to train minds, disappear" (p. 44).

We are lucky enough to have him asked which books and authors he has read and reread throughout his life.

  • Montaigne
  • Rilke
  • Heidegger
  • Albert Beguin
  • G.W.F Schelling
  • George Lichtenberg
  • Goethe
  • Nietzsche
  • David Lodge
See pages 49-51 for books he notes with the above authors.

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