Sunday, September 5, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life by Pierre Hadot

This is part 5 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Hadot, early in his life, pursued a deeply spiritual and mystic life.  He mentions Pascal's experience, which had such a profound effect on Pascal, he sewed a 'memorial' into his coat pocket.  It seems Hadot pursued a similar experience.

I felt the desire to have analogous experiences.  In my eyes, this was the highest point a human life could attain.  I naively believed myself capable of reaching it, as every Christian does, for that matter (p. 75)

Hadot's admission resonates with me.  I recall times from my teenage years, as well as in my 20's and 30's having a desire to see God or at least be visited by Jesus Christ as a way of receiving the Second Comforter (see also this link).

Later in his life, he was disabused of this notion.

The prior of the Carmelite monastery of Avon, not far from Fontainbleau, where I went on a retreat, helped me understand that the desire for direct contact with God was a mistake, and that it was impossible to omit Jesus Christ.  One can wonder, moreover, whether the Christian message is ultimately compatible with mysticism, because mystical experience, as I was saying, is supposed to afford direct contact with God, whereas in Christianity, Christ is the indispensable mediator.  But this is not the occasion to tackle this difficult problem.  In any case, I did not have even the slightest mystical experience (p. 76).

His pivot toward Plotinus began.  He mentions Maritain's book and learning of Plotinus' mysticism and "discovered the existence of a purely philosophical mysticism" (p. 76).

This philosophical mysticism becomes a lesson in the proper and universal perspective.

When one says that the human self life according to the Intellect or the Spirit, or identifies with it, this means it has a perfect transparency in its relation to itself, that it transcends the individual aspects of the self, to attain the level of universality and interiority (p.77).

Regarding mystical experiences via drugs, he says,

they are artificial experiences ... not based on an effective transformation of the individual in the framework of a moral and ascetic preparation ... [drugs] are rather destructive experiences.

Whereas the experiences he has in mind are 

a greater sensitivity to nature, to the universe, and to existence ... feeling of a presence or a fusion with something else ... often expressed in terms borrowed from the vocabulary of love (p. 78).

Hadot is asked, "It seems as though philosophical preparations - ascetic, moral, intellectual - have become just as important for you as unitary experience.  Even if this experience is never produced, the behaviors that prepare for it have value.  What is the relation between the possibility of a unitary experience and the overall necessity of a philosophical life?"

He replies, speaking of Plotinus,

I believe that, for him, if philosophical life in fact prepares one for an eventual mystical experience, this philosophical life has value in itself.  All things considered, Plotinus' mystical experiences were extremely rare.  Porphyry tells us that the rest of the time - that is, almost all the time - he tried 'to be present to himself and to others,' which ultimately is an excellent definition of what every philosophical life should be.

If we now consider the problem in general, we must also say that ecstatic experiences, of whatever kind, are not an integral part of a philosophical life.  If they occur, in one form or another, it is true that they can open perspectives on the mystery of existence for the philosopher, but they cannot be an end in itself, and seeking to provoke them would be useless (p. 81-82).

Thus, another pivot for Hadot - from an ecstatic mystical experience, to in-the-present-moment mystical experiences.  He cites Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who discovers a watering can beneath a tree during one evening, and upon looking in it, discovers an insect crisscrossing the water.  He observes,

all this assemblage of insignificant things communicated the presence of the infinite to me so strongly that a chill ran through me from the roots of my hair to the base of my heels (p. 82-83).

Hadot observes that daily life can be a mystical experience and quotes Seneca: "Man is a sacred thing for a man."  He then insists,

a call not to slavishly reproduce the Plotinian experience, but simply to welcome the mysterious, the ineffable, and the transcendent in human experience with courage (p. 83).

Perhaps the goal of a mystical experience is losing the self in order to see the self as a part of the Universe.

At the moment of ecstasy, the self leaves its limits behind and dilates itself into infinity.  This is both a loss and a gain, the self's accession to a higher mode of being.  One might say that the highest point the self can attain is the point at which one has the impression of losing oneself in something that totally transcends it (p. 84).

What is the true self?  Hadot mentions three levels, plus one: the sensible consciousness (indistinguishable from the body); the rational consciousness (awareness of the soul; discursive reflection); and then spiritual consciousness (it has always been Spirit or Intellect); the plus one level would be the mystical experience of the One - a state of absolute unity and simplicity (p. 85).

He is asked about this quote from Paul Claudel, who said, "Someone within me who is even more myself than me."

Hadot responds that this someone is from a Christian perspective and not from a Plotinian mysticism.  Claudel's idea is that the Creator is more ourselves than we are "because he is at the origin of the self" (p. 85).  Hadot clarifies "the Plotinian One is not personal."

The last question from the chapter discusses the true self - how it is "both inside and outside; it is a continual search for the best part of oneself, which is a self-transcendence as well as a recognition of the fact that one part of ourselves is our true self.  This is the case in Stoicism, in Aristotle, and in Plotinus."

Hadot responds,

What constitutes the essence of the human is thus something that transcends its. ... Marcus Aurelius speaks of the daimon, in inner divinity that is ultimately none other than reason, and is both ourselves and above ourselves.  When the philosopher attempts to attain wisdom, he tends toward this state, in which he would be perfectly identical to the true self, which is the ideal self.

Generally speaking, I personally tend to conceive of the fundamental philosophical choice, and hence the effort toward wisdom, as the transcending of the partial, biased, egocentric, egoist self, in order to attain the level of a higher self.  This self sees all things from a perspective of universality and totality, becoming aware of itself as part of the cosmos and encompassing, then, the totality of things.

He quotes Anne Cheng,

Every form of spirituality begins by 'letting go,' a renunciation of the limited and limiting self.

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