According to Pierre Hadot, a prominent historian of ancient thought and professor emeritus at the CollËge de France, philosophy today—specialized, professional, and detached from life—is but a shadow of its glorious Athenian past. But that is not the original part of his thesis. A wide array of modern minds have thought the same: Hegel lamented that philosophy is no longer “practiced as a private art, as it was by
the Greeks,” Heidegger called for a return to the Greek grammar of being, and Kant claimed that “the ancient Greek philosophers remained more faithful to the Idea of the philosopher than their modern counterparts have done.” What is new in What Is Ancient Philosophy? is that its author confidently identifies Christianity as the agent of philosophy’s decline.
In his latest book, first published in France in 1995, Hadot surveys with care the great schools of classical thought—Platonism, Aristotelianism>, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism—and argues that they share not only a drive to offer rational explanations of the world but also a conception of philosophy profoundly different from the way that discipline currently understands itself. As in his last book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot shows that unlike today, philosophers in the age of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum practiced their craft; they did not merely study it. Since they considered philosophy a means of inner transformation rather than a
purely theoretical endeavor, the ancients aimed not at resolving abstract
problems or thinking systematically but at preparing themselves for truth and making themselves susceptible to it by cultivating certain attitudes of mind: equanimity and absence of worry ataraxia), independence (autarkeia), good disposition euthumia), and so forth. These inner calibrations in turn demanded a highly developed philosophical exercise (askesis) of self–awareness, self–mastery, and examination of the conscience. Philosophy required rational living as much as rational thinking.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the philosophers of antiquity, from the Presocratics to the late Neoplatonists, flourished in tight communities of shared dialogue and practice. The Stoic sage
Seneca counseled that “the living word and life in common will benefit you more than written discourse,” and his contemporaries indeed tended to think together and to think out loud. “For Aristotle,” as for others, Hadot says, “the discussion of problems was ultimately more formative than their solution.” Membership in a philosophical school entailed not
doctrinal allegiance but, as Hadot puts it, “the
choice of a certain way of life and existential option which demands from the individual a total change of lifestyle, a conversion of one’s entire being, and ultimately a certain desire to be and to live in a certain way.”
If this strikes you as closer to religion than philosophy, then you are thinking like an early Christian. For far from rejecting pagan philosophy, Hadot notes, Christianity borrowed from it extensively, ultimately deriving its very conception of itself from Greek thought. The fledgling
religion presented itself not only as a philosophy, in the ancient sense of the term, but as the philosophy. If doing philosophy meant living in conformity with reason (the thinking went), if it really represented “a conversion of one’s entire being,” then Christians were
philosophers and (at least some) philosophers Christians. Hence we find
the apologist Justin, for example, declaring—scarcely a century after
Jesus—that “those who, before Christ, led a life accompanied by reason are
Christians, even if they were known as atheists. Such were Socrates,
>Heraclitus, and those like them.” (For a wider discussion of Justin’s view, see “The Christianity of Philosophy” in the May 2001 First
Things, where Peter Simpson concludes that “the Christian faith for [Justin] was the true and complete philosophy.”)
Hadot further argues that the first Christians annexed from philosophy not only large swaths of the ancient ideological landscape, but also many of its spiritual practices. In the early Christian exercises aiming to
instill virtues such as peace of mind and absence of the passions, and in the tradition of contemplative monasticism as developed by such fourth–century Church fathers as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen, Hadot detects a strong whiff of Greek philosophical practice. Hadot admits that these exercises “formed part of a broader ensemble of practices which were specifically Christian.” Still, though “the Christian philosophers tried to Christianize their use of secular philosophical themes,” they could not help “describing their spiritual exercises by means of the vocabulary and conceptsof secular philosophy."
But the heart of Hadot’s argument lies in his contention that in the process of digesting it, Christianity slowly but inexorably broke philosophy apart. The ancient schools that had not disappeared (Platonism and Aristotelianism in particular), removed from the ways of life that inspired them, “were reduced to the status of mere conceptual material which could be used in theological controversies.” Philosophy, made to serve theology, became merely theoretical. “Aristotelian logic and ontology,” for example, “furnished concepts that were indispensable for the formulation of the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation.” But Christianity, itself a pervasive way of life,had little use for the practical elements of ancient philosophy (other than those it chose to appropriate). So when philosophy emerged many centuries later into its own again to breathe the air of the Enlightenment, it “consider[ed] itself a theoretical science, because the existential dimension of philosophy no longer had any meaning from the perspective of Christianity.” And so it was, Hadot concludes, that philosophy, stripped to its conceptual content, became the impoverished thing it is today.
The problem with this story is not its moral. As morals go, Hadot’s
is uplifting and deserves to be heard. The lesson, he says, is simply that
“there is no discourse which deserves to be called philosophical if it is
separated from the philosophical life, and there is no philosophical life
unless it is directly linked to philosophical discourse.”
The trouble lies rather with the story itself. To begin with, as mentioned above, nostalgia for the original union of praxis and theoria propels some of the most powerful currents of modern philosophy; it may even be said to be a kind of shibboleth of fashionably self–critical moderns. Alexander Nehamas, in The Art of Living, showed that the Socratic attention to the ways philosophy shapes personality deeply informed the views of Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault—and Hadot himself, citing Descartes, awkwardly admits that the
old ideal of philosophia never really died (had it vanished entirely, we would not find Hadot’s own book so unstartling). He might have added that the insistence that thought not abstract itself from life would also form a crucial theme for both the existentialists and the pragmatists.
Further, Hadot’s account—which might more aptly have borne the title Where Did Modern Philosophy Come From?—in considering ancient philosophies as ways of life, too often obscures their substance.
What about the content of ancient contemplation sets it apart from modern philosophical reflection? Is there nothing about the subject matter of classical speculation that distinguishes it from the study of philosophy today? On this Hadot utters not a word.
But his narrative wobbles most of all in the description of Christianity’s link to ancient philosophy, a relationship that is both closer and more remote than the author allows. More remote because in his account of the assimilation of philosophy into the early Church, Hadot fails fully to acknowledge the distinctively revealed character of Christianity or indeed the ways in which faith colors the Christian conception of truth. “Faith,” Kierkegaard reminds us, “is not a knowledge.” Surely there is a great leap from truth rationally discovered to truth divinely revealed and from the imperative to doubt to the command to believe, but this is a gap Hadot is not keen to describe.
On the other hand, these two great forces are closer than Hadot
permits precisely because the ideal of transformative knowledge defines
religion in a way no other quality does. For this very reason, some claim that ancient thought is precociously religious more than Christianity is belatedly philosophical. But we needn’t go that far to recognize that the inseparability of speculative discourse and concrete conduct is a fundamentally religious notion. Philosophy may have embroidered the idea, but religion had always announced that the truth that fails to transform its bearer is no truth at all. (This is true also in Judaism. In his commentary on the Torah, the rabbinic scholar Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “All ‘religion,’ all so–called ‘honoring God in spirit,’ is worthless if the thought, the idea of God, is not strong enough to exercise its power practically in the control of our words and doings.”)
Seen in this light, the Christian stewardship of philosophy, far from dissolving it, may actually have preserved the union of thought and deed. The real question would then be: Why did our modern philosophers, those “artists of reason,” when freed from their religious guardians to sculpt an intellectual world afresh, choose to reject the potent synthesis that marked Greece and Christendom alike? But that would be another, more judicious book.
Benjamin Balint is Assistant Editor of Commentary.