Philosophy As A Way Of Life

November 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

Philosophy-as-a-Way-of-Life-Hadot-PierrePhilosophy As A Way Of Life is a book on practical philosophy written by Pierre Hadot. Philosophy – not aimed at theoretical discussion – but “spiritual exercises” you can actually use to improve your life.

In the book Hadot focuses mostly on the Stoics and Epicureans, as the followers of these philosophical schools actually used their philosophy as a way of life, a framework of dogma that could be used in times of despair: an Inner Citadel they could return to when they needed a safe place where clear thinking could be done. As Hadot wrote:

Every school practices exercises designed to ensure spiritual progress toward the ideal state of wisdom, exercises of reason that will be, for the soul, analogous to the athlete’s training.

This training analogy to me is an extremely powerful – and necessary – one because often we feel like our thinking is something beyond our control, something we cannot truly grasp and should just let go; like the ball in the pinball machine.

The Stoics however completely disagree with this and tell you to constantly be aware of your current thinking: to judge things as objectively as you possibly can by stripping situations down of their subjective layers that your false perceptions supplied.

The Stoics tell us to provide a definition of the thing in front of us so we see it as it actually is – not the way our immediate emotions tell us it is.

Using this particular spiritual exercise has been really helpful to me as it lets you understand the situation at hand in a clear, undistorted way.

As an example Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius used this technique to get an objective view of the cocky douchebags he had to put up with when ruling the Roman Empire:

“Think about what they are like when they’re eating, sleeping, copulating, defecating. Then think of what they’re like when they’re acting proud and important, when they get angry and upbraid their inferiors.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Who says philosophy is supposed to be boring?

Below you find some of the notes and paragraphs that resonated with me in Philosophy As A Way Of Life. If you want to dig deeper into the subject, then these are some other great practical philosophical works that have been useful for me:


Philosophy As A Way Of Life


The functions of the Soul

Epictetus’ three acts or functions of the soul:
– judgment
– desire
– inclination or impulsion

Since each of these activities of the soul depend on us, we can discipline them: we can choose to judge or not to judge in a particular way, we can choose to desire or not to desire, to will or not to will.

The goal of spiritual exercises

The goal of spiritual exercises is to influence yourself, to produce an effect in yourself.

In every spiritual exercise it is necessary to make oneself change one’s point of view, attitude, set of convictions, therefore to dialogue with oneself, therefore to struggle with oneself.

“A carpenter does not come to you and say ‘Listen to me discourse about the art of carpentry,’ but he makes a contract for a house and builds it … Do the same thing yourself. Eat like a man, drink like a man … get married, have children, take part in civic life, learn how to put up with insults, and tolerate other people …”
– Epictetus

We should not be surprised to find that there are certain people who are half Stoic and half Epicurean, who accept and combine “Epicurean sensualism” and Stoic communion with nature,” who practice both Stoic spiritual exercises of vigilance and Epicurean spiritual exercises aimed at the true pleasure of existing.
F.e. Goethe, Rousseau, Thoreau

Stoicism and Epicureanism seem to correspond to “two opposite but inseperable poles of our inner life: tension and relaxation, duty and serenity, moral consciousness and the joy of existing.

The normal, natural state of men should be wisdom, for wisdom is nothing more than the vision of things as they are, the vision of the cosmos as it is in the light of reason, and wisdom is also nothing more than the mode of being and living that should correspond to this vision.

Every school practices exercises designed to ensure spiritual progress toward the ideal state of wisdom, exercises of reason that will be, for the soul, analogous to the athlete’s training or to the application of a medical cure.

Self-control is fundamentally being attentive to oneself.

Plutarch on self-control:
“Controlling one’s anger, curiosity, speech, or love of riches, beginning by working one what is easiest in order gradually to acquire a firm and stable character.”

It is necessary to try to have these dogmas and rules for living “ready to hand” if one is to be able to conduct oneself like a philosopher under all of life’s circumstances.

“Take flight each day! At least for a moment, however brief, as long as it is intense. Every day a “spiritual exercise,” alone or in the company of a man who also wishes to better himself … Leave ordinary time behind. Make an effort to rid yourself of your own passions … Become eternal by surpassing yourself. This inner effort is necessary, this ambition, just.”

– Georges Friedmann


On life’s difficulties

The fundamental rule of life: the distinction between what depends on us and what does not.

We must confront life’s difficulties face to face, remembering that they are not evils, since they do not depend on us.

The exercise of meditation and memorization requires nourishment. This is where the more specifically intellectual exercises, as enumerated by Philo come in: reading, listening, research, and investigation.

Healing consists in bringing one’s soul back from the worries of life to the simple joy of existing. People’s unhappiness, for the Epicureans, comes from the fact that they are afraid of things which are not to be feared, and desire things which it is not necessary to desire, and which are beyond their control.

On worry, which tears us in the direction of the future, hides from us the incomparable value of the simple fact of existing:

“We are born once, and cannot be born twice, but for all time must be no more. But you, who are not master of tomorrow, postpone your happiness: life is wasted in procrastination and each one of us dies overwhelmed with cares.”

“Keep death before your eyes every day … and then you will never have any abject thought nor any excessive desire.”

“If one wants to know the nature of a thing, one must examine it in its pure state, since every addition to a thing is an obstacle to the knowledge of that thing. When you examine it, then, remove from it everything that is not itself; better still remove all your stains from yourself and examine yourself, and you will have faith in your immortality.”
– Plotinus

All schools agree that man, before his philosophical conversion, is in a state of unhappy disquiet. Consumed by worries, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself. All schools also agree that man can be delivered from this state, transform himself, and attain a state of perfection. It is precisely for this that spiritual exercises are intended. Their goal is a ind of self-formation, which is to teach us how to live, not in conformity with human prejudices and social conventions – for social life itself is a product of the passions – but in conformity with the nature of man, which is none other than reason.

Why people are unhappy:
People are unhappy because they are the slave of their passions. They are unhappy because they desire things they may not be able to obtain, since they are exterior, alien, and superfluous to them. It follows that happiness consists in indepence, freedom, and autonomy. In other words, happiness is the return to the essential: that which is truly “ourselves,” and which depends on us.

On seeing things as they are

“Everything highly prized in life is empty, petty, and putrid: a pack of little digs biting each other, little children who fight, then laugh, then burst our crying.”
– Marcus Aurelius

“Think about what they are like when they’re eating, sleeping, copulating, defecating. Then think of what they’re like when they’re acting proud and important, when they get angry and upbraid their inferiors.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Marcus on refusing to add subjective value-judgments:

“Always make a definition or description of the object that occurs in your representation, so as to be able to see it as it is in its essence, both as a whle and as a dividend into its constituent parts, and say to yourself its proper name and the names of those things out of which it is composed, and into which it will be dissolved.”

Epictetus applying the exercise of objective representation:

“We shall never give our assent to anything but that of which we have an objective representation.

So-and-so’s son is dead.
What happened?
His son is dead?
Nothing else?
Not a thing.

So-and-so’s ship sank.
What happened?
His ship sank.”

He continues:

“People are not troubled by things, but by their judgments about things.”


On senseless people

“Senseless people live in hope for the future, and since this cannot be certain, they are consumed by fear and anxiety. Their torment is the most intense when they realize too late that they have striven in vain after money or power or glory, for they do not derive any pleasure from the things which, inflamed with hope, they had undertaken such great labors to procure.”
– Ibid

Nature made necessary things easy to obtain, things which are hard to obtain, unnecessary.

The fundamental Stoic attitude

Attention, vigilance, and continuous tension, concentrated upon each and every moment, in order not to miss anything which is contrary to reason.

Marcus Aurelius on what should be enough for you:

1. the judgment you are bringing to bear at this moment upon reality, as long as it is objective;
2. the action you are carrying out at this moment, as long as it is accomplished in the service of human community; and
3. the inner disposition in which you find yourself at this moment, as long as it is a disposition of joy in the face of the conjunction of events caused by extraneous causality

Seneca tells us to focus on the present moment.

“Two things must be cut short: the fear of the future and the memory of past discomfort; the one does not concern me any more, and the other does not concern me yet.”

Hadot, then, concludes:

In order to live, mankind must “humanize” the world; in other words transform it, by action as well as by his perception, into an ensemble of “things” useful for life.

Thus, we fabricate the objects of our worry, quarrels, social rituals, and conventional values. That is what our world is like; we no longer see the world qua world. In the words of Rilke:

We no longer see “the Open”; we see only the “future.”

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