Reading Hadot four years later

1 02 2010

The genesis of my blogging had little to do with religion. Even now, I intentionally try to avoid all fluffy religious discourse, all affected turns of phrase that seems like “devout-speak” that will get me brownie points in Heaven or at least spring me from Purgatory a few years early. What has really obsessed me is the liberation of thought and action from the modern prison of ideology. From Neoplatonism to folk Catholicism, from art to politics, why I write at this point is really due to an (irreligious?) “spiritual exercise”, an attempt to see the world from another radical perspective. It is, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said of philosophy, an attempt to see the world again for the first time, as if from the eyes of a child.

The person who passed on to me this perception is none other that the often cited Pierre Hadot. You see, I was once like the normal “devout” Catholic, thinking that the Church “has all of the answers”, and if only we could be “docile” to it, somehow everything would fall into place. But unlike most, I took it all quite seriously, to the point of becoming a monk. Well, you know that didn’t work out. At some level I still have admiration for successful monastics, and I have faith that somewhere there are those who choose to live that life who are the “real deal”. I know that this life, however, isn’t for me, not because I have concluded that it is “not my vocation” (as if God sent me a telegram saying to get out of my monastery post-haste), but rather I am skeptical that anyone can live that life in the context in which we find ourselves. But that is a discussion for another time. My own coming to terms with the fact that I would have to “live normally” brought me to the question of whether or not just living your life could be a profound exercise in wisdom. To this question, the French philosopher Pierre Hadot replies in the affirmative.

As I have written before, Hadot is an ex-priest and a scholar of Patristic thought. The tenor of one of his newest books, The Present Alone is Our Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, is profoundly secular. In the context of a Europe where the religious ethos of society was beginning to fall apart, Hadot undertook the study of Western thought ranging from Heraclitus and Marcus Aurelius to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Michel Foucault. He attempted to revive the idea that philosophy is not a construction of syllogisms for an all-encompassing edifice of human thought, but is rather first and foremost a way of life. This way of life leads one to practice virtue and contemplate oneself as a part of a cosmic whole. Hadot summarizes his own exercise of these principles:

…Personally, while trying to accomplish my historian’s and exegete’s tasks, I especuially attempt to lead a philosophical life, that is, very simply, as I have just said, conscious, coherent, and rational. It must be said that the results are not always of a very high level. And during my sojourns in hospitals, for example, I have not always maintained the serenity of mind in which I would have liked to hold myself. But regardless, I attempt to put myself in certain inner attitudes such as concentration on the present instant, wonder in the presence of the world, looking at things from above – “to take flight every day,” as George Friedmann said- becoming conscious of the mystery of existence.. I even dare admit that I am very fond of the phrase, one that is paradoxical, enigmatic, but weighty with meaning, of a Chinese critic cited by Simon Leys, “Everything that can be said is stripped of importance.”

All of this should be a part of how Christians approach their religion as well, but as modern people, this is often not the case. Most religious discourse that I encounter is bogged down in the language of self-selected group thinking or personal taste. That is why very few artists of note, very few writers worth reading, actually produce works that will survive the present narcissistic age. All of it lacks wonder, it lacks the perspective of the dangerous heights of imagination. The world has long ago been made into a puzzle to be solved, and everyone seems to have an individual story as to how they solved it. The problem is, no one of importance is really buying it. From religion is now absent wonder and mystery (in the ancient sense of the word), and it has been replaced by moralizing counsels and politicized shibboleths as to how to make people and societies “better”, if only from a technocratic standpoint.

Such a utilitarian drive to get the answers also affects how we read ancient texts. Hadot in the interview says:

I was also surprised to see Paul Moraux, in his introduction to Aristotle’s Treatise on the Heavens say that Aristotle contradicts himself and that he writes poorly. Moreover, it was extremely difficult to grasp the movement of thought in Plotinus’ treatises. Finally, I came to think these apparent inconsistencies could be explained by the fact that the Greek philosophers did not aim, above all, to provide a systematic theory of reality, but to teach their disciples a method with which to orient themselves, both in life and thought. I would say that the notion of system did not exist in antiquity.

One could apply such principles to religious texts as well, and also see all of the problems that could occur in treating them like a “system”. Indeed, I have always been astonished how some of the most fervent advocates of “Patristic thought” in the Church, those who decry a certain idea or practice because it is only a thousand years old (?!) are also the most shameless innovators in what they think the Church should look like. Names do not have to be named, as I think even a good many “orthodox” Catholic authors fall into such errors. I read recently one woman say that Pope Benedict, over some peripheral issue, is “preparing a development of doctrine”, as if the dogmas of the Faith could be moved like pawns on a chessboard to serve some higher purpose (“evangelization”?). Such ideological posturing is the result of an obsession to turn ancient wisdom into a system of ideas at the service of some (often hidden) agenda. It has more to do with Kant and Hegel than with Socrates or St. Basil the Great.

One last aspect to consider in Hadot is the title of the book itself: the present alone is our happiness. Hadot explains:

I will cite only the small poem entitled “The Rule of Life.” It is explicit and responds in part to your question. “Do you want to live a life without disturbance? Do not let the past worry you, get angry as little as possible, rejoice in the present, rejoice without ceasing, hate no one, and abandon the future to God.” Happiness is in the present moment, for the simple reason that we live only the present, on the one hand, and on the other, that the past and the future are always the source of suffering… But every present moment offers the possibility of happiness. If we put ourselves in the Stoic perspective, it gives us the opportunity to attend to our duties, to live according to reason; if we put ourselves in an Epicurean perspective, it affords the pleasure of existing at every instant…

It is a very recent malaise for man to be so uncomfortable in the present. The most common symptom of such an illness is the hope for an ever-better future either in the Marxist “workers’ paradise” or chasing the prospect of a new election cycle when “our people” will finally get (back?) in power and “shake things up”. All problems will be solved by advances in science; all vices will be cured by a new political order (or lack of one); general unbelief will disappear in the face of a “new evangelization”, of a new “tent revival” when people will finally commit anew to their supposedly professed faith. Marx himself used to say that religion is the opium of the people. I would counter that this is now no longer the case. The opium of the people is innovation, it is a lust to either return to a pristine (non-existent) past, or to advance into the ever greater heights promised by the future. Either way, this age is not good enough for us, and it is impossible to be truly happy in it. To man’s present thirst, (post)modernity offers the chance to drink from the vast salty sea of the future.

Overall, what I have aimed to do here is build a deeply personal faith and worldview that is at the same time not individualistic. I am the first to admit that it is a work in progress, and considering my own warnings against “systematic thought”, it always will be. On the one hand, I agree with Nietzsche that most of the time the purpose of human institutions is to forbid us from sensing our own lives. We live in bad faith; we are branded by our tastes, our opinions, and our allegiances by an outside cause that is not our own. On the other hand, man exists because he lives in community; he exists because he is from somewhere, from someone. The just median of these two measurements of the human condition is merely to be: to live your life striving for virtue; to do your duty; to not desire too many things; to avoid (as much as possible) affectation and hypocrisy; to be pious towards God and those around you; and to (yes) rejoice in the present, for to do otherwise leads only to a slowly creeping insanity. Against our very modern delusions of grandeur, our own futile strivings to “make a difference”, the French essayist Montaigne centuries ago wrote:

“I did nothing today.” – What? Did you not live? That is not only the most fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations.”



7 responses

13 02 2010
The World According to Jefferson « Contessahardy's Blog

[…] of atheism.” So it’s not atheism that’s the problem, only atheists!   It reminds me of this blog post I read a couple of days ago, and this paragraph in particular:   It is a very recent malaise for […]

1 02 2010
random Orthodox chick

I didn’t think “niceness” had anything to do with the point of the post.

1 02 2010
Dr. S. Petersen

Since we are “from somewhere and […] someone” we are born into duties. A via media may detour around some of those. Ex-priests make me suspicious. They have said: “my personhood [or something] is more important than my solemn vow”.
This piece teeters. Nietzsche is suspect if we’re seeking to do God’s will. Yes, we’re fallible; people thinking they’re doing His will have done great harm, but people seeking their own will will always do greater harm. Montaigne was also pretty much a skeptic. You won’t find the world resisting you if you make up your mind to be nice and seek to enjoy life. It’s easy to make too much of this life in terms of our own will and too little of it in terms of God’s will. What we do in time counts in eternity.

1 02 2010
The Scylding

I concur. No, in fact I rejoice, because you are expressing some of my own unuttered thoughts, but infanitely more eloquent than I could hope to do. My railing against pigeonholing, the myth of consistent worldviews and all that, and my strong sentiment that there are no silver bullets – these are (in a pale sort of way)reflective of what you have said here.

1 02 2010
Michael B.

Very well said.
Christopher Dawson addressed an aspect of this in modern England in his essay Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind:

1 02 2010
A Sinner

I think this post makes a lot of good points about ideology and the sort of Secular Messianism that has caused people to look for happiness within history (ie, in the past or future) instead of beyond it. The reduction of everything to utilitarian “system”.

My only concern is that such an attitude could tend towards dismissing any visionary drive for change whatsoever, could be somewhat quietist and tend towards resigned inaction.

I think that it’s true that problems have never gone away, merely become different, and that people’s average subjective happiness has not gotten any better even for all the “progress” the world has had.

However, the specific condition of specific people with specific problems can and has clearly been ameliorated at various points, and working on a project with others to solve a specific current problem or for a vision of a “brighter” future in some specific aspect (as long as you don’t get utopian)…is in some ways exactly the thing that can and should make us happy and ennobled in the present, the concrete expression of Charity, even if some might view the effort as “futile” just because it won’t make everything perfect and may even have unforeseen side-effects.

1 02 2010

Great post, Arturo.

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