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.
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The Church as Machine

29 10 2009


It has been two and a half years since I posted the following essay, but I still think it makes some good points. While I have expanded quite a bit on what I think the answer is, I think I conceive of the problem in similar terms: a mechanistic and technocratic drive in man that infiltrates even religious thinking itself.

Originally posted here

Recently, I finished reading Pierre Hadot’s newest book, The Veil of Isis, which is a thought-provoking reflection on the concept of Nature from Heraclitus to the present. More specifically, Hadot uses the fragment of Heraclitus, “nature likes to hide itself”, to trace how man has approached the world around him from ancient Greece to the present day. As a paradigm, he uses the two mythological figures of Prometheus and Orpheus to analyze how poets, philosophers, and scientists have either viewed nature as a mystery to be revered or a specimen to be dissected. The book thus centers on the dichotomy that emerges between veiling and unveiling, personified in pagan iconography of the veil of the goddess Isis/Artemis/Diana.
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Window – Roof – House – Soul

23 09 2009


Michael Carroll in his book, Veiled Threats, tells of the following:

Gian Matteo Gilberti, bishop of Verona… instructed his priests to root out superstition, and singled out in particular “the practice of uncovering the roof so that the soul [of the dead] can get out, something that suggests the soul could be held back by a roof.” In fact, Italians have long believed that the human soul has a physical substance and so can be blocked by physical barriers like a roof. This is why those present at a death leave an exit for the soul of the dead person by removing a slat from the roof or opening a window. The fact that diocesan synods throughout Italy continued to condemn these practices into the modern era… is an indication of just how rooted and widespread this view was.

“A quaint superstition”, you might think. Mircea Eliade, however, further elaborates:

the soul of the dead person departs though the chimney or the roof and especially through the part of the roof that lies above the “sacred area”. In cases of prolonged death agony, one or more boards are removed from the roof, or the roof is even broken. The meaning of the custom is patent: the soul will more easily quit the body if the other image of the body-cosmos, the house, is broken open above. Obviously all these experiences are inaccessible to nonreligious man, not only because, for him, death has become desacralized, but also because he no longer lives in a cosmos in the proper sense of the word and is no longer aware that having a body and taking up residence in a house are equivalent to assuming an existential situation in the cosmos.

The Sacred and the Profane

If we are to give any creedence to Eliade, institutional spiritual institutions are not always the best apparatus in preserving the ancient religious ethos. It is probably not to be doubted that such an Italian practice originated with paganism, but the reasoning behind it (again, if we give Eliade creedence) transcends even the tired pagan/Christian divide.

For Eliade, reality only has meaning insofar as it conforms to the symbols of the divine. Once the language of these symbols breaks down, even the spiritual gatekeepers begin to conceive of the universe in increasingly desacralized terms. That is perhaps behind the sectoralized and atomized character of religion today, “orthodox” or not. In a place where even basic religious paradigms are separated from everyday life, any sense of continuity with the past becomes boderline farcical. Quomodo sedet sola civitas