Having come a long way…

2 09 2010

It would, moreover, be interesting to psychologize some historical psychologists; I believe we could discover in them two tendencies. One is iconoclastic: it takes pleasure in attacking such figures as Plotinus or Marcus Aurelius, for example, who are naively respected by right-thinking people. The other is reductionist: it considers that all elevation of the soul or of thought, all moral heroism, and all grandiose views of the universe can only be morbid or abnormal. Everything has to be explained by sex or drugs.

The above is from Pierre Hadot’s book on Marcus Aurelius entitled The Inner Citadel, and concerns the theories of some modern scholars that the Stoic emperor was somehow a dope fiend or some other type of degenerate. I suppose I have also been going hog wild with my own postmodern conspiracy theories, and perhaps I need to take things more at face value. It is worth a thought.

Hadot is certainly no Catholic neo-con, or even a cultural conservative. But he was concerned with the integrity of human thought. One should take human nobility at face value most of the time, but one must always be vigilant againt irrational motives. Perhaps that is what is most useful about the tools supplied by such thinkers as Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, and other postmodern thinkers. Reason must always be subject to self-critique, or it ceases to be reasonable. Once passion enters in too much, once rhetoric becomes too belligerent, the structure must be torn down to preserve one’s humanity. Otherwise, one becomes a beast with the power of speech.

The fact is, since I read this book, I have almost considered myself more of a Stoic than a Christian, if only because I share most of their fatalism and think that often the only way to get by in the universe is to conform yourself to its coldly rational workings. Metaphysically, I am still a Neoplatonist on good days, but I have long since ceased to think that the course of history follows some gentle, loving path of gum drops and sweet compliments. History is brutal, and the cosmos is tough. Brace yourself, prepare for the fight, and do your duty.

Sit ei terra levis

5 05 2010

Pierre Hadot died last week. I recently reflected on his importance in how I think and write. Here is a smattering of homages to the great thinker going up around the Internet:

The Harvard University Press website

A blog post about his death

A recent reflection on the relationship between Hadot and Jewish thought

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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Lost in translation – II

11 01 2010

Pierre Hadot loses his religion

At this point, it would probably not come as any surprise that my favorite philosopher in the last five hundred years is an apostate Catholic priest. Pierre Hadot was born in 1922 to a Catholic family and entered minor seminary in his early teens. He advanced rapidly in his studies, having been put through the typical regimen of scholastic philosophy and militant Counter-Reformation piety in style at the time. He was ordained in the midst of the Second World War at the age of 22. Unlike others from his generation, he did not leave the priesthood in the wake of Vatican II, but preceded the mass exodus of men from the priesthood by about fifteen years. He abandoned his priestly vows and ultimately the faith in 1950 to run off with a woman who he would divorce twelve years later. His reflections on his Catholic upbringing and formation are predictably mixed, but the few times he speaks of them in his latest book to be translated into English, The Present Alone is Our Happiness, they are very perceptive in reading the mood of the Church in Europe before the Council.
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Again, On Sight

22 12 2009

The “displacement of attention” of which Bergson speaks, as in the case of Merleau-Ponty’s “phenomenological reduction”, is in fact a conversion: a radical rupture with regard to the state of unconsciousness in which man normally lives. The utilitarian perception we have of the world, in everyday life, in fact hides from us the world qua world. Aesthetic and philosophical perceptions of the world are only possible by means of a complete transformation of our relationship to the world: we have to perceive it for itself, and no longer for ourselves.

-Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, pg. 254.

First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been. Yet think how no one now, wearied with the satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky!

…A truth wondrously new is struggling to fall upon your ears, and a new face of things to reveal itself.

-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

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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On religion and power

5 08 2009


As many know, I have a great affinity for the scholarship of the French philosopher, Pierre Hadot. The focus of his academic career is to return philosophy to its ancient function of being a “way of life” and not merely a series of convoluted doctrines that express what a particular person thinks about reality. I have not yet obtained Hadot’s latest book, The Present Alone is Our Happiness, but some digging on-line resulted in my finding a quote from this book:

I do not think that the fundamental desires of humans can change. The ruling or rich class seeks wealth, power, and honors, in antiquity just as in our day. All the misfortune of our actual civilization is in effect the exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that matter, but especially the ruling class. Common morals can have simpler desires: work, happiness at home, health. The invocations of the gods in antiquity were the same ones that are now made to the Virgin Mary. One asked the same things to soothsayers as we ask of our horoscopes. It is not a question of the epoch. But when Epicurus distinguished natural and necessary desires, natural desires that are not necessary, and desires that are neither natural nor necessary, he did not want to enumerate all legitimate desires and explain how they could be satisfied; he wanted to define a style of life, taking conclusions from his intuition, according to which the pleasure corresponds to the suppression of a suffering caused by the desire. There is an analogy with Buddhism, very much in fashion these days. To be happy one must thus maximally diminish the causes of suffering, that is, the desires. In this manner he wanted to heal the suffering of humans. He thus recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy in order to attempt to be content with desires that can more easily be satisfied – that is, finally and simply, the desire to eat, to drink, and to clothe oneself. Under an apparently down-to-earth aspect, there is something extraordinary in Epicureanism: the recognition of the fact that there is only one true pleasure, the pleasure of existing, and that to experience it one merely has to satisfy the desires that are natural and necessary for the existence of the body. The Epicurean experience is extremely instructive; it invites us, like Stoicism, to a total reversal of values.
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Physics in Images

5 10 2008

These concepts were traditional in Platonism.  It was considered that the mysteries of Eleusis and, more generally, the ceremonies of the cult and the form of the statues, as well as the decorations and symbols on these statues, had been chosen by sages, in the most distant antiquity, with regard to the cosmos.  This Platonic idea first appears in Varro, who affirms that the ancient sages chose the form of the statues of the gods and their attributes so that, when they are contemplated with the eyes of the body, we can see the World Soul and its parts, which are the genuine gods.  Then at a later stage, for instance in Plotinus, we find the idea that the sages of yesteryear, wishing to enjoy the presence of the gods, saw, when they contemplated the nature of the All, that the Soul could be present everywhere, and that it was easy for all things to receive it, as long as they fashioned some object which, by means of sympathy, was capable for receiving a part thereof.  Here again, the paticular gods appear as emanations of the Soul of the All, and statues of the gods ensure the gods’ presence, insofar as something in these statues is in sympathy with the Soul of the All.  In the text by Porphyry, where mention is made of the occultation of nature according to Heraclitus, the gods and the World Soul are just as closely linked, and traditional religion is physics in images. 

-Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature
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On not chasing your own tail

4 09 2008

In this aspect of Plotinus’ thought, moreover, we find a critique of human reflection and consciousness that had been set in motion by the discovery of of different levels of the self. In both cases, the simplicity of life escapes the grasp of reflection. Human consciousness, living, as it does, split into two, and occupied by calculations and projects, believes that nothing can be found until it has been searched for; for the only way to build is to put various pieces together; and that it is only by using means that one can obtain an end. Everywhere it acts, consciousness introduces something intermediate. Life, by contrast, which is able to find without searching, invents the whole before the parts and is end and means at the same time- which, in a word, is immediate and simple- is incapable of being grasped by reflection. In order to reach it, just as in order to reach our pure self, we shall have to abandon reflection for contemplation.

-Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision

For me, having started the study of “philosophy” at a young age (perhaps not as systematically as some, but still), most of what passes for philosophical reflection really comes down to chasing your own mental tail. That is, it comes down to trying to justify life with mere human thought, and that in the end is quite impossible. The ultimate answer comes down to an absolute simplicity before the question is asked. The ultimate journey of the mind to God is a return to itself. The crown of reason is to use it in order to surpass thought.

What of all of the problems that our society is faced with, then? Should we not argue ethics, politics, and other life issues? Indeed, we should, or rather, we have to. There is no real way around it. And there, of course, logic and reason provide us with the only tools that we can use on this side of death. But to avoid the ultimate question, that of the return to the self into itself through knowledge of God, and by this finding hapiness, is the real burning question of philosophy. All else derives from it.

It is only this transformation that will change anything anyway. You have to start with a change of self.

Letting the Laws Sleep

1 08 2008

Two years ago, I did a series of posts on Pierre Hadot’s reading of Marcus Aurelius. I cited the following quote from Hadot’s book, The Inner Citadel:

“…the formula ‘to let the laws sleep’ was a proverbial expression, meaning that, in case of serious crises, we must resign ourselves to silencing our moral principles… When Apollonius died before Marcus became emperor, the latter was deeply grieved, and wept abundantly. The courtiers reproached Marcus for his demonstration of affection, probably because they considered his philosophical pretensions to be a joke, and wanted to show him that he was being unfaithful to his own principles. However, the emperor Antoninus Pius said to them: “Let him be a man. Neither philosophy nor the Empire can uproot affections.’

Since I read that passage, the phrase, “letting the laws sleep” has been on my mind more and more. The phrase has nothing to do with living immorally or immoderately. It has more to do with acknowledging that life is sloppy, difficult, and never in black and white. The modern approach to this would either have us assert the law everywhere and at all times, or kill the law altogether. While this makes for a very predictable and safe society, it is far from the solution to all of our problems.

One can suspect that those who would want to assert the law of things without any regard for consequences do not really believe in the goodness or truth of the law, but rather are afraid that the law is neither good or true in itself. That is the difference between ideology or fundamentalism and truth in itself. Deciding that the law may not apply in all circumstances does not mean that it is false. It only means that we are weak and it is eternal, and we must be humble before the cold fact of our wavering humanity.