by Massimo Pigliucci
Whether we realize it or not, we all have a philosophy of life. Often it consists in whatever religious creed and practices one has been raised with. At other times it is the result of a conscious choice. Even those who don’t think about philosophy or religion still have a certain understanding of the world and how to act within it—which means that they have a (implied) life philosophy.
If this is the case, we may as well be conscious of what kind of philosophy we practice and why. And at least occasionally we may want to question whether such philosophy is really what we want. If the answer is yes, good. If it’s no, then perhaps the time has come to consider possible alternatives.
A good number of the possible alternatives on the table belong to a cluster of Greco-Roman philosophies of life developed during the millennium between the 5th century BCE and the fifth century CE, give or take. It’s hard to imagine a better guide to those practical philosophies than French scholar Pierre Hadot, for instance in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. The series of essays of which this is the first installment is devoted to a summary and discussion of Hadot’s ideas as put forth in that book, in the hope of being helpful to people who are either in the process of choosing a new philosophy for themselves or are practicing one already and want to get better at it. … (continue at Substack, FREE)
7 thoughts on “Philosophy as a Way of Life—I—How to run a philosophical school”
I very much look forward to following this series of episodes. I have my copy of Pierre Hadot’s book at hand.
“Meditation, by contrast, is about exercising reason. It’s very different from its Buddhist counterpart and it consists in reflecting on and assimilating the rules of conduct according to each school. The goal, ultimately, is to change one’s entire view of life and what it is about.”
Yes, I think this is a very good definition. The Buddhist account never made much sense to me. Nevertheless one must acknowledge that the Buddhist style of meditation has gained a lot of traction. Why should that be?
Well, Buddhist meditation does work, for certain things.
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“This practice and progress, Hadot reminds us, emphasizes two practical objectives: living in the present, the only time where our agency is effective; and preparing oneself for death, so that one can live and enjoy life in full consciousness, mindful that such life is finite and that we don’t really know when it will end.”
This paragraph troubles me. Living in the present is the ‘present’ day mantra. But what does it really mean since one can do nothing but live in the present? Obviously, it is about how we think. It is our mind which can depart from the present to visit the past and travel into an imagined future. Our mind is a time traveller. Should we then be confining our mind to the present? Should we not rather be practising respice, adspice, prospice, look behind, look around and look ahead?
We look behind for lessons contained in our experiences, or the experience of others, to guide us in dealing with the challenges of the present. We look around so that we may be fully informed of the challenges, threats and opportunities that confront us. We look ahead to an imagined future which deals with the challenges and grasps the opportunities, so that we can create a better future. It is this vision of a preferred future which guides us and motivates us.
Given this framework, what does it then mean ‘to live in the present’?
I interpret it this way. We must live a life in balance. This is a life where the past is not a source of resentment, disappointment or hatred. It is instead a resource containing important lessons that can serve as a guide in the present and future. We should find fulfilment and enjoyment in the present since that will sustain us on the journey into a better future. We should imagine a better future of greater goodness, beauty and truth that we should aspire to. This is what motivates us to be more than we are are.
We are a creative species and our meaning in life is to be found in creating a better future.
Peter, I take it that “living in the present” means not to worry needlessly about a future we cannot control, nor spending time regretting a past we also cannot control. That’s not incompatible with learning from the past and planning for the future, I think.
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Perhaps an analogy will better explain my point of view. I see myself in life as standing on the fulcrum of a large playground see-saw. Behind me is the past. In front of me is the future. I am balancing on the fulcrum in the present. If I lose my balance the see-saw will tilt dangerously. Living in the present means dexterously maintaining the balance between the past, the present and the future since only in that way can I flourish.
Ah, these words by Pierre Hadot, clarify what he means by meditation:
“Unlike the Buddhist meditation practices of the Far East, Greco-Roman
philosophical meditation is not linked to a corporeal attitude but is a purely
rational, imaginative, or intuitive exercise that can take extremely varied
“The concern with individual destiny and spiritual progress, the intransigent assertion of moral requirements, the call for meditation, the invitation to seek this inner peace that all the schools, even those of the skeptics, propose as the aim of philosophy, the feeling for the seriousness and grandeur of existence this seems to me to be what has never been surpassed in ancient philosophy and what always remains alive. ”
These words in the final paragraph of chapter 1 nicely summarises the matter. They were concerned with how we should conduct ourselves in this world(the intransigent assertion of moral requirements) whereas modern day philosophy is more concerned with how we may understand our thinking in this world.
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