by Massimo Pigliucci
A crucial part of my practice as a Stoic-Skeptic is a set of spiritual exercises, without which I would simply be doing armchair philosophy. The notion of a “spiritual” exercise may be a bit off putting, as it is associated with Christianity or with fuzzy sounding new age mysticism. But Pierre Hadot, in his Philosophy as a Way of Life, argues that there really isn’t any better term to capture what is meant, so we’ll stick with that.
The term comes from Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who wrote Exercitia Spiritualia in 1548. The approach, however, much predates not just Loyola, but Christianity itself. Exercises of this kind contribute to what Hadot’s refers to as “the therapeutic of the passions,” which is a crucial component of Greco-Roman philosophical training. According to the ancients, the passions—meaning unhealthy emotions, like anger and fear, but also lust—are the main source of our suffering. Hadot refers to them as “unregulated desires and exaggerated fears.” They get in the way of a serene life founded on reason, which is why we need to train ourselves to handle them appropriately.
The Greek word for the resulting practices is askesis, from which the English word asceticism comes, though the Greek meaning was broader than the modern one, applying to a general approach to train oneself to live a more meaningful life. As Hadot puts it:
“[Philosophy] raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.” (p. 83) … (continue at Substack)