Philosophy as a Way of Life—II—Spiritual exercises

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)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

4 thoughts on “Philosophy as a Way of Life—II—Spiritual exercises

  1. This is a lovely article and it makes me glad that I subscribed to Substack(much as I hate the principle).
    Now I will go back and read the corresponding part of Hadot’s book, before making substantive comments. But I must warn you that I will contest your emphasis on authenticity(grin).


    1. Peter, appreciated. Out of curiosity, why do you hate the Substack model? As you know, I’ve moved there recently from Medium for a variety of reasons, one of which was that Medium is chaotic and it is difficult to cultivate a meaningful relationship with one’s readers.


  2. Out of curiosity, why do you hate the Substack model?

    No, it is not Substack as such. I actually think it works rather well. My problem is with maintaining a large cluster of subscriptions. It gets rather overwhelming. I understand of course the economic rationale for subscriptions and I sympathise. Additionally, from your point of view, it eliminates all the unpleasant ‘drive-by shootings’ that we get in the comments, leaving those who want to engage in serious, thoughtful conversations. That is something to be desired.

    Liked by 1 person

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