BMCR 2002.09.21

What is Ancient Philosophy?

, What is ancient philosophy?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. xii, 362 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0674007336. $29.95.

1 Responses

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.10.03.]]

This work was originally published in France in 1995 under the title Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? One might have surmised that the answer to the question posed in the title is, more or less, a body of thought ‘produced’ mainly in Greek between the 6th century B.C.E. and, roughly, the middle of the 6th century C.E. In that case, one would have expected Hadot’s book to be a fairly concise and traditional history of the doctrines, arguments, etc. of the major Greek philosophers. There are few scholars today who would be thought more qualified to write such a book than Pierre Hadot whose writings over a period of more than 40 years have done so much to illuminate ancient philosophy and especially Neoplatonism.

The trajectory of modern scholarship in the history of ancient philosophy is decidedly in the direction of fragmentation and analysis. I mean that the distinctions scholars make among and within the schools tends to proliferate. We have perhaps four or five ‘Academies’ including the one Plato founded. We have several versions of Stoicism, and an Alexandrian form of Neoplatonism supposedly different from the Athenian version. We have an ‘early’ Plato different from his ‘middle’ and ‘late’ incarnations and a ‘Platonizing’ Aristotle different from his ‘anti-Platonizing’ counterself. And so on. Of course, there is often a basis for the various divisions, beginning with the way the ancient historians of philosophy tried to understand their own past, though one sometimes suspects that, like the work of the inept butcher Plato warns against emulating, some of these divisions are not made at the natural joints.

Hadot has gone in an opposite, synthetic direction, making rather little of the traditional divisions among the schools of ancient philosophy. He has instead answered the question in the title as if ‘ancient philosophy’ referred to a unique and distinctive type of philosophy or view of what being a philosopher is. He takes ancient philosophy in its extraordinary breadth to be an integral ‘historical and spiritual phenomenon’. By thus claiming that ‘ancient philosophy’ is more than just an historical period comprising disparate elements, Hadot has done something both more provocative and more original. By the way, he has also in fact written a splendid one-volume introduction to the foundational period and an elegant and deeply insightful mediation on the nature of philosophy itself. His employment of illustrative material from authors generally found in the shadows of scholarship is particularly delightful.

Hadot’s central idea — one that he has previously expounded in several books—1 is that ancient philosophy was conceived of by its practitioners primarily as a way of life rather than a set of doctrines or beliefs. It is the commitment to a way of life that determined fundamental doctrine, not the other way around. This commitment demands a kind of conversion which, owing to its existential force, determines at least in part the vision of the world from which particular doctrines spring. And these doctrines reflect back on the way of life of its proponents and aspirants, whether by their logical or rhetorical force. Philosophical discourse is a constituent of the way of life chosen. Thus, a way of life and philosophical discourse are inseparable, but not, according to Hadot, as practice and theory. For the way of life can itself be theoretical, that is contemplative, and the discourse can be practical, insofar as it affects and is intended to affect one’s way of being in the world.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, Hadot traces the development of the term ‘ philosophia‘ in antiquity leading up to its definition in Plato’s Symposium as the love of wisdom. Hadot sees Plato’s account of philosophy and his representation of Socrates as the paradigmatic lover of wisdom to be a central focus in the shaping of the entire ancient philosophical tradition. This is the least original part of the book. Much familiar territory is covered. Nevertheless, the implication of Hadot’s words is intriguing: Plato’s conjoining of eros and philosophy in the person of Socrates establishes one of the principal ideals for the entire subsequent history of Western thought, an ideal that one can embrace or reject but not ignore if one cares to take account of that history.

In the second and longest section, Hadot explores in detail the relationship between philosophy viewed as a way of life and various aspects of philosophical discourse as these appear in the major schools of ancient philosophy. It is here that he introduces the idea of ‘spiritual exercises’ or practices that are intended to deepen one’s attachment to a particular way of life. It was, again, Plato who first linked self-transformation with the practices of logos, most portentously in the ‘practice for dying’ found in his Phaedo. Genuine philosophy was separated from sophistry by its having the hallmark of a purificatory exercise. And psychic purification was inevitably linked by Plato and then by his successors to various types of bodily purification. Even those ancient philosophical traditions that stand apart from Platonism by their opposition to it, namely, Epicureanism and Pyrrhonian skepticism, retain the connection between the uses of logos and self-transformation. For example, the Epicurean ‘four-part cure’ and Sextus Empiricus’ comparison of the skeptical tropes to doses of medicine of different strength witness to the pervasiveness of the connection between a distinctive way of life and a distinctive strategic use of discourse.

There are, according to Hadot, three ways in which philosophical discourse and a philosophical way of life are linked. First, discourse is used to justify a choice of life and to draw out its implications, while the choice itself determines the trajectory of discourse. In this aspect, discourse admits of conceptualization and systematization whereas the presuppositions of the systems are rooted in the chosen ways of life. Second, in order to live life in a certain way, actions must be performed on oneself and with others, and philosophical discourse is a means to the performance. Such discourse is therapeutic, educational, and character-forming. It is here that spiritual exercises and the resultant ‘mutations of vision’ are to be found. Third, discourse is itself constitutive of the way of life, whether as dialogue or monologue, as a community of scholars or as internal meditations.

In the third section of the book, Hadot recounts the role of Christianity in severing the tie between philosophy as a way of life and philosophical discourse. For the theoreticians of early Christianity declared it to be both a superior way of life and a form of philosophy. They appropriated what they could from the pagan philosophical schools and transformed philosophical discourse into a technical tool in the service of theology. Hadot identifies as a legacy of this Christian transformation and subordination of philosophy the academic practice of philosophy today. He points to Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein among others who, amidst the prevailing Christian culture, reappropriated in various ways the ancient philosophical ideal.

One perhaps inevitable consequence of Hadot’s synoptic approach is that there is in this book almost no discussion of the actual arguments that provided the substance of philosophical discourse for the ancient schools, especially for the dialogues among the schools. Thus, Hadot avoids entering into inevitable controversies regarding the interpretations of these arguments. Still, something is I think lost, especially for the relatively sophisticated beginner who is presumably the book’s main audience. Following at least in outline some of the arguments back and forth among the ancient philosophical schools, in some cases over many centuries, is indispensable to appreciating the deep connection between a way of life and philosophical discourses that is Hadot’s central theme. How else, for example, could one begin to appreciate the argumentative, indeed, one might say systematic, response by Plato to Socrates’ breathtaking expression of devotion to philosophical discourse in his final imprisonment? In order to understand why anyone would be willing to die for an argument, one must confront that argument honestly and with the requisite humility and try at least to imagine for a moment what it would be like to be under its spell. The extraordinary and eccentric lives of the ancient philosophers as recounted by, say, Diogenes Laertius, are only likely to be anything but a source of puzzled amusement for students unless they can experience the substance of the discourse that motivates and is motivated by those lives.

This book is thus in a way an introduction to the problems and arguments that constitute ancient philosophy. It is not a substitute for a presentation of these. I would be delighted to have my beginning students read it before coming to the texts themselves. And I would be delighted to have them read it once again when they have begun to make some progress in sorting out the complexities within complexities that these texts serve up.

Two relatively minor complaints. Although we should always be grateful to the translator who performs generally a selfless and tedious task, this translation is rather disappointingly flat. The second complaint is that Harvard University Press has seen fit to place the extensive notes in the back rather than at the bottom of the page. Most of these are references to the many texts cited. But one who wants to find out who said what and where it was said must constantly flip back and forth rather than being able to glance at the bottom of the page. This is a pity since one should strive to experience the flow of Hadot’s own lovely philosophical discourse uninterruptedly. It is hoped that the book will soon appear in paperback and so be made widely available to students. At the other end of the spectrum, I doubt that there is a specialist in ancient philosophy who will not be enriched by reading this book. And the book is to be warmly recommended to those in between, especially those who may be inclined to the view that ancient philosophy and ‘real’ philosophy have only a name in common.


1. See especially Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell, 1995), the English version of Exercises spirituals et philosophie antique published in 1987.