Caught in the Middle

I’ve just finished an interesting book and recommend it wholeheartedly: What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot (Harvard University Press, 2002). Just in case there was any doubt on the subject, the author very convincingly demonstrates that for Plato and Co., unlike their modern counterparts, philosophy was a complete way of life, which included not only training in elenchos but a thoroughgoing physical, emotional, and spiritual ascesis.

One of Hadot’s most provocative suggestions is that the increasingly cerebral and largely speculative nature of the western philosophical enterprise resulted from two distinct causes: on the one hand true dialectic gave way to a merely scholastic rehearsal of the viewpoints of past authorities, while on the other hand the practical or methodical dimensions of the ancient art were appropriated by the early Christians, especially the monks, who copied the disciplines of the “pagan” schools.

One comes away from this book with a clearer understanding of why the contemporary Christian Platonist is so often caught in the middle between (1) the “professional” philosophers, who no longer believe that quantum sumus scimus (“we know only insofar as we are”) and are therefore no longer engaged in real interior work, and (2) his co-religionists, who no longer seem to know how to argue, preferring instead the comforts of a largely unexamined set of ipse dixits.

The following few snippets will perhaps whet your curiosity:

“Ancient philosophers did not withdraw into the desert or into a cloister; on the contrary, they lived in the world, where they often took part in political activity. If they were genuine philosophers, however, they must have been converted—that is, they had to profess philosophy, and make a choice of life which obliged them to change all aspects of their behavior in the world, and which in a certain sense separated them from the world. They entered into a community, under the direction of a spiritual master, in which they venerated the school’s founder and often took meals in common with the other members of the school. They examined their conscience and perhaps even confessed their misdeeds…. They lived an ascetic life…. They followed a vegetarian diet and devoted themselves to contemplation, seeking mystical union” (247-48).

“[Teaching for Plato] had consisted above all in training students in methods of thought and argument, and the important members of [his] school [notably, Aristotle] often had very different opinions; but during the [imperial period, beginning in the first century B.C.] the teaching of a school orthodoxy became essential…. The truth was now conceived as faithfulness to a tradition, which originated in ‘authorities’. In such a scholarly, professorial atmosphere, there was often a tendency to be satisfied with knowing the dogmas” (148-49).

“Henceforth, philosophers and their students did not talk about the problems themselves, or about things themselves; instead, they talked about what Plato, Aristotle, or Chrysippus had said about such problems or things. The question ‘Is the world eternal?’ was replaced by the question, ‘Can we admit that Plato considered the world to be eternal, if he allows for an Artisan of the world in the Timaeus” (151).

“There is a radical opposition between the ancient philosophical schools, which addressed individuals in order to transform their entire personality, and the university, whose mission it is to give out diplomas, which correspond to a certain level of objectifiable knowledge…. The university tends to make the philosophy professor a civil servant, whose job, to a large extent, consists in training other civil servants. The goal is no longer, as it was in antiquity, to train people for careers as human beings, but to train them for careers as clerks or professors” (261).

“From the Middle Ages to today, some philosophers have remained faithful to the vital, existential dimension of ancient philosophy. At times they have been active in the very heart of the university, but more often they were reacting against it” (261).

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