For Professor Pierre Hadot; in memoriam
by Horst Hutter
Words are inadequate to express my feelings of grief and loss about the disappearance of a teacher and a friend of the excellence and wisdom of Professor Pierre Hadot. Only the recognition and acceptance of the common human fate of finitude enable me to come to terms with the inability of any further contact with this special human being. Even though I have profited enormously and continue to profit from the judicious simplicity of his writings, my immersion in them cannot replace the living words of a direct conversation. Yet the memory of direct contacts will grant me a higher access to the “immortal” spiritual presence in his texts. For his writings are truly incitations to living more sagely and more fully. Only because they were aimed at inducing a change in a reader’s manner of living and acting are they able to transcend the negligible textuality of a mere scholastic propositionalism. Hadot’s writings come from a sage practice of living and intend to guide readers to a similar mode of acting. They thus embody for our time the high calling of a search for and love of wisdom, which may express itself in scholarly writings. Philosophers of antiquity attempted to realize in their strivings and their modes of acting a way of being human and of transcending the merely human; their texts were thus meant to awaken in their readers the recognition that they needed to change their lives and to transform themselves. Hadot has reopened for our time this important distinction between the discourses of philosophers and philosophy itself. He has demonstrated in his oral and written teachings that only such words will penetrate to human hearts that are lived and suffered.
Perhaps, however, it will be best if I recount how I personally met the teachings and personality of Pierre Hadot. I had been teaching Political Philosophy for some years, dutifully keeping up with the huge and rapidly growing literature in my field of study. My initial enthusiasm had diminished considerably, as I was beginning to believe that philosophy as written today was an empty word game, unrelated to any practice of living, or to any real issues. The huge increase in quantity of scholarly productions did not, and still does not, translate into any increase in quality of productions. Fortunately, my circumstances in 1984 permitted me to remove myself and search for new beginnings in France. There I participated in several seminars at the Sorbonne, but also became a member of a research team at the Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques. A member of this team who was working on late antique philosophy suggested that I read the collection of essays by Hadot, entitled Exercises Spirituels et Philosophie Antique. I had told this person about my disillusionment with academics, and he thought, and rightly so, that reading Hadot would re-awaken my original enthusiasm for intellectual endeavours. I followed his advice and I have never regretted it since. I read the book, which contains some difficult material, in what again became for me, as it once had been for materials of interest, a very short and attention-filled time span. I followed up the reading of this book with others of Hadot’s publications. His writings on Plotinus touched me especially deeply. And now, a quarter of a century later, I have read his entire considerable opus, the opus of an immensely erudite person.
Shortly thereafter I wrote Professor Hadot asking him if I could come to audit his courses and seminars at the College de France. He responded warmly, and in 1987 I took an unpaid leave to study with him. He was then lecturing on the nature and character of the ancient book, its accessibility and its distribution. Simultaneously I attended his seminar on what purported to be the fragments of a lost dialogue of Aristotle. I had many conversations with Professor Hadot, invited him for a lecture to Montréal, and visited him annually at his office or at his home. We also entered into an extended correspondence, in which I asked for his guidance in studying philosophical texts, both ancient and modern. He was also gracious enough to read and comment on my own writings, suggesting beneficial changes and corrections.
Professor Hadot has opened up a new but really ancient mode of reading philosophical authors, making them come alive and showing how philosophy was much more for all the ancients who founded schools than merely theoretical discourses that would be advanced with truth claims attached to them. His study of ancient philosophical writings in this manner is actually a return to an original conception of philosophy as an activity for which writings were never more than means to philosophizing, and not philosophy itself. Writings proceeded from a way of living, justified and explained this way and invited readers and listeners to change their lives and follow a practice of conscious living. In the words of Seneca, a Stoic who practiced the way of life advocated originally by Zeno, the founder of the school: “facere docet philosophia, non dicere.”
Philosophy was an activity practiced in “schools,” which were both a physical location and a spiritual tendency and a way of seeing the world. These ways of seeing the world were elaborated in both oral and written discourses. Discourses were never more than tools and instruments to facilitate the striving for self-perfection. They aimed not just to inform listeners or readers, but to transform them. The practices of listening or reading might be the first steps taken in the direction of the examined life; they would induce thinking and a questioning of the premises of one’s beliefs and actions. The “doctrines” actually contained in the writings of ancient philosophers are hence frequently contradictory and appear to be entirely provisional and hypothetical. They derived their sense from their ability to contribute to the personal efforts troubled persons would have to undertake to heal their psychic disorders. The recognition of the “validity” of doctrines had to be followed by struggles and ascetic practice. As an example we might point to the teachings of Epicurus, as presented in his extant remains or in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. The atomism contained therein, with its almost blasphemous doctrines about the nature of the divine, was advanced as a rational insight, even as “scientific” beliefs, to be sure. But this teaching was primarily meant to remove the fears and anxieties of the beyond from the souls of those persons who were wracked by anxieties and who then had chosen to pursue the way of life that held pleasure to be the good and pain to be the bad and who were induced to believe that human life was finite.
Troubled individuals in search of a cure for their psychic disorders had to make a choice to enter a “school” and to pursue the way of living practiced therein. Athens was the original home of these schools, with the notable exception of the Pythagorean brotherhood; however, with the enormous success that these schools experienced, especially in the Hellenistic and imperial epochs, subsidiary branches were established all across the unified cultural world of the Mediterranean oikumene. The residents of ancient political communities readily accepted philosophical schools and looked to them for political and spiritual guidance. They frequently designated them to be quasi-religious establishments. The members of these schools hence frequently engaged in political activities, even if, as in the case of the Epicurean garden, the advice given was not to engage in politics. Even such a withdrawal into the hidden life could still be seen as “political” in a wider sense of the word.
The various schools were in competition with one another. Such competition took the form of theoretical refutations, expressed primarily in the written presentations of “doctrines” of a given school and the refutation of “doctrines” of a rival school, equally presented in written form. Hence on a superficial level the erroneous belief could arise that philosophy could be contained entirely in written texts. This was especially the case for writers in the doxographical tradition of late antiquity who lacked any firm and active commitment to the practices of any school. This also now is the case for most modern academic writers of “philosophical” texts whose only commitment seems to be to the enhancement of their careers. The connection between the subservient natures of “doctrines” in the service of a way of life seems to have been completely forgotten. The only slight exception here appears to be in the case of those philosophical authors, early modern or contemporary, who assume the important task of guiding scientific activities and criticizing established religious and political practices. Hence, Hadot’s work is of special significance in the modern context. He points out, however, that the understanding of philosophy as a way of life has never completely vanished, but has persisted at the margins of Christian societies as well as in the esoteric writings of critics of the dominant religions. Many ascetic practices, moreover, especially those associated with Epicurus and the Stoics, also survived in the practices of Christian monasticism. He has also pursued similar understandings of a philosophical praxis in the writings of Descartes, Wittgenstein, Bergson, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Goethe.
Finally, in one of Hadot’s most important recent books, entitled The Veil of Isis, he has shown the mythological basis of the empirical sciences and analyzed their bases in terms of two profoundly different approaches to unriddling the secrets of nature, namely, the Orphic and the Promethean myths. Thereby, the “practices” of the empirical sciences are seen to be justified and rationalized by mythical doctrines that derive their “validity” primarily from these very practices. A profound conclusion to be drawn from Hadot’s astonishingly insightful oeuvre might then be that the human species does not possess the “truth” and does not understand the whole, and that these lacks do not really matter. What matters is the striving for wisdom, so that human practices are guided by the deep structures of human souls. The Veil of Isis quotes a statement by Plutarch that mentions the inscription that apparently was affixed to the statue of the Goddess Neith (Sais) in Egypt: “I am All that has been, that is now and that will be; no mortal has raised my veil.” In terms of the ancient understanding of human striving as emphasized by Hadot, this insight into human insufficiency and ignorance would compel the conclusion that the highest human activity is now, as it always has been, the activity of philosophy. To be sure, philosophy here does not mean “true” propositionalism, nor does it mean “logic chopping,” but it means self struggle, self–examination, and the search for those practices and those friendship communities that enhance the quality of life in a common search for a just political order. It is a quest for those healing actions that increase the joy of living and decrease dis-eases. A major implication for the human quest, for the highest activity available to mortal souls, is then the recognition of the fact that no one has the “truth,” and no set of propositions, either of the logos or within mythologies, can claim to be the definite answer; all we have is the perennial search and the “will-to-truth.” Human life is then indeed a hazardous experiment, ein Wagnis.
The above understanding of philosophy as a striving for wisdom that heals, however, needs some guidance from a “true” understanding of the human condition. Given the fact, however, that humans do not have any clear access to the “truth,” where may guidance be found? One of the most insightful answers of Professor Hadot to these questions comes from his understanding of Goethe, as expressed particularly in an early essay that discusses a quote from Goethe’s Faust that declares that nur die Gegenwart ist unser Glueck (only the present yields our happiness). This suggests a radical focus on the present moment in a meditative transcendence of all past regrets and all future fears. It enjoins us not to forget to live, and hence not to focus on that which is not in our power. This theme is fully elaborated in what appears to be Hadot’s last book, a study of Goethe under the title N’oublie pas de vivre. Hadot in this study expresses the profound love of nature that he shares with Goethe. Love of nature and the removal from the hectic base of urban life may be seen as connected to the great wealth of techniques of living that were available in ancient schools of philosophy, which are discussed in a number of Hadot’s writings. In several personal conversations with me, this distinguished scholar and philosopher then affirmed to me that, in his opinion, the teachings of Epicurus were most appropriate to heal the psychic deformities that afflict humans in our time. This in turn would imply some of the following major changes in the theories that seem to dominate spirits in our times:
- All theological grandstanding would have to be avoided. Thus the divine needs to be conceived as kind, forgiving, if not completely unconcerned with human peccadilloes. Hence no threatening with damnation and hell, and no promises of foolish forms of bliss in any afterlife. These latter should rather be seen as strategies for political control by way of fear-mongering. As such, this would require a major de-construction and re-conditioning of the second natures grafted upon the souls of millions of human individuals in their infancies. It would mean a form of psycho-therapy to be administered in small friendship groupings, based on mutual trust.
- Similarly, it would mean an avoidance of all political grandstanding, which is so frequently aligned with its theological cousins. The Epicurean suggestion for this would be a return into the hidden life, a lathe biosas. Moreover, since urban life is one of the major causes of modern suffering, the hidden life should primarily be lived in natural settings.
- Epicurean modes of life would further require a judicious approach in the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasures, for not all pleasures are choice worthy, nor are all pains to be avoided. Prudent restraint in regard to the goods and ills of life would in turn require ascetic practices that enable persons to abide by the rules that they give to themselves, despite resistance by strong desires. Here, too, openness with friends in support groups would be essential.
- Finally, and entirely in the spirit of Hadot and of what has been said so far above, writing and speaking about it are not enough. What is required is a doing, a course of action.
This then leads me to a few concluding remarks in which I most strongly affirm that Professor Pierre Hadot did not only write philosophy, he also lived it and practiced an admirable way of life. Upon my personal acquaintance with him, I can state that this great scholar led a life that was rich in goodness, he was kind to friends and judicious in all of his contacts. He suffered much, but patiently bore his fate and thus showed a path to their own ways of overcoming to many human beings. I thank him from the bottom of my heart.
© Horst Hutter—Nietzsche Circle, 2010