Pierre Hadot on Meaning and the Fear of Death
Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) draws on the Platonic tradition in seeking a response to evil, and, in particular, the fear of death.
Hadot argues that, in the Phaedo, Socrates preferred the Good, thought and conscience above the life of his body. Thus, “if it is true that philosophy subjugates the body’s will to live to the higher demands of thought, it can rightly be said that philosophy is the training and apprenticeship for death” (1995: 94). Hadot suggests that the Platonic spiritual exercise which aims to separate the soul and the body should be understood not as an attempt to achieve a trance-like state but as “an attempt to liberate ourselves from a partial, passionate point of view – linked to the senses and the body – so as to rise to the universal, normative viewpoint of thought, submitting ourselves to the demands of the Logos and the norm of the Good. Training for death is training to die to one’s individuality and passions, in order to look at things from the perspective of universality and objectivity” (Ibid., 94-95). From the perspective of pure thoughts, our human concerns seem insignificant. It is this which enables us to remain serene when we experience misfortune (Ibid., 96). We should think about what has happened to us and, as in a game of dice, “re-establish our position according to whatever numbers turn up, however reason indicates would be best, and … always accustom the soul to come as quickly as possible to cure the ailing part and raise up what has fallen, making lamentations disappear by means of its therapy” (Republic, 604b-d; quoted in Hadot 1995: 96).
This exercise requires thought to concentrate on itself by means of meditation and inner dialogue. In the Republic, Plato says that, to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the immoral desires which populate our dreams, we must practise an exercise similar to that found in the Phaedo; before we sleep, we should awaken our rational faculty, appease the appetitive part, calm the irascible part, and regale it with “excellent discourses and investigations” (Republic, 571d-572a; quoted in Hadot 1995: 95).
Hadot suggests that, for Plato, the person who has tasted the immortality of thought “cannot be frightened by the idea of being snatched away from sensible life”, while, for the Epicurean, “the thought of death is the same as the consciousness of the finite nature of existence, and it is this which gives an infinite value to each instant” (Ibid., 95). For the Epicurean, each moment “surges forth laden with incommensurable value” (Ibid., 95-96). If we believe that each new day will be our last, then we will “receive each unexpected hour with gratitude” (Horace, Letter, I, 4, 13-14; quoted in Hadot 1995: 96).
Pure thought, thought which achieves a universal perspective, leads to greatness of soul (Ibid., 97). This means that “the whole of the philosopher’s speculative and contemplative effort becomes a spiritual exercise, insofar as he raises his thought up to the perspective of the Whole, and liberates it from the illusions of individuality” (Ibid.). As G. Friedmann argued, one becomes eternal by transcending oneself (Ibid.).
Even the study of physics can be seen as a spiritual exercise with three levels. First, the contemplation of nature offers the soul “joy and serenity” and liberates it from everyday worries (Ibid.); Philo speaks of those who practice wisdom being attached to the earth by their bodies but as providing their souls with wings, which enables them to “take no notice of ills of the body or of exterior things” and who, “rejoicing in their virtues, make of their whole lives a festival” (Philo Judaeus, On the Special Laws, 2, Chapters 44-46; quoted in Hadot 1995: 98). At the second level, physics enables the soul to view the world as if from above, in the light of which the concerns and disputes of human beings seem of little consequence (Ibid., 98-99). At the third level, physics enables us not only to breathe with the air which surrounds us but to think with the Thought which embraces all things, by embracing with our thought the whole Universe and ever-continuing Time (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8, 54; 9, 32; quoted in Hadot 1995: 99). At this level we die to our individuality.
The immateriality of the soul can be seen, according to Plotinus, if we examine it in its pure state. To do this we must do as the sculptor does in order to make a beautiful statue: “he removes one part, scrapes another, makes one area smooth, and cleans the other, until he causes the beautiful face in the statue to appear”. Similarly, “you too must remove everything that is superfluous, straighten up that which is crooked, and purify all that is dark until you make it brilliant. Never stop sculpting your own statue, until the divine splendour of virtue shines in you” (Plotinus, Ennead, 1, 6, 9, 8-26; quoted in Hadot 1995: 100). Hadot notes that the writings of Plotinus are full of spiritual exercises, “the goal of which was not merely to know the Good, but to become identical with it, in a complete annihilation of individuality” (Ibid., 101).
Pierre Hadot Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995).
Elizabeth Burns, July 2014