The Philosophical Spirit: From Plato to Nussbaum

By Rubinstein, Ernest | Commonweal, February 24, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Philosophical Spirit: From Plato to Nussbaum


Rubinstein, Ernest, Commonweal


One of my favorite tasks as a theological librarian at Drew University is orienting new seminarians to the theological reference room, which sits apart in isolated splendor from the rest of the library. Perhaps housing theology books in their own room is meant to illustrate the concept of sanctity, which in its original Hebrew simply meant separate.

Because of recent space limitations in the library, some philosophy books, which began to overflow their shelves, have infiltrated the theological reference room. They bunch together at one end of the room in free-standing shelves, not like the religion books, which snugly hug the walls. I like warning the students to beware of philosophical intruders like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, because many were hostile to the seminarian's chosen profession. And though my warning brings a chuckle, it carries a grain of truth. For philosophical reason, even at its most virulently antirational, seems to inhibit those elements of the mind that must be engaged if spirituality is to flourish.

I explore this topic in a class I teach at the New School University in New York. The class, called Philosophical Spirituality, examines the potential of philosophy, apart from religion, to nurture spiritual life. This holds special interest in a cultural climate like ours, which differentiates spirituality from religion. Religionless spirituality is often criticized for lacking the depth of a grounding tradition. The ancient traditions often marshaled in support of free-floating spirituality--whether Native American, Kabbalistic, or Hindu--lose authenticity, so the critique goes, when they are uncritically adapted to what are often middle-class American lifestyles. The goal of my class is to uncover in Western philosophy a religionless spirituality that already constitutes a tradition of its own.

Part of what commends such a spirituality to modern readers is its therapeutic dimension, its concern with human happiness. That philosophy is therapy is a very old idea now undergoing a revival, stimulated, unexpectedly, by voices within the academy. Scholars of Hellenistic philosophy, such as Martha Nussbaum and Pierre Hadot, have spearheaded this revival. For it is precisely the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, long dismissed in academic survey courses of philosophy for lacking intellectual originality, who shifted to center stage the therapeutic import of philosophy. Both Nussbaum, in her book The Therapy of Desire, and Hadot, in his Philosophy as a Way of Life, uncover for modern readers how much ancient philosophy was a psychologically nuanced healing practice (rather than a mere intellectual exercise), and one that Hadot, especially, suggests remains to this day what William James would call, a "live option."

And so it is not surprising that, first in Europe, and now here, a new vocation for professional philosophers has evolved. The recently founded American Philosophical Practitioners Association is a professional organization whose members, according to its Web site, "apply philosophical systems, insights, and methods to the management of human problems and the amelioration of human estates." But there are more popular expressions of therapeutic philosophy. The School of Practical Philosophy in New York advertises its services on a subway poster, which displays a melancholy fish enclosed in a bowl who finds freedom and happiness in the open sea by the wonders of philosophy. As the poster boldly claims, "Philosophy Works." There is even a line of beauty products, called Philosophy, which promises its users will "love, without expectation, all people."

Philosophy as therapy is already halfway to philosophy as spirituality. A philosophical therapy that grounds the happiness it promises in a sense of the sacred, understood most broadly as the source of all being and well-being, becomes a spirituality. If something as old as philosophical therapy can enjoy a modern revival, then philosophical spirituality, too, may be ripe for revival. …

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