Pierre Hadot is determined to change our view of ancient
philosophy, and by extension, of philosophy as a discipline.
In his new book, the professor emeritus at College de France
writes, "The university tends to make the philosophy professor a
civil servant whose job, to a large extent, consists in training
other civil servants."
Instead of the civil servant, Hadot's model is the shoeless
gadfly Socrates. The tension between the political and the
philosophical life is one of the many themes that run through
Hadot's "What Is Ancient Philosophy?"
As in earlier works, some of which have appeared in translation,
Hadot proves himself a masterful guide to complex ideas. He also
argues a sweeping thesis: Ancient philosophy is not merely a set of
ideas but a way of life. In less than 350 pages, "What is Ancient
Philosophy?" surveys thought from the early Greeks to the monks of
the 6th century BC. Without obscuring differences, Hadot reveals a
common spirit: unflinching attention to the self.
Starting with a portrait of Socrates and his ironic career of
awkward questions and luminous silences, Hadot wanders purposefully
through the Stoics, Epicurians, Cynics, and Neoplatonists, down to
the monk Dorotheus, whose philosophical exercise reduces the
egoistic will and encourages acceptance of things as they are. It is
an invigorating tour among the monuments, some familiar, some not.
Unlike the theoretical and systematic thought of modern
philosophy, ancient philosophy keeps returning to the image of
Socrates: "Deprived of wisdom, beauty, and the good, he desires and
loves wisdom, beauty, and the good."
For Hadot, "philosophy consists in the movement by which the
individual transcends himself toward something which lies beyond
him." One's desire for wisdom is in direct ratio to one's detachment
from immediate satisfactions.
For Hadot, all the ancient schools "called for a kind of self-
duplication in which the 'I' refuses to be conflated with its
desires and appetites, takes up a distance from the object of its
desires, and becomes aware of its power to become detached from
The reader gradually becomes a connoisseur of philosophical
desire as Hadot distinguishes between this and that position. The
book is also a wonderful collection of memorable passages, as when
he explains Aristotle's "paradoxical and enigmatical view" that "the
intellect is what is most essential in man, yet at the same time it
is something divine that enters into him; what transcends man
constitutes his true personality. …