Unflinching Attention to the Real Self ; A Survey of the Earliest Western Philosophers

By Thomas D'Evelyn | The Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Unflinching Attention to the Real Self ; A Survey of the Earliest Western Philosophers


Thomas D'Evelyn, The Christian Science Monitor


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 them."

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. …

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