Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault

Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to FoucaultPhilosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault by Pierre Hadot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of essays by Pierre Hadot was mixed. Hadot is clearly deeply knowledgeable about ancient and modern philosophy, history, and literature. He brings this knowledge to bear on his discussions of the purpose of philosophy. I certainly learned a lot reading it. However, I didn’t find his overall argument persuasive.

Hadot has two main goals. First is to argue that philosophy, in the ancient period in particular, was primarily meant as a way of life, a distinctive, all-encompassing approach to living. He claims that most of the written works we have capture more of what he calls philosophical discourse, and not philosophy itself. These discourses are meant to train one in the transformative methods of living that constitute what philosophy actually is.

This leads to the second goal: the idea that the philosophical schools consisted mainly of what he calls spiritual exercises. This is where I found myself most critical. Hadot never really clearly defines or describes what is meant by spiritual exercises. He gives several examples, but it’s not clear what makes something an exercise and what sort exercises spiritual exercises are. This makes several the essays too wide-ranging; the ill-defined concept is able to be stretched to nearly anything that suited Hadot’s purposes.

Another problem with Hadot’s discussion about the role of spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy is that nearly all his examples come from the Stoics. He also references Plato and Lucretius’s Epicureanism as well. But Hadot frequently claims that these exercises are part of all six of the major ancient schools. This would have been more convincing if had drawn more evidence from all the schools. If Hadot had just focused on the Stoics and kept his claims tied to them, it would have been far more persuasive.

The essays did tend to be repetitive as well; the overall thesis and purpose was pretty much established in the first essay. The rest of the essays do not add all that much to it.

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