- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press (June 17, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674007336
- ISBN-13: 978-0674007338
- Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.5 x 1.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 29 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #668,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Is Ancient Philosophy?
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From Publishers Weekly
A prominent historian of ancient thought, Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life) revisits the work of Plato, Aristotle, the Hellenistic schools and the philosophical schools of imperial Rome in What Is Ancient Philosophy? He provides an overview of the evolution of ancient thought, focusing particularly on the role of philosophical theory in the lives of the thinkers. Showing how the ancients endeavored to live by their philosophy, Hadot reflects on the rift between theory and practice that came about with the professionalization of philosophy in the Christian era.
From Library Journal
First published in France in 1995, Hadot's overview of ancient philosophy (that is, Greek and Roman philosophy) is quite possibly one of the best one-volume works on the subject to have appeared in English in a very long time, not only for the clarity with which it is written (Chase's translation reads exceptionally smoothly) but also for the point of view Hadot takes. In keeping with Socrates' dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living, Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life) places each philosopher or movement discussed firmly within its cultural and intellectual context and shows that philosophy was not simply a process for creating theories but, more importantly, a way of life for many. Hadot argues further that this connection between philosophical theory and practice ultimately broke down when Christianity came to dominate the Western world. Hadot closes the book by pointing to two dangers that the (modern) philosopher must avoid. The first is to think that philosophical discourse is sufficient in itself, without reference to a philosophical way of life. The second, and for Hadot the more important, is "to believe that one can do without philosophical reflection. The philosophical way of life must be justified in rational, motivated discourse, and such discourse is inseparable from the way of life." Hadot eloquently provides such discourse; highly recommended. Terry Skeats, Bishop's Univ. Lib., Lennoxville, Quebec
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
His thesis is fairly simple. Ancient philosophy begins in an existential choice. That choice is based on a vision of the world and a way of life based on that vision. It results in both a philosophical practice and a philosophical discourse. The practice has become largely ignored in favor of focusing on the discourse and this has resulted in a fairly complete misunderstanding of ancient philosophy.
I am not claiming that Hadot's presentation of ancient philosophy is completely correct. I think there are some problems with his formulation but before I get into that, I want to broadly outline his thesis.
First, when Hadot say ancient philosophy he means Greek and Roman philosophy- in spite of some other reviewers he is very cautious about comparisons to other traditions, such as Buddhism, Judaism or Taoism.
He sees that tradition of philosophy as largely composed of the Platonic Academy, Aristotle's school, Epicureanism and Stoicism. He also talks about the Cynics and the Pythagoreans although not in as much detail.
At the end of the book (p.278) he suggest that these schools represent fundamental alternatives toward human existence. All cultures can probably be shown to exhibit some variant of these alternatives.
Each of these schools posits an ethics, a physics and a theology. These three components were mutually supportive and served to explain the role of humanity in the cosmos and the role of the individual in the city, with their family and in the development of their own soul. The expression of these three components made up the philosophers discourse.
But that discourse was just empty words without the philosophers practice.
This practice took many forms some of which were specific to one school but many of which were common to all the schools. There was frequently a social component which might be the dedication to philosophical dialogue (as exemplified in Plato and some of the writings of Cicero), or to living together as a group following rules and regulations (which likely heavily influenced the monastic orders that Christianity developed). There were spiritual exercises that served to distance the individual philosopher from her everyday point of view. For example, she might be encouraged to develope the "view from above" which tried to see all of her life as if from a great almost cosmic distance. From this perspective, all her hopes, disappointments, stivings as well of those of others seemed equally petty and small. All events and all things seemed of equal value. She became detached from her everyday human ties to these things.
Or she might be encouraged to be mindful of the omnipresence of the possibility of her death. From this perspective, each moment became incredibly precious, an unfolding experience that she must give herself over to with all her being.
I want to throw in a personal aside here. I studied philosophy at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec in the '70s. I do not want to diminish in any way what I learned there. I took a year long seminar in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason from Prof. Vladimir Zeman that changed my life and taught me what little I know about being a scholar.
But the sort of exercises that Hadot describes as being the core of the daily life of the ancient philosopher were completely unheard of in what I was taught. Or, I suspect, in what most of our universities teach. Hadot dissects the meaning of the word philosophy as the lover of wisdom- not she who is wise but she who persues wisdom.
As Hadot points out, that lack of focus on philosophical practice distorts that history. By focusing on theoretical discourse and its most coherent expression, we lose sight of the possibility that these things were not what was most valued in ancient philosophy. Ancient philosophers were trying to work with their friends, their associates, their families and their communities to effect changes in their souls. Their written material was teaching material designed to be used by different types of students. Consistancy is not to be expected (p. 274) Aporiai happen.
So what are the flaws in this account? Let me suggest two. First, Hadot like many others, sees the ancients as too much of a piece for my taste.
Read Part Two of his book carefully. He had wonderful sections devoted to each school- to their fundamental outlook, their ethics, physics, theology and their spiritual exercises. Read the section on Aristotle and his school. They were a little different. They come across in Hadot's narrative almost like a research program a là Lakatos (I am showing my philosophical age). In other words, they do not come across as particularly spiritual. They read more like a bunch of secular humanist scientists out to destroy Christmas. More seriously, they don't sound interested in spiritual practices. Their practice was to accumulate knowledge. I think Hadot tries a little too hard to force them into his framework.
Which segues into my second issue with Hadot. He sees philosophy as necessarily a rational enterprise. It seems to me in my investigations into spiritual practice that at some point one is brought face to face with the ineffable. Not the irrational but the ineffable. One is brought into contact with that which cannot be spoken, let alone put into a propositional logic. To the extent that ancient philosophy is grounded in rationality is the extent to which it cannot deal with this.
But I think that some of the spiritual exercises Hadot discusses are designed to bring our friend the philsopher face to face with just that. If I am reading Hadot correctly, I believe that he gets this aspect of the history wrong.
These are minor complaints about what is a magnificent work. I have been strongly influenced by my readings in Strauss of late. There are many similarities (the insistence on philosophy as a way of life) and many differences to explore between these two. More universally, Hadot is a challenge to almost everyone's approach to ancient philosophy. His work simply has to be faced and learned from.
Anyone who reads the Greek and Roman philosophers and who tries to learn from them has much to gain from this book. It is one thing to read Cicero or Seneca or Plato. It is another to try to live one's life based on such reading. Hadot just might inspire you to try.
The book is easy and enjoyable to read compared to some in this genre. I find it an excellent start for people new to philosophy.