A QUIET REVOLUTION may have taken place over the last three decades in our understanding of the history of Western philosophy. So quiet, in fact, that few have noticed it. Three recent books give us a sense of the significance and extent of this paradigm shift: Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell; and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes. What has this revolution brought forth? The realization that some of the most influential Western philosophers (primarily the ancient philosophers, but also Montaigne, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) intended their philosophy to be not just a body of doctrines, of pure intellectual content, but to be above all an “art of living.” It is immediately obvious that, like most revolutions, this one, too, is about how we relate to the past.
At the heart of the notion of philosophy as a “way of life” there lies the idea of a radical transformation. In Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Karl Marx famously challenged the way philosophy had been conceived of in the West: “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Yet, understanding philosophy as an “art of living” means not to change the world, but the philosopher herself. In a way, “changing the world” is a touch too easy, because nobody exactly knows what it means. Revolutionaries and spin doctors alike never stop talking about “changing the world,” which results in a social anesthetization of sorts; too much revolutionary talk is the best way to kill a revolution before it even starts. Soon enough we feel no discomfort living in a world that, in spite of all appearances, does not really change. Plus ça change… On the other hand, should one be unlucky enough to be visited by it, one will find it very hard to get rid of the relentless feeling that one has to change oneself. Rilke’s admonition, which Peter Sloterdijk borrowed for the title of one of his recent books, sounds now harsher than ever: Du mußt dein Leben ändern (“You must change your life”).
In this understanding of the Western tradition, the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself at a given moment. One day you suddenly, painfully realize that something important is missing in your life, that there is a gap between what you currently are and the sense of what you could be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. In a way, you don’t even exist yet. (It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing; by subjecting those around him to the rigors of his philosophy, he was bringing them into existence properly.) Philosophy thus presupposes a certain degree of self-detestation. It may well be that philosophizing begins in shame. If you are a bit too comfortable with yourself, if there is nothing you are ashamed of, you don’t need philosophy; you are fine as you are.
This is where Hadot’s reading of the history of ancient philosophy comes in. In the late 1970s, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) started using the term “spiritual exercises” to describe what the ancient philosophers were doing. He borrowed the term from Ignatius of Loyola, but significantly expanded its area of applicability. In so doing, Hadot thought he gave it back its original meaning: “Ignatius’ Exercitia spiritualia are nothing but a Christian version of a Greco-Roman tradition. […] In the final analysis, it is to antiquity that we must return in order to explain the origin and significance of this idea of spiritual exercises.”
The “spiritual exercises” are practices and routines, performed in a highly self-conscious manner, that engage and train specific human faculties: attention, memory, imagination, self-control. They are a recipe of self-realization; their “goal is a kind of self-formation, or paideia, which is to teach us to live.” Hadot discusses in detail several such “spiritual exercises” practiced first in the Greek, then in the Roman philosophical schools. One example is “attention to the present moment.” By focusing on the present, we free ourselves from the “passions” that both the past and the future (none of which we can control) stir in us: regret, fear, apprehension, anger, sadness. Attention to the present moment also gives us a sense of “cosmic consciousness” and helps us appreciate the “infinite value of each instant.” Similarly, premeditation of evils (praemeditatio malorum), another exercise, presupposes a constant awareness of the bad things (poverty, suffering, death, etc.) that may at any moment befall us. By meditating on them, we learn how to live with them, should misfortune strike. By knowing what can happen to us, to some extent we gain control over the unknown. The “view from above,” to give a final example, helps us realize how ant-like our lives are when placed within a bigger cosmic picture; this exercise is meant to cure us of the diseases of arrogance and self-importance.
In 1981 Hadot published his first book-length study on the topic: Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique (translated into English, by Michael Chase, in 1995 as Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault). Among the book’s instant admirers was Michel Foucault, who had already read Hadot’s journal article on “spiritual exercises” and who was to be one of his most enthusiastic promoters. Hadot writes in a sober, plain fashion. Unlike other French philosophers (Foucault included), he avoids rhetorical flourishes and unnecessary conceptual sophistication; there is something almost ascetic about Hadot’s writing style. One could only wonder: How on earth was this most un-French of all French philosophers going to conquer the world? Who would notice this plain prose in the midst of the relentless stylistic orgy that is French philosophy? But conquer he did, if on the heels of Foucault’s fame. His approach to the history of ancient philosophy, even though sometimes challenged, was to gain a steady following not only in France, but also elsewhere. Later, in 1995, he would give his vision a more elaborate form in Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? (What Is Ancient Philosophy?; the English translation came out in 2002), but the foundations had been laid in the 1981 book that captured Foucault’s imagination.
The major lesson we learn from the ancients, Hadot suggests, is that philosophy should be understood as nothing else but “an invitation to each human being to transform himself.” To philosophize is to re-invent ourselves. Philosophy is “a conversion, a transformation of one’s way of being and living.” Hadot does not use the word “conversion” lightly. The term, on loan from the religious vocabulary, brings with it remarkable existential depth. In anyone’s biography, a conversion is a cataclysmic event, the experience of death and rebirth together, something that, as Hadot himself puts it, “turns our entire life upside down.”
The convert is someone who is given a brand new self. The conversion can be religious, artistic, political, philosophical; the result is always the same. Hadot believes that this notion of radical transformation was crucial to the way ancient philosophers represented what they were doing. Overviewing the major philosophical schools in antiquity, he concludes that all of them
agree that man, before his philosophical conversion, is in a state of unhappy disquiet [un état d’inquiétude malhereuse]. Consumed by worries, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself [il n’est pas lui-même]. All schools also agree that man can be delivered from this state. He can accede to genuine life, improve himself, transform himself, and attain a state of perfection [un état de perfection].
Philosophical conversion is not a transition from one random self to another, but a process of “becoming who one is,” as Nietzsche liked to put it, of attaining one’s “true self.” Before conversion that person may be someone, but not truly himself: il n’est pas lui-même. Whatever other functions philosophy may perform in other contexts (social critique, general worldview, linguistic analysis), here it reveals itself as a most efficient tool of self-fashioning.
What all major philosophical school of antiquity had in common was a set fundamental practices: “learning to live,” “learning to die,” “learning to dialogue,” “learning how to read.” Like in Zen Buddhism, there is always a “right way” of doing just about everything. At times, Hadot speaks as though his subject matter is not the world of the ancient philosophers anymore, but our own:
we have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return into ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate, and let the texts speak to us. This, too, is a spiritual exercise, and one of the most difficult.
As hinted earlier, Hadot’s approach to the history of ancient philosophy became more and more influential, in France and elsewhere. In The Care of the Self Michel Foucault reframes Hadot’s concerns in terms of “cultivation of the self.” Here “the art of existence” (techne tou biou) is “dominated by the principle that says one must ‘take care of oneself.’” Such a principle structures the economy of one’s self, “establishes its necessity, presides over its development, and organizes its practice.” Foucault finds that “care for oneself” (heautou epimeleisthai) was deeply ingrained in the Greek culture. He makes an inventory of intellectual and spiritual practices, which he calls “practices of the self” (pratiques de soi), through which someone living in antiquity could perfect his or her self.
Foucault’s last book, Histoire de la sexualité (The History of Sexuality), in three volumes, came out right before his death in 1984. Especially the third volume, The Care of the Self (Le souci de soi) is visibly influenced by Hadot’s understanding of ancient philosophy as a set of “spiritual exercises.” Thanks to his global popularity, Foucault managed to give the insight a much larger visibility. Due to his premature death, there is something distinctly “unfinished” about Foucault’s last project, and a sense that, had he lived longer, he would have had more insightful things to say about the tradition of “the case for the self” in Western philosophy. In a certain sense, this “unfinishedness” itself is not totally accidental; uncannily, it is living testimony to the notion that not only one’s life is part of one’s work, but also one’s death.
Whether as exercices spirituels (“spiritual exercises”), as in Hadot’s case, or as pratiques de soi (“practices of the self”), as in Foucault’s, a notion was emerging in the early to mid-1980s that what philosophers do when they philosophize is not so much about the world around, but about themselves; to philosophize is to practice self-fashioning: to engage in a project of realizing oneself.
It should come as no surprise that one of James Miller’s previous books is an intellectual biography of Foucault: The Passion of Michel Foucault (Harvard University Press, 2000). In Examined Lives he looks at twelve philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Diogenes the Cynic, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche) as Foucault himself would have done. The outcome is a series of microbiographies, as diverse as they are colorful, all united in the same effort to understand the development of Western philosophy as an exercise in self-knowledge and the “care for the self.” The heroes of Miller’s book are significant not because they are the most important Western philosophers (even though some of them are), but because they are practitioners of philosophy. They are thinkers interested primarily not in offering a theoretical vision of the world around (even though they end up doing that), but in mapping out and transforming the world within.
Lurking in the background of Miller’s approach is the central Socratic notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” There can be something dark, disturbing, even dangerous about self-examination. To examine oneself is not to take a path to happiness, and Miller is too astute an analyst to overlook this aspect:
For anyone hoping for happiness, or political wisdom, or salvation, philosophical self-examination seems in practice to have led to self-doubt as often as self-trust, to misery as often as joy, to reckless public acts as often as prudent political conduct, and to moments of self-inflicted torment as often as moments of saving grace.
Sometimes self-examination is a curse and the self-examiner a doomed person. Foucault remarked that “taking care of the self is not a rest cure.” In its essence, self-examination is painful struggle and self-overcoming. Unexamined life may not be worth living, but examined life can be unlivable. Philosophers gladly proclaim “know thyself,” but often they forget to mention the high price that comes with such knowledge. Indeed this is no comfortable learning; it is after all, as Foucault notices, knowledge of one’s limits and limitations. To the extent that any serious quest for wisdom (the very definition of philosophy) starts in self-examination, the one who embarks on it is faced with a world of anguish, inner conflicts, groundlessness, even personal disaster.
And yet, this is not the whole story, only the beginning. As life-threatening as the journey may be, the final destination makes it worth taking. From a letter Nietzsche sent to his doctor, Otto Eiser, in January 1880, we can get a glimpse of both the difficulty of the journey and the unique joy that overcoming it causes in the self-examiner:
My existence is an awful burden – I would have dispensed with it long ago, were it not for the most illuminating tests and experiments I have been conducting in matters of mind and morality even in my state of suffering and almost absolute renunciation – the pleasure I take in my thirst for knowledge brings me to heights from which I triumph over all torment and despondency.
As Nietzsche suggests, no matter how unbearable life can be, its self-examination comes with a reward: a renewed dignity of the act of living. Life examined is thus life transformed. In this sense, true philosophy is by definition performative; it is not something we talk about, it is something we do. In his Memorabilia Xenophon has Socrates say: “If I don’t reveal my views in a formal account, I do so by my conduct. Don’t you think that actions are more reliable evidence than words?”
If it is to remain something meaningful, philosophy does not have to limit itself to describing things, it has to make things happen, it has to effectuate a change. That’s why the locus of philosophy, the place where it dwells, is not the books, nor the academic papers, but the body of the philosopher. Philosophy does not exist properly unless it is embodied in a human being; in a sense, philosophy is word become flesh. Christianity made the most of this insight. As a consequence, in this tradition, the philosophers’ biographies become highly relevant. If a philosophy is “validated” only to the extent that it is embodied in the philosopher’s life, then that life is intrinsically philosophical; studying it is not unlike studying a philosophical text. Just as in a philosopher’s text we look for plausibility of evidence and soundness of arguments, so in a philosopher’s life we seek consistency of behavior and symmetry between discourse and action. A weak argument can ruin a philosopher’s reputation, just like a flawed biography can; if the philosopher does not practice the philosophy she professes, she invalidates it.
In a sense, then, the life of such a philosopher is scripted, if by no other than herself. She just cannot do whatever she fancies; what she does has to be consistent with what she says one should be doing. Every single gesture has to fit into the logic of the whole; anything strident can endanger its integrity. Had Socrates, for example, asked the Athenian court for forgiveness, that single gesture — an accidental weakness, one may call it — would have seriously compromised his entire philosophical project. There are no such things as “biographical accidents” in the lives of these philosophers.
One of the significant corollaries of the notion of philosophy as embodiment is a renewed gravity of biographical writing. The story of the philosopher’s life becomes as important as that life itself. A philosophical biography does not consist now in a series of isolated anecdotes, but it is a well structured narrative whose purpose is to instruct and shape the mind of the reader. Says Miller: “The telling of tales about spiritual heroes […] played a formative role in the philosophical schools of antiquity. The need for such narratives led to the crafting of idealized accounts that might enlighten and edify.” By following the story of a philosopher’s life, by understanding empathically the workings of her mind and behavior, our own minds and behaviors are being shaped.
Whereas James Miller places his approach in an explicitly Foucauldian lineage, Sarah Bakewell and Bettany Hughes do not. They don’t engage with Foucault or Hadot, or even make a passing reference to them. The omission is puzzling, considering how neatly their approach to Montaigne and Socrates, respectively, would fit within the interpretation of philosophy as an “art of living.” This also has to do with a certain atheoretical spirit (which may be deliberate), detectable in both books. On the other hand, such an omission is indicative of how persuasive and widespread this interpretation has already become.
The title of Sarah Bakewell’s book, How to Live, is a mocking reference to the “Self-Help” genre, which her book is actually not. In it she explores Montaigne’s life and writings with the overt purpose of extracting a philosophical “art of living” from them. The result is an impressive reconstruction of Montaigne’s mental and cultural universe, a biography like no other. The key to this universe, Bakewell believes, is the issue of how one is to conduct one’s life. This is a large, multilayered, and sometimes fluid interrogation, which is not at all to be confused with the narrower ethical question, “How should one live?” Montaigne may have been interested in the latter as well, but most of the time he sought to know “how to live a good life — meaning a correct and honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one.” The question structured Montaigne’s biography, made him quit his job, travel, get involved in politics, get out of politics, live with a disease, and finally die with dignity. In seeking to find out “how to live” Montaigne became who he was.
Unsurprisingly, Montaigne did not like the “academic philosophers” of his day; he couldn’t find much use for them. As Bakewell notices, he “disliked their pedantries and abstractions.” But he was totally taken by another kind of philosophy, “that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life.” These are Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, the Stoics, and the Epicureans — all those who form the backbone of the tradition of philosophy as “an art of living” and with whom Montaigne engages throughout his Essays.
Essays is the unique written testimony left behind by someone on a quest to find an “art of living.” It does not have a clear structure, neither a plan nor distinct lines of argument. Often it is as though Montaigne forgets where he is headed, if indeed he is headed anywhere; even more often the reader does not know what to make of what the book has to offer. Bakewell observes how Montaigne tells us, “for no particular reason, that the only fruit that he likes is melon, that he prefers to have sex lying down rather than standing up, that he cannot sing, and that he loves vivacious company and often gets carried away by the spark of repartee.” The book is rough, messy, chaotic — “monstrous,” Bakewell calls it.
Why should we be interested in something like this at all? By ordinary literary standards, that such a book could even have had any success at all was unlikely; that it was an instant bestseller is incomprehensible. Yet, the Essays is no ordinary text. Sometimes obscurely, sometimes clearly, we realize that the extraordinary thing about this book is not what it is about, but the process it occasions — the process, that is, through which its author’s self is taking shape, right there on page, in front of our eyes. This is a book about everything and nothing, but this only means that, in the end, it is about writing itself, and someone’s self-configuration through it. That Montaigne started writing it after the death of a close friend (Étienne de la Boétie) and that much of the book is a meditation upon death is further proof of its unique nature. This is writing as an act of mourning — the proximity of death is the most important test a writer can pass.
Finally, Bettany Hughes’s The Hemlock Cup is a quest for the “physicality” of Socrates and his world: Socrates as a flesh-and-blood human being who lived, suffered or felt pleasure, sweated, and made love, who ate, burped, spit, pissed, and defecated. What she is after is “not a philosophical, but a topographical map of the man.” The best way to achieve this, she thinks, is to look for Socrates within the materiality of his city; her book thus “aims, physically, to inhabit Socrates’ Athens — not just as recorded and as promoted, but as lived and experienced.” To be able to write such a book, Hughes had to literally walk in Socrates’s footsteps, in Athens and elsewhere, to see things, landscapes and cityscapes Socrates himself might have seen, to hear the noises and smelled the scents he might have experienced. The novelty of Hughes’s methodological approach comes from her use not only of texts about Socrates (as commonly happens), but also objects (coins, building remains, papyri, tools, artwork) that Socrates might have used or seen around in the Athens of his time.
The portrait of this corporeal Socrates — more Sancho Panza than Don Quixote — is definitely one of the greatest achievements of Hughes’s book. Usually, in the mainstream literature Socrates’s life story is framed in terms of a tragedy of grand proportions: the lone, courageous thinker posed against his city, the growing conflict, the dramatic unfolding of the trial, the tragic ending. Instead, what we stumble upon in Hughes’s book, though it does not totally eliminate the dramatic, is something rather different: Socrates, the comedic figure.
Where else could he be? The ugly, pot-bellied eccentric. The wrong-footing genius; the stonemason’s son who understands how fragile and foolish mortal life is, and yet at the same time how sublime. The soldier commended for his bravery who stands, like a snowman in the middle of a winter campaign, caught in one of his embarrassing staring fits.
Importantly, this corporeal Socrates, an unsurpassable realist who knows the ugly world inside-out, does not want to make saints out of us, just slightly better human beings. That’s why his philosophy is not a body of inflexible truths, but a way of life, “not pat answers, not wisdom-as-product, but a deeper and more connected mode of thinking.”
At some point in her book Sarah Hughes uses the example of Plato’s Symposium to illustrate how Socrates practiced his philosophy in a day-to-day context. That philosophy was for him a matter of bodily performance is revealed in the story by the way he relates to the other guests. As Hughes acutely observes, his relationship with them is “immediate, comradely, corporeal, concrete, flirtatious, fond.” This example is revealing; after all, it may turn out that philosophy is something disarmingly simple: a science of conviviality, of knowing how to sit down and open yourself up to the one next to you. It may well be that it was on such occasions that Socrates — the lover of masks and disguises, the ironist, the histrionic — revealed something unusually deep about himself: “drinking, chatting, eating around a low dinner-table on a warm Athenian night, once again he proves himself a philosopher of the people, someone who did not divorce the physical from the metaphysical.”
Or that’s at least what this eccentric, out-of-place, and insufferable philosopher was dying to achieve.
All things considered, we should not lose sight of the fact that what I’ve described above is only one way of conceiving the relation between a philosopher’s work and her life. While predominant among the ancient philosophers, as well as among some modern ones (Montaigne and Nietzsche, for example), the understanding of philosophy as an “art of living” is far from characterizing mainstream academic philosophy in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Now philosophy is primarily a “job.” When they are done with it, philosophers don’t take it home with them; they leave philosophy at the office, behind locked doors. The work they produce, outstanding as it may be, is not supposed to change their lives. Today philosophical conversions are regarded with suspicion and strongly discouraged; if they do happen, they tend to be dismissed. The philosopher’s work, on the one hand, and her biography, on the other, are not to be conflated; they belong to two different worlds.
Perhaps as a corollary of this mainstream view, poorly conducted lives are not seen any more as detrimental to one’s philosophy; they are philosophically irrelevant. In ancient Greece Diogenes of Sinope strived to live a “dog’s life” as a matter of philosophical practice. Today a philosopher can in principle live like a pig and still be seen capable of producing immortal works of philosophy. If he is to be criticized for anything, it is not the lack of harmony between what he says and what he does that concerns his critics, but the flaws of his work, the weakness of its arguments, the lack of internal consistency.
However, things are not always that simple. In 1927 Martin Heidegger published Sein und Zeit, one of the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century; some say the most important one. Only a few years later Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. His political involvement is often cited as one of the most serious mistakes a philosopher can ever make. We are shocked, and rightly so. And, yet, where does our shock come from? From the fact that some German called Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party or rather from the fact that a great philosopher by that name did it? If the latter, why exactly are we upset? Isn’t there at work, in our disappointment with Heidegger’s lamentable political options, an expectation, if an obscure one, that a philosopher’s life should be lead philosophically?