Philosophy as a Way of Life — I — How to run a philosophical school
Pierre Hadot’s ideas on ancient practical philosophy are foundational to the modern conception of the art of living
Whether we realize it or not, we all have a philosophy of life. Often it consists in whatever religious creed and practices one has been raised with. At other times it is the result of a conscious choice. Even those who don’t think about philosophy or religion still have a certain understanding of the world and how to act within it — which means that they have a (implied) life philosophy.
If this is the case, we may as well be conscious of what kind of philosophy we practice and why. And at least occasionally we may want to question whether such philosophy is really what we want. If the answer is yes, good. If it’s no, then perhaps the time has come to consider possible alternatives.
A good number of the possible alternatives on the table belong to a cluster of Greco-Roman philosophies of life developed during the millennium between the 5th century BCE and the fifth century CE, give or take. It’s hard to imagine a better guide to those practical philosophies than French scholar Pierre Hadot, for instance in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. The series of essays of which this is the first installment is devoted to a summary and discussion of Hadot’s ideas as put forth in that book, in the hope of being helpful to people who are either in the process of choosing a new philosophy for themselves or are practicing one already and want to get better at it.
Hadot reasonably suggests that ancient philosophical schools thrived — and have therefore come to be known to us — when their founders established them as institutions: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, Epicurus’ Garden, and Zeno’s Stoa. (By contrast, for instance, we know little of the Cyrenaics.) In addition to these we have what Hadot calls two spiritual traditions: Skepticism (in two forms: Pyrrhonism and Academic Skepticism) and Cynicism.
From around the third century Platonism began a process of synthesis of Aristotelianism and Stoicism, while the remaining traditions gradually faded away. The resulting Neoplatonism…