Philosophical Therapeautics: Pierre Hadot and Ancient Philosophy as Way of Life

As my recent posts have made pretty clear, this has been a time of tragedy, trauma, and personal difficulty. My relation to philosophy has quickly regained a personal urgency, a need for comfort, but without the desire for illusions. Two books have been incredibly helpful in this. The first is Pierre Hadot’s incredible What Is Ancient Philosophy?, while the second is Jeremy Safran’s edited anthology Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue.

Hadot’s book is, simply put, a potentially life-changing book. While the first two thirds of the book explain how philosophy was a lived practice in the schools of the ancient world, a “choice of life,” the incredible chapter, simply titled “Philosophy and Philosophical Discourse,” brings it all together to show how Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy wasn’t about producing texts, but about showing how life could be lived more fully by means of a series of “spiritual exercises.” What’s so amazing is that despite the fact that Hadot is so historically precise, his description of these exercises is so relevant to the present day, and hold within them the potential for a rebirth of philosophy as lived practice.

The Safran anthology opens with a general essay by the author, but most of the volume is composed of essays written by others who are both psychoanalytically oriented therapists as well as long-time practitioners of Buddhism, if not Buddhist teachers themselves as well. Each essay is responded to by another therapist who isn’t a Buddhists, but is sympathetically curious, and then the response is responded to by the original author. While the Hadot text is written so that anyone, with no prior background, can read the text, and is likely to devour it due to it’s clear and easy prose, the Safran, while just as well written, tacitly assumes that readers are already therapists, and most likely psychoanalytically oriented. For those looking for a text that integrates psychoanalytic psychotherapy and Buddhism, and that assumes no prior knowledge of any sort, check out Mark Epstein’s wonderful Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective.

By jumping between the Safran and Hadot, I’ve found a great deal of comfort in my time of need, and I’d like to share how and why.

The Three Spiritual Exercises: Hadot on Ancient Philosophy as Way of Life

As I mentioned in my last post, Hadot spends much of the first book describing in great detail the ways in which philosophy was lived, taught, practiced, and written in the cultural and historical contexts in which it was produced in the Ancient world. And he argues that Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, while clearly divided into schools, they shared certain fundamental premises together as all being recognized as philosophy. Despite the variety of Ancient groupings, including the four classical Ancient schools, including the Platonic Academy, the Aristotelian-Peripateic Lyceum, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, as well as the off-shoot ‘anti-schools’ of Skepticism and Cynicism, or the first schools of the Pythagoreans, along with the later development of Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic schools, there was, particularly by the end, much in common between these. All who practiced a “way of life” based on theories, rather than beliefs in a deity, were known in the Ancient world as philosophers, whether they wrote or taught that philosophy. Clearly this is different from the present, in which those who write and teach are called philosophers, while those who practice a life of disciplined reflection, not based on a deity, have no particular title at all.

In addition to the generalized asceticism that bound the varying approaches together, Hadot articulates three primary “exercises” that he feels united the different schools in one way or another, despite their doctrinal differences. These exercises are probably most closely related to Stoic and Epicurean practices, though many can be seen in Neo-platonism, that grand synthesis of Ancient schools, as well as in parts and various other ways in Platonic, Aristotelian, and other approaches.

The first exercise is the concentration on the present moment. As Hadot noted in his old age, this approach has much in common with Buddhism, and there is some reason to believe that Buddhism could have been a distant influence on Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly on that of Plotinus, if in an indirect form via contact with Persia, particularly after Alexander’s conquests. The Buddha, after all, was a rough contemporary of Socrates.

Concentration on the present, which gives the title to the book of interviews of Hadot’s entitled The Present Alone is our Happiness, helps us to see that it is the ‘thickness’ of the present, which is to say, the presence within it of the past and future, which are the cause of most of our suffering. Worries about the future, regrets about the past, these pulls yank us out of the present, divert our focus on where we are right here and now. But for Hadot, and many Ancient schools before him, the present has all we need to be happy. Hadot particularly emphasizes the way this played out in “Stoic virtue” and “Epicurean joy.” As will become clear, the second and third exersices flow naturally from this first, and in different flavors for Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism, in ways I’ll address now in turn.


For the Stoics, the world is a place full of chains of cause and effect that play out in ways we often cannot understand or change. The only thing one can change is one’s response to the things the world presents to us. It makes little sense to mourn or worry about what one cannot change, cannot have foreseen, or could not have done differently based on what one knew at the time. What one can control is one’s response, right now, a situation that is perpetually renewed. And if one is to respond well, one’s mind cannot be clouded by worries, fears, regrets, and guilt that can cloud our judgment. Rather, we need a clear mind, and this is only achieved by focusing on the present and its demands, so that we can act well now, because that is what will most impact what happens afterwards in our own sphere of influence on the world.

Stoics emphasize the role of necessity in the universe, and even our own actions are already determined ahead of time by the influences which shaped us. But since we can’t know the big picture, we have to act as if we were free. Staying focused on the present helps us make the best choices, because we aren’t slave to our passions, bodies, or other weaknesses, which thrive on the past and future at the expense of the present. Stoics believe that the best action is always that which is “in sync,” to use a contemporary term (Hadot uses “coherence” instead), with the order of the cosmos and one’s place within this.

And so our ethical duty is to study the world and ourselves in order to best know how to best bring our nature into sync with that of the world which formed it. When we learn this, we can learn to be best in sync with the world, the types of changes it produces out of necessity, and we will be least out of sync with it. And this “out of sync” is what produces suffering. Worrying about what we cannot change or know at the moment takes us further from the order of things, because this order is that which endures in the universe, not that which is destroyed and passes away. For Stoics, this is reason, not in some dry sense, but in the lived sense of the underlying order of all that is. Similar in many ways to the Taoist notion of the Tao as “the Way,” this isn’t an otherworldly or abstract notion of reason, but rather, a very earthy, practical reason. It’s the essence of things, behind appearances.

Humans are limited creatures, and we can only do our best based on what we know at this moment. To do this we need to question everything, and be vigilant, lest we get sucked into our passions, which stem from the body which will perish. But this body is part of a deeper order which we need to understand, a reason necessarily of the mind alone, but of our bones. What are the principles of the cosmos, beyond our petty, human concerns?

All of this brings us to the cosmos, and the smallness of human existence within it. We are petty, small, limited creatures. Our worries are here today and gone tomorrow, and our lives tiny moments in the flow of everything. From such a perspective, we begin to see the second spiritual exercise, the “view from the whole,” to which I’ll turn in a moment.

In order to see the way our limited embodiment gets in our way of “seeing the big picture,” we need to try to understand our place in the whole of the cosmos. We try to divest ourselves, to the degree possible, of our particular biases. And even if this is an illusion, a modern addition perhaps to an otherwise Stoic approach to these issues, this attempt helps us to get outside ourselves as much as possible in relation to the whole, such that it shifts the way we think about our potential actions. We begin to think not only of our own needs, but those of the others in our world, and of the world as a whole. Which actions won’t merely make me feel better, fleeting emotions that come and go at best, but truly be the best action, for me and others?

This is Stoic virtue. As Nietzsche clearly saw, this is hardly the Christian ‘otherworldlyism’ in which this world is devalued, and some other world valued over life here and now, in the manner which Hadot rightly criticizes in his otherwise beloved Neoplatonics. The Stoics have what today we would call an “immanent” ethics, one which doesn’t have some standard of good or evil that would be transcendent of this world. Rather, there is only one world, of which the gods and spirits were a part, and any ethics derives immanently from what’s here.

The good is what is most in accord with the reason that directs our cosmos. The order, the logos, the principles of Nature, and our nature, is what should guide us. While humans have passions, our essence is our ability to reason, to see the order in disorder, to seek the best within the chaos. We should strive in all we do to come into sync with this. If we do, we will be freest from our passions to come into sync with the world. And this will naturally produce the least suffering possible from our position in this order.

This doesn’t mean that life may not present us with massive suffering. But we will reduce the extent to which we make this harder to bear for ourselves if we are sure that we did the best we could. And in this way, virtue reduces suffering, and produces happiness. While happiness isn’t the goal, it is what is produced if virtue is the goal.


Classic Epicureanism, despite the way the word is used today, was not hedonism as we commonly think of it. Epircuius taught that if chase “unstable” pleasures, we will be radically unhappy. The only true pleasures which cannot be taken away from us are “stable” pleasures, and these are those which anyone can have access to. These are the pleasures of money, power, fame, or anything which extends beyond the sheer pleasure of existing in the present moment. If we hope or fear for the future, or remain torn by regrest or guilt from the past, we will ruin the way the present is full of joy. See the world, experience it as a gift at each moment. No-one can take this away. All you need for happiness is right here. Right now.

And since death is something we cannot ever experience, because it is simply the cessation of life, it is fear of death that is the problem, but fear of death simply makes life less pleasant, and so, we need to learn not to worry beyond the present, which is where our happiness lies. If we chase unstable pleasures, we will suffer in the present and future. The best life is the one with the least “unnecessary desires.” The teacher of hedonism in fact taught that the hedonistic life reaches its appogee in asceticism and self-denial. Learn to limit unnecessary desires, live in very modest circumstances, and every moment of experience will be joy.

For from the perspective of the whole, we are just atoms in the void. Epicureans believed in the atomistic physics of Democritus and Empedocles, but they used it to support their ethics of life. And here Hadot is clear that the whole purpose for studying physics, which is to say, the natural world, was for Ancient Greek philosophy ethical in nature. One did science to learn more about one’s place in the world, not to conquer that world, but to learn how to live best within it.

The View From Above, and the Exercise of Death

As with Stoicism, we see the concentration on the present, and the “view from above.” This second exercise often has an ecstatic side to it, just as the concentration on the present can as well. Meditation on the present can lead to a sublime ecstasy of sorts, and is in many ways, for Hadot and others, simply the flip-side of the depersonalizing “view from above,” the attempt to become one with the cosmos or world. We are nothing more than parts of this whole, and to imagine differently is to distort our view of things. And since the world is so much more powerful, this distorted view will lead to unhappiness when the world doesn’t follow our distorted expectations.

But we are actually nothing but a refraction of this world, we are the way the world has put chains of cause and effect into motion, and how this has manifested in one tiny part of this world, namely, ourselves. If we concentrate on this, we start to feel less separate, less lonely, and our suffering less overpowering. The cosmos has laws, and all suffering we experience isn’t a personal slight or affront, but chains of cause and effect. So long as we did the best we could, we did all we could, and if we didn’t, this is a new present moment, a new opportunity. At each moment we renew our potential to see the world from above, so concentration on the present leads naturally to concentration on eternity. We begin to think about what mattered before we existed, after we are dead, and in parts of the universe where we don’t matter and never will. What would be the best for us to do, from this perspective?

Reduce suffering seems to be a pretty sensible answer, and here we see a confluence of Stoic and Epicurean approaches to these issues that Hadot is quick to point out. Pursuit of Stoic virtue leads naturally to the reduction of suffering, and Epicurean pursuit of pleasure leads to a virtuous life. This strange confluence results from the fact that both of these schools concentrate on the unity of the present and the whole. And while my contemporary sensibilities don’t think we can ever depersonalize and see the world “objectively” or “universally,” something the Ancients generally believed possible, they also believed that so few became “sages” that practically the result was the same, namely, that it is the effort and intention of virtue, certainly for the Stoics, that mattered, and which, from an Epicurean perspective, would be, in a sense, the unintended consequence of a true pursuit of pleasure.

But why reduce suffering? For an Epicurean, living a simple life brings joy, but living it with others living a simple life is one of the greatest joys we can have, for others can help correct our soul’s distorted ways of looking at the world, and its attempts to chase unstable pleasures. Learning hot to be better at living was something that could only happen in common, and this learning was the path to more stable joy. Only others could show us how our selfishnesses actually hurt ourselves, and this is why reduction of the suffering of others, while not a direct goal of Epicureanism, is a virtuous side benefit.

Stoicism takes the obverse approach, as always. To do what is best for others is what is rational, and what is best for others is what is in tune with our natures in relation to that of the world that created us. And since the best is to be in sync as best as possible, for this produces the least suffering, then it is our duty to pursue this, and the path towards this, for ourselves and others. Happiness is a byproduct, but also the motivation. We will suffer less if we are in sync, as will others. If we concentrate on happiness we will miss it, but if we concentrate on sync, we will gain happiness as a byproduct, so to speak.

Neoplatonic Exercises

Many of these exercises were combined, in a sense, by the Neo-platonics such as Plotinus, though they were combined with a denigration of this world largely foreign to these older schools. For Plotinus argued we should strive for mystical ecstasy with the whole of the cosmos, and the best way to do this is focus on Intellect, which is the order or reason of things, the force which creates all and orders all.

This is similar to the Stoic notion of Nature, which for them was not only order, but the force which creates all, which for them was not only the embodiment of logos, but also the sacred fire which provided energy for all. This helps us get a sense of why the good is not, for these thinkers, something otherworldly, but rather, the best of what is wordly, that which created it, and pushes it forward, that which gives us life in the first place, even as it leads to its possibility for bettering. Reason, or Nature, wasn’t merely the all, but the pull within the all towards the best it could be, a pull which was stronger in some aspects of the world than others. For Stoics, our duty is to come into sync with this, and happiness would result. For the Epicureans, we should aim for happiness, but this will only come about when we understand our place in the whole.

For Neoplatonics, union with Intellect would produce in us a life of happiness and virtue, for these are simply two sides of the same. Hadot is right to criticize the Neoplatonics for seeing Intellect as otherworldly, and in this sense, there is an asceticism which is can swerve from the pleasure enhancing version of Stoics and Epicureans, in the forms of “Stoic activity” in the life of right action, and “Epicurean withdrawal” to the garden and study, though in many senses these are two obverse yet complementary approaches to the question of virtuous pleasure in the world. Neoplatonism believed that removal from this world was the best goal, and in this we see the legacy of Platonic dualism. Nevertheless, the dual focus on the present and the whole are present throughout Neoplatonism as the way to bring oneself closer to the Intellect, and from there to the One, and in the process, come more in sync with it, leading to virtue and happiness.

The Exercise of Death

Hadot emphasizes that what the concentration on the present and view from above have in common is that both, in a sense, assume the view of the world which is radically depersonalizing. In the concentration on the present, past and future fall away, and there is bare life, life stripped down radically. But as this awareness brings us into contact with the passing of this present, we inevitably shift to the view from above, which is the world as it looks without us. For Hadot, this is the world viewed from the perspective of our own death. And Hadot is right to emphasize the fact that the Stoic “exercise of death” is lurking within the other two exercises, even if implicitly.

Hadot repeatedly cites Plato’s notion that “Philosophy is an exercise in dying.” And all the schools of Greco-Roman antiquity took Socrates as model and founder, no matter how much they differed from the interpretation of Socrates put forward by Plato and his school. For the Stoics, the best way to reduce the way the passions will cloud our vision is to “prevision” what we are scared of, as a way of reducing its hold upon us. Contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy advocates similar exercises to deal with anxiety, and psychodynamic talk therapies often involve probing into fears and worries by diving into them, and detailing for the therapist what one fears most as a way of conquering these fears.

For the Stoics, one should always live as if one would be dead the next moment. Only living this way can one avoid the distorting influence of the fear of death which could make us act poorly, which will only perpetuate the cycle of poor action, distortion, suffering, and lack of sync with the world. We become liberated from death when we imagine it as potentially coming at any moment. And in this, we will lead not only a more virtuous life, but as our preoccupations with future and past fall away, a happier life, for we will accept what we cannot change as inevitable, but we will be secure in the knowledge that we did the best we could. And this security in our own continued commitment to virtue will give us a happiness that nothing can take away. And since it is maximally in sync with Nature, it will be the maximally happy we can be.

Love fate, says the Stoic. Greet each moment with joy, as a gift, because it could not have been otherwise. Even our own failings could not have been otherwise, all was meant to be this way. Even our own freedom was determined to be. Let us use it as best we can, even if this is an illusion. Let us live as virtuously as possible, and reduce our suffering and that of others.


For those with knowledge of Buddhism, even in passing, the similarities are likely to be clear. But what I really like about the Safran anthology and Epstein’s books is that they debunk many of the misconceptions about Buddhism which make it difficult for Westerners to get a sense of what it might be about. Of course, Buddhism is a variety of traditions and approaches across history, but like the various Ancient schools, there are strong similarities which these all share, many of which are not so much doctrinal, but choices of life.

to be continued . . .


~ by chris on March 16, 2012.

One Response to “Philosophical Therapeautics: Pierre Hadot and Ancient Philosophy as Way of Life”

  1. Reblogged this on Skylight.

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