Pierre Hadot on “Living a Philosophical Life”

Posted by on June 22, 2015 at 9:49 am.

Michael Chase: What do the expressions “philosophy” and “living a philosophical life” signify for you?

Pierre Hadot: For me, the word “philosophy” corresponds first of all to an historical phenomenon. It was the Greeks who created the word, probably in the sixth or fifth century BC, and it was Plato who gave it its strongest meaning: philo-sophia, “love of wisdom,” the wisdom which one lacks. Since that time there has been an intellectual, spiritual, and social phenomenon, which has taken on a variety of forms, and which has been called philosophy. From this point of view, it is legitimate to ask whether there exists a “philosophy” outside of the Western tradition, or of the Arabic tradition, insofar as the latter is the inheritor of Greek philosophy.

Now, an historical phenomenon is in constant evolution. Contemporary “philosophy” is obviously very different from the “philosophy” of Socrates and Plato, just as contemporary Christianity is very different from the Evangelistic message. Is this evolution a good thing? Is it an evil? I won’t go into that. I do think, however, that it is always legitimate to go back to the origins, in order better to understand the meaning of a phenomenon, and that is what I try to do.

I have tried to define what philosophy was for a person in antiquity. In my view, the essential characteristic of the phenomenon “philosophy” in antiquity was that at that time a philosopher was, above all, someone who lived in a philosophical way. In other words, the philosopher was someone whose life was guided by his or her reason, and who was a practitioner of the moral virtues. This is obvious, for example, from the portrait Alcibiades gives of Socrates at the end of Plato’s Symposium. We can also observe it in Xenophon, where Hippias asks Socrates for a definition of justice. Socrates replies: “Instead of talking about it, I make it appear through my actions.” Originally, then, philosophy is above all the choice of a form of life, to which philosophical discourse then gives justifications and theoretical foundations. Philosophical discourse is not the same thing as philosophy: the Stoics said so explicitly, and the other schools admitted it implicitly. True, there can be no philosophy without some discourse—either inner or outward—on the part of the philosopher. This can take the form of pedagogical activity carried out on others, of inner meditation, or of the discursive explanation of intuitive contemplation. But this discourse is not the essential part of philosophy, and it will have value only if it has a relationship with philosophical life. As an Epicurean sentence puts it: “The discourse of philosophers is in vain, unless it heals some passion of the soul.”

“Postscript: An Interview with Pierre Hadot,” in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, trans. Michael Chase, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1995), 281-82.