The Solitary Philosopher

Pierre Hadot’s “What is Ancient Philosophy?” came out in 2002. I bought it because  I was fascinated by ancient Greek culture and wanted to learn more about how their philosophies interacted with their politics. I saw the philosophies as a shining example and their politics as less inspiring.  Why didn’t politics learn from philosophy?

I got something different than I bargained for. I did not get a much better sense of ancient Greek politics. I did, however, get amazing insights into the ways in which ancient philosophy adds value to life, and how we — as moderns can learn from that tradition.

The key point — ancient philosophy served a different purpose than its modern counterpart. Ancient philosophy was obsessed with teaching and learning about how to live. It was essentially ethical rather than scientific. The goal was not to explain how we think about reality in a vacuum but to offer thinking about what to do and how to understand what we do in real life,  in a given context..

Here is a snippet from Hadot’s book, which occurs towards the end. He quotes Géorges Friedman on the need for spiritual exercise.

The effort upon yourself is necessary; this ambition is just. Many are those who become completely absorbed in militant politics and the preparation of the social revolution. Few, very few, are those who, to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.

Amen. And here comes Hadot with a practical question.

Yet philosophers in antiquity, in order to practice philosophy, lived in more or less close proximity to a community of other philosophers, or at least they received their rules of life from a philosophical tradition. Their task was thereby made easier, even if actually living by such rules of life demanded extreme effort. Today there are no more schools, and the philosopher is alone. How shall he find his way?

We may be alone, but we do have models that we can use to guide our way. These guided many a great person in the modern age. They are not “truths” in themselves. They are tools that fit various purposes. So stoicism, epicureanism, and the rest are all there for you … if you choose the philosophical way of life.


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