Philosophy as a way of life is Orphic: Hadot’s analysis

Following the introductory Philo passage, Hadot immediately uses the appellative phrase of the essay: during “the Hellenistic and Roman eras”, “philosophy was a way of life” (1995:265 – Hadot’s emphasis). Hadot continues: “philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life”. Michel Foucault, in The Care of the Self (1986), also identifies in Hellenistic and Roman times a philosophical focus on transformation: “The common goal of [the] practices of the self… can be characterized by the entirely general principle of conversion to self” (1986:64). However, Hadot (1995:206-212) disagrees with Foucault that the conversion is towards ‘the self’: “It seems to me, however, that the description M. Foucault gives of what I had termed ‘spiritual exercises’, and which he prefers to call ‘techniques of the self’, is precisely focused too much on the ‘self’, or at least on a specific conception of the self”. Instead, Hadot emphasises the aspect of the transformation where interconnection is central, as evident in the following: “In my view, the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole” (Ibid). I will continue to unravel the nature of the transformation as I progress through Hadot’s analysis of philosophy as a way of life rather than Foucault’s, because Hadot’s analysis (as I will argue) clearly reveals the Orphic character of philosophy as a way of life.

Hadot (1995:265) identifies in the word “philo-sophia” something of the ancient’s conception of philosophy: love of wisdom. This may seem a very simplistic conception of the domain of philosophy, indeed a conception often taught to first-year philosophy students in their first philosophy lecture[1]. However, wisdom is a notoriously elusive quality, something the ancient philosophers were intimately aware of: philosophy “took on the form of an exercise of the thought, will, and the totality of one’s being, the goal of which was to achieve a state practically inaccessible to mankind: wisdom” (Ibid; my emphasis). If the goal of philosophy for the Roman and Hellenistic philosophers was a state practically inaccessible to humankind, then they were undertaking something of a paradoxical endeavour, which indeed is confirmed by Hadot (Ibid): both “the grandeur and the paradox of ancient philosophy are that it was, at one and the same time, conscious of the fact that wisdom is inaccessible, and convinced of the necessity of pursuing spiritual progress”. Regarding the word ‘spiritual’ here, it does not denote that which is denoted in later religious ideologies (along the lines of a ticket to Heaven in the afterlife), but for the ancients denoted a transformed way of living – philosophy “was a method of spiritual progress which demanded a radical conversion and transformation of the individual’s way of being” (Ibid) – and wisdom is an essential part of this ancient philosophical process: “real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us ‘be’ in a different way” (Ibid). So wisdom, philosophy, and spiritual progress are interlinked in the context of ancient philosophy, the result being a transition I have already commented on in previous sub-sections, specifically a transition from an instrumental use of reason to an application of reason where inherent qualities of existence are foregrounded. Furthermore, wisdom may be an elusive quality, difficult (if not impossible) to measure, but the effect of wisdom is perhaps something measurable – drawing on what has been seen so far from Hadot’s analysis, the ‘measurable’ (or perhaps demonstrable) effect may be the transformation a person undergoes in the process of seeking wisdom; I explicitly address the nature of this transformation later on in this chapter, but glimpses of it are seen throughout. Additionally, Orphic characteristics of philosophy as a way of life have already been identified in, so the transformation a person undergoes carries a consequence of an ecologically-aware and sensitive state of being, even if Philo and Hadot do not use these exact words or phrases. This is a crucial point to emerge from my line of inquiry: that the transition involved in making ‘philosophy a way of life’ is marked by ecologically-sensitive, Orphic qualities and actions. It should be apparent that these are qualities and actions that are fundamentally different from those of the Promethean project that has culminated in ACID. I will continue to explore Hadot’s analysis with a view to revealing such Orphic qualities and actions associated with making philosophy a way of life.

Hadot (1995:265-266) continues: wisdom “was a way of life which brought peace of mind (ataraxia), inner freedom (autarkeia), and a cosmic consciousness. First and foremost, philosophy presented itself as a therapeutic, intended to cure mankind’s anguish” (1995:265-266). Note that wisdom, in the context of philosophy as a way of life, does not denote a state of ‘knowing everything’; quite contrarily, wisdom in this context is “a way of life” with specific characteristics: a way of life where the practitioner manifests “peace of mind”, “inner freedom” (or inner peace), and “cosmic consciousness” – and in this manner “mankind’s anguish” is cured. I will address the themes of peace of mind and inner freedom/peace, as well as the cure of “mankind’s anguish”, chronologically in this chapter. Hadot touches upon the idea of cosmic consciousness first. In the following, he (1995:266) paints the ancient philosophical endeavour, which is to say an endeavour to live in a manner whereby wisdom can be accommodated as a way of life, with brushstrokes of inherent value, quoting Xenocrates and Epicurus (Ibid): “We must not suppose that any other object is to be gained from the knowledge of the phenomena of the sky … than peace of mind and a sure confidence” – note here the lack of an immediate conclusion regarding what a person should do with the objects constituting their environment; there is not even a hint of instrumentality here. Furthermore, rather than have dominion over the non-human world, the ancient philosophical disposition is one wherein human beings are seen as part of the cosmos: by “‘cosmic consciousness’, we mean the consciousness that we are a part of the cosmos, and the consequent dilation of our self throughout the infinity of universal nature” (Ibid). These ideas speak directly for the Prometheus/Orpheus dichotomy I have developed in this study, aligning philosophy as a way of life with the Orphic attitude. I have already quoted Philo saying that lovers of wisdom observe nature for the inherent value of nature, and in the above extracts the same sense of inherent value comes through: “We must not suppose that any other object is to be gained… than peace of mind and a sure confidence”. This outcome may, for now, seem Promethean due to the human being ‘benefiting’ via this relationship between herself and the cosmos, but the definition of cosmic consciousness in the above extract immediately re-positions the human being on a ‘horizontal’ platform of being: “the consciousness that we are a part of the cosmos, and the consequent dilation of our self throughout the infinity of universal nature” (my emphasis) – this may as well be an Orphic slogan. In sub-section it will become even clearer that this outcome of peace of mind or inner peace is anything but a selfish anthropocentric goal. In fact, it is commensurate with what is today called ‘posthumanism’ (Braidotti 2013), or the growing awareness – in the light of discoveries in the biological sciences, among others – that humans are not the centre of the universe, but exist instead on a spectrum of intelligent life forms.

The centralisation of cosmic consciousness in the context of philosophy as a way of life is focused on again by Hadot (Ibid), who quotes Epicurus’ disciple Metrodorus on this important point: “Remember that, although you are mortal and have only a limited life-span, yet you have risen, through the contemplation of nature, to the infinity of space and time, and you have seen all the past and all the future”; and also Marcus Aurelius: “The rational soul … travels through the whole universe and the void that surrounds it … it reaches out into the boundless extent of infinity, and it examines and contemplates the periodic rebirth of all things”. After quoting Metrodorus and Marcus Aurelius, Hadot (Ibid) makes another observation reinforcing philosophy as a way of life as being considerably Orphic in character: “At each instant, the ancient sage was conscious of living in the cosmos, and he placed himself in harmony with the cosmos” (Ibid). Being in harmony with the cosmos – this is a powerful phrase, another slogan for the Orphic attitude. And this notion – of philosophy as an Orphic way of life – appears later on (1995:273) in Hadot’s essay again:

Philosophy in antiquity was an exercise practiced at each instant. It invites us to concentrate on each instant of life, to become aware of the infinite value of each present moment, once we have replaced it within the perspective of the cosmos. The exercise of wisdom entails a cosmic dimension. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see the world qua world, but rather treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires, the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to mind. He thinks and acts within a cosmic perspective. He has the feeling of belonging to a whole which goes beyond the limits of his individuality.

I have made my point and supported it with numerous references to Hadot’s text, and Hadot in turn referenced ancient philosophers: philosophy as a way of life resonates with the Orphic attitude, especially insofar as philosophy as a way of life is a manifestation of cosmic consciousness where the human being is an interconnected part of an intricate whole, each part of which is inherently valuable. And this message resonates with the Orphic attitudes explored in Chapter 5, and in Chapter 6 permaculture was shown to be a design system largely premised on the notion of interconnection. Perhaps now Mollison’s use of the phrase, ‘philosopher-gardeners’, quoted in Chapter 6, makes a lot more sense.

In the most recent observations I have quoted from Hadot, attention is drawn to two kinds of perception of the world. One is glimpsed in the phrase “the average person… treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires” – this treatment of the world is predicated on an instrumental approach to ‘objects’ in the cosmos, an approach that has been equated with the reduction of nature into a standing reserve of resources to be dissected for human purposes, which is part of the Promethean approach to the cosmos (see Chapter 3). The other relationship to the world to which Hadot refers – thinking and action “within a cosmic perspective” – is respectful of the synergy of the totality that is the cosmos and all its diversity. Hadot (1995:273-274) does further address some differences between these two perspectives in the chapter Philosophy as a Way of Life, but I find that some of his comments from the chapter The Sage and the World[2] to address the differences in a manner that resonates appropriately with concepts that have already been encountered in this study so far. Attention to these differences furthermore is useful in gearing up to discussing further the nature of the transformation relevant to philosophy as a way of life, a transformation that I will argue is immensely powerful for the individual and the ‘collective ecological organism’ in the context of the ecological crisis.

[1] I make this comment in light of a decade of teaching or lecturing philosophy to students.

[2] The Sage and the World is chapter 10 while Philosophy as a Way of Life is Chapter 11.