On philosophical transformation

I have shown in sub-section that Hadot, via support from Bergson[1], sees the role of philosophy as being the facilitation of a transformation away from habitual perception where the world, nature and ‘objects’ are considered valuable because of their use-value (instrumental value) for human beings, to a different way of perceiving the world where ‘objects’ are perceived as being inherently valuable. It is with this transformation in mind that Hadot (1995:274) turns towards ancient philosophical traditions: he makes this turn because, he claims, “[a]ncient philosophical traditions can provide guidance in our relationship to ourselves, to the cosmos, and to other human beings” (I would add to the well-being of the ecology of the planet, on which human beings rely for every aspect of their physical existence). I have already shown in,, and that philosophy in the Roman and Hellenistic periods was explicitly in alignment with the Orphic attitude, that is, when philosophy was a way of life and not purely discourse about philosophy (see; and that gradually philosophy became less a way of life and more a discursive activity confined within the walls of the university. This shift occurred (as seen in with the increasing dominance of Christianity, Science, Technology and Capitalism – all Promethean, all predicated on instrumental reason and the reduction of nature into objects ‘for ourselves’, and all of these (being dominant shapers of discourse for centuries, at the exclusion and often negation of incompatible ideas and attitudes) constitute the established model of humanity, and they propel habitual perception. Philosophy, as seen in, has been associated with a movement away from habitual perception, away from the established model of humanity, which is to say away from the Promethean attitude. I must insist on this point: the transformation focused on by Hadot via Bergson is away from the Promethean and towards the Orphic – Bergson, as I have already quoted, saw philosophy as facilitating the transformation away from perception of the world ‘for ourselves’ to ‘for itself’; and here is Hadot (1995:257) linking this characteristic of philosophy to the ancient philosophers: there “have existed exercises by means of which philosophers have tried to transform their perception of the world, in a way analogous to… the conversion of attention spoken of by Bergson”. What Bergson and Hadot are interested in, then, is a transformation of perception, from the ‘for ourselves’ to the ‘for itself’ as discussed at some length already – a transformation Hadot recognises as crucial in light of philosophy as a way of life as practiced by ancient philosophers.

Some of these themes – transformation, wisdom, seeing the world-as-world – are at play in the following sentiments from Seneca, quoted by Hadot (1995:257): “As for me, I usually spend a great deal of time in the contemplation of wisdom. I look at it with the same stupefaction with which, on other occasions, I look at the world; this world that I quite often feel as though I were seeing for the first time”. Hadot (Ibid) comments on Seneca’s sentiment as follows:

If Seneca speaks of stupefaction, it is because he sometimes finds that he discovers the world all of a sudden, “as though [he] were seeing it for the first time.” At such moments, he becomes conscious of the transformation taking place in his perception of the world. Normally, he had not been in the habit of seeing the world, and consequently was not astonished by it. Now, all of a sudden, he is stupefied, because he sees the world with new eyes.

Hadot’s observations here are very useful for helping one make sense of the character of philosophy as a way of life as I started to trace the concept in the sub-sections since Adding to what was said about philosophy in those sub-sections, the characteristic of ‘seeing the world anew’ is now added to the list. It is a manner of perception remarkably Orphic in attitude – this is thoroughly reinforced by these sentiments from Lucretius when describing “how the world would look to us if we saw it for the first time” quoted by Hadot (1665:258):

First of all, the bright, clear colour of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous [sic] than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been.

The profound respect and admiration for nature is foregrounded in this quote, as is the vibrant beauty of being alive and capable of experiencing the ‘world qua world’. In order to be able to have such experiences (and accordingly, to be able to practice philosophy as a way of life), “we must separate ourselves from the ‘everyday’ world in order to rediscover the world qua world” (Hadot 1995:258) – again the distinction between the two ‘worlds’ is clear, as is the distinction between the Orphic attitude and the Promethean attitude. The ‘everyday’ world, is, of course, the world shaped by utilitarian, instrumental, and habitual perception, and what Marcuse referred to as the ‘operational point of view’ (see Chapter 4, sub-section 4.4), so the separation Hadot speaks about is a separation from the world of the Promethean, hence my insistence that the Prometheus/Orpheus dichotomy is relevant to the dichotomy of the ‘for ourselves’/‘for itself’ that has become so central in this exploration of philosophy as a way of life. At this stage of the study it is clear that seeing the world for ourselves, which is to say seeing it instrumentally or in a purely utilitarian and instrumental manner, indeed partly characterises the attitude that brought on the ecological crisis as I depicted it in Chapters 1 and 2, while the view of the world for itself promotes a way of being where human action is aligned with the well-being of the non-human world.

I will now turn my attention more specifically to the exercises practiced by ancient philosophers, practices whereby the world was focused on ‘for itself’, practices which produce moments in which an Orphic ‘state of presence’ is achieved. This state of presence, in turn, produces important moments when the individual, in contemplation of nature and the individual’s interconnection with nature, temporarily breaks the cycle of Promethean ‘Business as usual’ (which has been identified as instrumental in the causes of the ecological crisis) and experiences something of the cosmic unity of Being. Aspects of this ‘presence’ are then maintained in the perception of the individual, encouraging Orphic interactions between human being and nature rather than purely habitual Promethean action upon nature – this is a key aspect of the transformation a person can undergo if s/he wishes to work towards inner peace and ecological sensitivity in his or her own life.

[1] …and also via support from Husserl and Merleau-Ponty; however, I have not found it necessary to include what Hadot quoted from them as I have managed to maintain my desired focus without including their comments. Suffice to say that it stands to reason that these two philosophers would support Hadot’s line of thought because they are phenomenologists. And as every practitioner of philosophy should know, phenomenology is premised on ‘letting things speak for themselves’, instead of foisting one’s own ‘very human’ prejudices and needs on them.