Pierre Hadot is well-known for his idea that philosophy is not a merely professional endeavor or simply a system of ideas but is a way of living, a practice for which one must engage in “exercise” or “training” (askēsis). That point is evident throughout Hadot’s writings, but it is especially emphasized in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Philosophy isn’t just about talking and thinking; it’s a way of being in the world. It’s not just a vocational choice; it’s an existential choice. It’s not just about ideas; it’s about one’s entire self. Hellenistic philosophy provides the bulk of Hadot’s examples of this kind of philosophy, and the figure of Socrates plays a prominent role for Hadot. Of course, an important part of the Socratic way of life is Socratic irony. Reading over notes from Adam Robbert’s recent panel presentation on this topic, it struck me: Hadot’s presentation of philosophy as a way of life includes a profound sense of irony: “Ye gods! Here we have the well-known irony of Hadot” (cf. Plato’s Republic, 337a).
Socratic irony is characterized by the feigned ignorance (eironeia) with which Socrates would ask questions that lead people into and through dialogue. In terms of the vertical metaphor of Plato’s cave, irony is how Socrates descends back into the cave to talk to the masses. Adam mentions Hadot’s term “redescension” for this activity. It could appear condescending too, presumably.
Is Hadot feigning ignorance about something? Yes. He’s pretending that he thinks of philosophy as a way of life that involves a lot of exercise, when in fact he knows that philosophy is a profession that involves lots of speaking, thinking, and writing. In his own way of life, he was a professor (even a chair), so it’s ironic when he writes an essay bearing the title, “There are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, but Not Philosophers.” He wrote that essay as a professor at the Collège de France. I should be clear that I’m not making any evaluative claims about whether this use of irony is good or bad for whatever reason. I’m only saying that there is irony at work in his valorization of lifeway philosophy in distinction to philosophy professors/professionals.
As with Socrates, Hadot’s intention is therapeutic and pedagogical. Hadot is descending to the level of the masses, trying to help people and lead them into dialogue with the philosophical tradition by promising that it’s not as heady as it seems. Philosophy is a full-bodied engagement with life, existence, practices, exercises; it’s not just about heady activities like talking and thinking. Then, once you start engaging in all of the wonderful praxis and askēsis, you realize that philosophy is basically a profession (for professors). It’s about professing a school of thought, and it primarily revolves around relatively heady activities.
Hadot accounts for philosophers like Cynics who did not have a system or school of thought to profess, but Cynics get comparatively little attention compared to Socratic/Platonic and Stoic schools, thus giving lie to Hadot’s declared preference for non-professional philosophers. You can think of it this way: Hadot wrote a book about the emperor Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, but never devoted a book to the homeless Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope. Why? What’s the point? A psychological explanation would say that it is just a matter of Hadot’s personal preference. However, it is also possible that Hadot is trying to gesture toward something about the professional-vs-lifeway distinction that he appears to endorse. Maybe the opposition is drawn mainly for instructive reasons. It’s not personal, it’s protreptic.
When Hadot describes the training that goes into philosophy, he mentions a lot of examples of ethical restraint, like self-control, moderation of desires/appetites, and dietary practices like Pythagorean vegetarianism. A good example of physically demanding practice comes from Cynic exercise, “which advocated enduring hunger, cold, and insults, as well as eliminating all luxury, comfort, and artifices of civilization […]” (What is Ancient Philosophy?, 190). Hadot’s overall tendency is to focus on the training of the mind and not the body, and training is done for the sake of some ethical end (e.g., self-control, equanimity, arete).
If philosophy is about my whole life, my whole self, my being, it turns out to be a pretty heady engagement with the relationship of the self to itself. Adam brings together some helpful quotations with this sentence: Philosophy is “about achieving what he calls a ‘mutation of vision’ (What is Ancient Philosophy?, 231) or a ‘conversion of attention’ (Plotinus, 6), the insight being that perception—or how we sense, feel, and understand the world—is itself a kind of practice.”
The practice of philosophy is about vision, attention, perception. While perception and attention are not exclusively heady, four of the so-called “five senses” are located in the head. Cynics focused their attention on somatic feelings of cold and hunger, but most philosophers are attending to more transcendent things, like virtue. After all, Hadot calls them “spiritual exercises” not “physical exercises” (or psychophysical, psychosomatic, existential, embodied, etc.).
This whole thing is a classic bait and switch. Hadot promises us a full-bodied philosophy of exercise and practice, and all the while he is secretly aware that philosophy is only an exercise in an analogical sense. These are not exercises of the body. They are habituated mental activities that are treated like exercise. It’s an analogy. Again, citing Adam’s quotations of Hadot: “The notion of philosophical exercises has its roots in the ideal of athleticism and in the habitual practice of physical culture typical of the gymnasia. Just as the athlete gave new strength and form to his body by means of repeated bodily exercises, so the philosopher developed his strength of soul by means of philosophical exercises, and transformed himself” (What is Ancient Philosophy?, 189). I would emphasize the “as” in that last sentence.
Hadot even more clearly tips his analogical hand in the following:
[J]ust as, by dint of repeated physical exercises, athletes give new form and strength to their bodies, so the philosopher develops his strength of soul, modifies his inner climate, transforms his vision of the world, and, finally, his entire being. The analogy seems all the more self-evident in that the gymnasium, the place where physical exercises were practiced, was the same place where philosophy lessons were given; in other words, it was also the place for training in spiritual gymnastics. (102)
The philosopher trains as or like an athlete, but it’s an athleticism of the mind, soul, spirit, not an athleticism of the body or of elemental transformation. If Hadot had looked into alchemy, farming, yoga, and shamanism, he might have found more embodied approaches to philosophy. Maybe he doesn’t think those things count as philosophy. When Hadot indicates preference for Socratic dialogue over Cynicism, is it merely a coincidence of personal preference, or is it because the public masturbation practiced by Diogenes isn’t philosophical enough compared to dialogue? Or is it because of Hadot’s protreptic irony?
Hadot’s emphasis on practice and exercise sounds like an affirmation of the living body breathing in the great outdoors, far beyond the pale of academia and professional scholarship. He is redescending, ironically pretending that philosophy has anything to do with going to the gym, when in fact it has everything to do with the usual heady activities prized by philosophy professors: saying and thinking (legein and noein). If this were not the case, Hadot would have no reason to keep the canon so pure. He would let in Diogenes more, not to mention the practices of wisdom in Indigenous lifeways, Yoga, Zen, herbalism, and last but not least, athleticism.
Why does Hadot always say that philosophy is like athleticism, but he never says athleticism is like philosophy? It’s interesting to say that philosophy is like the art of motorcycle maintenance, but far more thoughtful and truthful to add that the art of motorcycle maintenance is like philosophy, or more radically, that it is philosophy.
Hadot’s irony is enticing. Without it, his emphasis on exercise doesn’t really make much sense. If he sincerely cared about actual training or exercise, he would have bothered to give attention to hypnosis and Mesmerism, cartography and aeronautics, mass media and globalization, not to mention sports and actual athletics. For an account of philosophy at work throughout that more diverse scope of exercise, Peter Sloterdijk is by far the more relevant philosopher. (I’ve always been confused at the narrow scope of Hadot’s 2004 book on the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis, which doesn’t engage eco/feminist philosophy save a single mention of Carolyn Merchant and Evelyn Fox Keller. Sloterdijk’s extensive description of prenatal psychology, placenta, mother-child bonding in Bubbles is a radical contrast to Hadot’s almost complete failure to engage with feminist perspectives). Hadot appears to have an extremely narrow understanding of the canon of the philosophical tradition, an understanding that could not be more aligned with the average conceptions of many twentieth-century philosophy professors. Ultimately, Hadot’s redescent into exercise is a way of getting people excited about doing philosophy, which is indeed about reading, writing, and thinking in a way that transforms one from an amateur into a professional/professor—someone capable of heading up a school, like Plato at the Academy or Zeno’s Stoa.
It all starts with Hadot saying philosophy is a way of life, not just a way of reading books; so, you take up and read about the exercises, paths, and practices that make up this way. Then when all the reading is done, you realize that the way of life you’ve been walking is in fact a way of reading, a way of saying and thinking. At that point, you’re not disappointed. You’ve done so much reading that you now understand how important it is to read, and you appreciate the happiness (eudaimonia) that it brings. Tolle lege.
On another level, you might consider to what extent the practice of irony is done not only for the sake of enticing people to study philosophy and get out of the cave. Perhaps it is also done for the sake of saying something that can’t quite be said directly, something about the weird nature of practice. In practicing the transformation of the self, one is never completely identical with oneself. You’re always you, of course, yet you’re constantly replacing yourself with new actions, habits, and character traits, like the ship of Theseus. That’s why care of the self can never resolve into “self-care.” The self is the subject and the object of careful practice, and the subject and object never totally coincide. Being who you’re becoming, becoming what you are, you’re always faking it while you’re making it. The professionalization of philosophy is a big fake, an inauthentic intellectualization that nullifies philosophy as a way of life. Nonetheless, that counterfeit status does not only nullify philosophy as a way of life; it is the very condition for authentic practice. Only counterfeit currency is accepted. Making it requires faking it.
Hadot uses irony to lead us into exercises of loving wisdom, exercises which are themselves ironic. Hadot’s practice of irony reveals the irony of practice.