In a previous post, I pointed out the use of Socratic irony in Pierre Hadot’s writings on philosophy as a way of life involving spiritual exercises. The idea is that “Hadot’s practice of irony reveals the irony of practice.” To put it simply, practice is always hypocritical.
Hadot’s irony follows the Socratic method of going down to the level of ordinary opinion (redescension toward doxa) and then moving his reader up out of the cave of opinion and into the light of truth. It would be pretty weird if someone as steeped in Hellenistic thought as Hadot didn’t use some Hellenistic rhetorical strategies in his own writing (even if unintentionally).
At the level of ordinary opinion, Hadot proposes that philosophy is a way of life, not merely set of ideas/beliefs or an academic profession, but then as one engages with this proposition one ascends toward more rarified air. Philosophy is a way of life involving exercises? Yes. All exercises? No, just spiritual exercises, which transform one’s soul or character (psuche, ethos). All spiritual exercises of ethico-psychological transformation? No, mainly those articulated by Hellenistic philosophers.
To reiterate: Philosophy isn’t just the stuffy ideas of old Greek guys; it’s about living practices; well, living spiritual practices; well, specifically the spiritual practices of old Greek guys. Hadot simultaneously writes and erases a distinction between philosophy as practice (way of life) and philosophy as ideas (profession). Hadot isn’t ironic out of insincerity. His irony is part of his sincere practice. This simultaneous articulation and erasure is what practice is all about.
All sincere practice involves an authenticity lag, which is to say, it involves play-acting or pretending, making it by faking it. This is how the development of character (ethos) operates. Greeks knew this. Hadot knew this. Our self-help, be yourself, authentication frenzy of a culture does not know this, instead relegating hypocrisy exclusively to its negative manifestations.
Wayne Booth discusses this in book about the role of fiction in ethics, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988). Booth makes some observations about hypocrisy in the chapter, “Consequences for Character: The Faking and Making of the ‘Self.’” The following passage is from Booth.
The word “hypocrisy” originally meant simply the playing of a role on the stage: dramatic acting, hypocrisis, from hypo (“under”) plus crinein (“to decide, determine, judge”). To give the signs of choosing in a certain way, on stage or off, was to convey a character of a certain kind, in “hypocrisy.” Thus the two words, “character” and “hypocrisy,” suggest a challenging analogy: actors play roles as characters, with “hypocrisy”; authors play roles by creating characters, and readers and spectators play roles by re-creating them, hypo-critically. What is forgotten in our universal condemnation of hypocrisy is that a kind of play-acting with characters, or characteristics, a kind of faking of characters, is one of the main ways that we build what becomes our character.
[…] If my character is the totality of all the roles I can play effectively, good and bad, it will be in some sense a product of all the “hypocrises” I have practiced (good or bad) long enough to perfect them.
Many of the virtues that we most honor are originally gained by practiced that our enemies might call faking, our friends perhaps something like aspiring or emulating. […] We must fake—must practice—playing the cello (say) long before we can really play it, and each stage of improvement requires new levels of faking. One soon learns, in developing any skill, that we inhibit our progress most be declaring ourselves incompetent: “I’m a poor tennis player” is almost certainly a prelude to worse playing than “I’m getting better all the time.” […] The difference between productive hypocrisy—aspiring and emulating—and the vice that the word is used to name must thus surely lie in the motive and direction of the “practice.” If I am really practicing only deceit, and not in fact developing my potentialities for a given virtue, then of course what I will develop is skill in the practice of deception. (252-253)
Booth also notes the strange historical fact that the word “practice” originally meant something hypocritical before gaining the more perfecting qualities with which it is attributed currently. “The earliest recorded sense of the word is ‘the action of scheming or planning; artifice; a trick or plot.’ Yet the word quickly developed more favorable senses, since—as we say—practice makes perfect” (253).
In his book on environmental virtue ethics, Emplotting Virtue (SUNY, 2014), Brian Treanor makes a similar point about a “productive” or “aspirational” hypocrisy, which “is not vicious unless we deceive ourselves by thinking (or others by implying) we have actually acquired a virtue that we are, as yet, only aping” (197).
[I]f we remain aware that we are aspiring to be better than we actually are, that our performance is part of the hard work of becoming a better self, and that such acting cannot be divorced from difficult philosophical questioning of whether we are playing the role properly, such simulation ca be an ethically valuable tool. Fake it until you make it, so to speak. (ibid)
[Note: The featured image for this post is not a real bookshelf. It’s wallpaper]