Philosophy As a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault - by Pierre Hadot

The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an "exercise." In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory--much less in the exegesis of texts--but rather in the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence. The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but of that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.

We must confront life's difficulties face to face, remembering that they are not evils, since they do not depend on us. This is why we must engrave striking maxims in our memory, so that, when the time comes, they can help us accept such events, which are, after all, part of the course of nature; we will thus have these maxims and sentences "at hand." What we need are persuasive formulae or arguments, which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness.

In ancient philosophy as well, attention (prosoche) required meditating on and memorizing rules of life, those principles which were to be applied in each particular circumstance, at each moment in life. It was essential to have the principles of life, the fundamental "dogmas," constantly "at hand."

Generally speaking, we can say that Marcus Aurelius' seemingly pessimistic declarations are not expressions of his disgust or disillusion at the spectacle of life; rather, they are a means he employs in order to change his way of evaluating the events and objets which go to make up human existence. He does this by defining these events and objects as they really are--"physically," one might say--separating them from the conventional representations people habitually form of them.

This method is quintessentially Stoic: it consists in refusing to add subjective value-judgements--such as "this object is unpleasant," "that one is good, "this one is bad," "that one is beautiful," this is ugly"--to the "objective" representation of things which do not depend on us, and therefore have no moral value.

[Marcus Aurelius's] realist vision has a threefold function. In the first place, it is intended to prepare us to confront life such as it is. As Seneca remarks,

To be offended by these things is just as ridiculous as to complain that you got splashed in the bath, or that you got pushed around in a crowd, or that you got dirty in a mud-puddle. The same things happen in life as in the baths, in a crowd, or on the road… Life is not a delicate thing.

Secondly, the realistic outlook is not intended to deny the immanence of reason in the world, but to persuade us to search for reason where it can be found in its purest state: in the daimon or inner genius, that guiding principle within man, source of freedom and principle of the moral life. Finally, by reinforcing the sombre tones of disgust and repulsion, such definitions are intended to provide a contrast with the splendid illumination which transfigures all things when we consider them from the perspective of universal reason.

For the monk St Antony, the therapeutic value of writing consisted precisely in its universalizing power. Writing, says Antony, takes the place of other people's eyes. A person writing feels he is being watched; he is no longer alone, but is a part of the silently present human community. When one formulates one's personal acts in writing, one is taken up by the machinery of reason, logic, and universality. What was confused and subjective becomes thereby objective.

Both Epicureanism and Stoicism privilege the present, to the detriment of the past and above all of the future. They posit as an axiom that happiness can only be found in the present, that one instant of happiness is equivalent to an eternity of happiness. The present suffices for our happiness, because it is the only thing which belongs to us, and depends upon us. We not only can but we must be happy right now. The matter is urgent, for the future is uncertain and death is a constant threat: "While we're waiting to live, life passes us by."

Can purely rational considerations be effective against passion or sexual desire? Here we return to the very idea of spiritual exercises. What's interesting about the idea of spiritual exercises is precisely that it is not a matter of a purely rational consideration, but the putting in action of all kinds of means, intended to act upon one's self. Imagination and affectivity play a capital role here: we must represent to ourselves in vivid colors the dangers of such-and-such a passion, and use striking formulations of ideas in order to ring ourselves against hardships in advance. In Epicurean communities, people help one another, admit their weaknesses to each other, and warn others of such-and-such a dangerous tendency which is beginning to manifest itself in them. All these techniques can be useful in crisis situations. Yet we must not allow them to make us forget that what is most important is the profound orientation of our lives, the fundamental choice of a life, which engages us passionately. The problem is not so much to repress such-and-such a passion, as it is to learn to see things "from above," in the grandiose perspective of universal nature and of humanity, compared to which many passions may appear ridiculously insignificant. It is then that rational knowledge may become force and will, and thereby become extremely efficacious.