I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one's perception of the world. Since childhood, I have strongly felt the radical opposition between everyday life--which is lived in a semiconscious state, in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence, and of our existence in the world--and privileged states in which we live intensely, and are aware of our being-in-the-world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the "they," and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the "authentic." It is since that time, because I did not dare tell anyone what I had experienced, that I have always felt that there are things that cannot be said. Whatever I might have said would have been mere banalities. I also noticed that when the priests spoke about God or about death--overwhelming or terrifying realities--they recited readymade phrases that appeared conventional and contrived to me. What was most essential for us could not be expressed.
Generally speaking, I personally tend to conceive of the fundamental philosophical choice, and hence the effort toward wisdom, as the transcending of the partial, biased, egocentric, egoist self, in order to attain the level of a higher self. This self sees all things from a perspective of universality and totality, becoming aware of itself as part of the cosmos and encompassing, then, the totality of things. I retained the following sentence from Anne Cheng's book History of Chinese Thought, about the Tao: "Every form of spirituality begins by a 'letting go,' a renunciation of the limited and limiting self-." This remark makes me think that this idea of a change of levels of self can be found in extremely different philosophies.
Philosophical Discourse as Spiritual Exercise
I would define spiritual exercises as voluntary, personal practices intended to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transformation of the self. One example would be that of preparing for the difficulties of life, an exercise very popular among the Stoics. To be able to bear the blows of fate, sickness, poverty, and exile, one must prepare oneself in thought for their possibility. One is better able to bear what is expected. Despite my attempts to avoid it, some of what I have written about spiritual exercises in general may suggest that spiritual exercises are added to philosophical theory, to philosophical discourse, that they are a practice that merely complements theory and abstract discourse. In fact, all of philosophy is an exercise--instructional discourse no less than the inner discourse that orients our actions. Obviously the exercises take place primarily in and through inner discourse--there is even an expression for this, a Greek term very often used by Epictetus in his Manual: epilegein, that is to say, "to add an inner discourse to the situation," for example, by reciting to oneself maxims such as "One must not wish for what occurs not to occur, but one must wish that what occurs, occur as it occurs." These are inner formulations that are used, and they alter the individual's disposition. But there are also spiritual exercises in external discourse, in the discourse of instruction.
In my efforts of interpretation, I discovered that when one wishes to interpret a philosophical work from Antiquity, one must first of all endeavor to follow the movement, the meanders of the author's thought--in short, the series of dialectical or spiritual exercises that the philosopher makes his disciples practice. On the other hand, when the philosopher aims to be systematic, as for example, in certain texts of Epicurus or the Stoics, the intent is often to make the disciples practice a spiritual exercise--mnemotechnic, as it were--intended to provide a better assimilation of the dogmas that determine a mode of life, and to enable them to possess these dogmas within themselves with certainty.
Q. The idea of a cosmic consciousness, which is for us a rather disconcerting idea, belongs to the perspective of a spiritual exercise of physics. One can thus endeavor to attain cosmic consciousness. Do you think this is an exercise that one can practice today?
There are two ways to apprehend the world. There is the scientific way, which uses measuring instruments, exploration, and mathematical calculations. But there is also the naive use of perception. This duality can be better understood by thinking of Husserl's remark, taken up by Merleau-Ponty: theoretical physics admits and proves that the Earth moves, but from the point of view of perception, the Earth is immobile. Now, perception is the foundation of the life we live. It is within the perspective of perception that the spiritual exercise you refer to is situated, and it is probably better not to call it a "spiritual exercise of physics," because in our day the word physics has only one, very precise meaning. It is preferable, rather, to call it the realization of the presence of the world and of our belonging to the world. Here, the experience of the philosopher coincides with the experience of the poet and the painter. As Bergson has convincingly shown, this exercise effectively consists in transcending the utilitarian perception we have of the world, in order to attain a disinterested perception of the world--not as a means of satisfying our interests, but simply as a world, which then emerges before our eyes as though we were seeing it for the first time. As Merleau-Ponty says, "Real philosophy is to learn to see the world again." Thus it appears as a transformation of perception. On this point I would also cite an article by Carlo Ginzburg that alludes to a spiritual exercise that is sometimes found in certain writers (Ginzburg speaks of Tolstoy), and that consists of perceiving things as strange. As an example of such a mode of vision, he specifically cites Marcus Aurelius and his physical definitions. To perceive things as strange is to transform one's way of seeing in such a way that one has the impression of seeing them for the first time, by freeing oneself from habit and banality. This is not, moreover, a purely aesthetic contemplation, which is certainly vitally important, but an exercise intended to make us transcend our biased and partial point of view, to bring us to see things and our personal existence in a cosmic and universal perspective, to resituate us within the immense event of the universe, but also, one might say, in the unfathomable mystery of existence. This is what I call cosmic consciousness.
Philosophy as Life and as Quest for Wisdom
Q. In your opinion, is it always necessary to choose between schools, to make an exclusive choice of a school, of a fundamental attitude? Can one mix the Stoic attitude with the Epicurean attitude, as did, for example, Goethe, Rousseau, or Thoreau?
In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant declares that the exercise of virtue must be practiced with Stoic energy and Epicurean joie de vivre. This conjunction of Stoicism and Epicureanism can be discerned in Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker, where one finds both the pleasure of existing, and the awareness of being part of nature. In his Discussions with Falk, Goethe speaks of beings who, by their innate tendencies, are half Stoic and half Epicurean. One can also discern an attitude of this kind in Thoreau's Walden. In a posthumous fragment, Nietzsche says that one must not be frightened of adopting a Stoic attitude after having benefited from an Epicurean recipe. Ultimately, such an attitude is what is called eclecticism. This word is often rather poorly viewed by philosophers. The attitude of eclecticism is potentially of great importance in the contemporary world, in which the schools no longer exist and in which one feels reticent to let oneself be influenced by any kind of school. This was in a sense already the position of Cicero, who adhered to the tendency of Platonism that can be qualified as probabilist. He said we are free, we are independent; no obligation imposes itself on us; we live from day to day, deciding on the basis of the circumstances and particular cases, choosing what seems to be the best solution each time, whether it be inspired by Epicureanism, or Stoicism, or Platonism, or any other model of life.
One might raise the objection to everything I have just said about eclecticism that if one beings by choosing to be free and not to give one's allegiance to a school, then one can just as well find one's own solution on one's own, without choosing a model. But precisely the significance of everything that we are saying about Stoicism and Epicureanism, for example, is that these are experiments that have been carried out for centuries, and that have also been discussed, criticized, and corrected. In this perspective, Nietzsche spoke of the moral schools of Antiquity as experimental laboratories, from which we can, as it were, use the results. As Michelet put it, "Antiquity contains ideas in a state of concentration, in the state of elixir."
Q. You have often spoken of philosophy as an exercise in dying. What can this idea mean for us today?
The Stoics talked a great deal about the exercise of dying, within the perspective of an exercise that we have already discussed: the preparation for the difficulties of life, the praemeditatio malorum. The Stoics always said that one must think that death is imminent, but this was less to prepare oneself for death than it was to discover the seriousness of life. As a Stoic, for example, Marcus Aurelius said one must accomplish every action as though it were one's last; or again, one must spend every day as though it were one's last. It is a matter of becoming aware that the moment one is still living has infinite value. Because death may interrupt it, it must be lived in an extremely intense manner as long as death has not arrived. The Epicureans also spoke of death. According to Seneca, Epicurus said, "think of death"; but this was by no means to prepare oneself for death, but on the contrary, exactly as for the Stoics, to become aware of the value of the present instant. This is Horace's well-known carpe diem: harvest today without thinking of tomorrow. Moreover, the thought of death, from an Epicurean perspective, was intended to allow us to understand thoroughly the absence of any relation between death and the living being that we are: "death is nothing for us," the Epicureans said; it has no relation to us. There is no passing from being to nothingness. What is, is, and that's that. Death is not an event of life, as Wittgenstein would say. For the Epicureans there was also the idea, shared with the Stoics, that one must live every day as though one had completed one's live, and hence with the satisfaction of telling oneself in the evening, "I have lived." There are two aspects here: first, from this perspective, the day has been lived in all its intensity, but at the same time, when tomorrow comes, one will consider this new day as an unexpected piece of good fortune. Basically, one tells oneself that one already has had everything in a single instant of existence. It is always a matter of becoming aware of the value of existence.
Q. You have recently emphasized the distinction between philosophical discourse and philosophy itself. What is the role of philosophical discourse and of the practices (the not purely conceptual practices) in your own conception of philosophy?
Personally, while trying to accomplish my tasks as a historian and exegete, I especially attempt to lead a philosophical life, that is, very simply, conscious, coherent, and rational. The results are not always of a very high level, I must admit. And during my sojourns in hospitals, for example, I have not always maintained the serenity of mind with which I would have liked to comport myself. But nevertheless, I try to place myself in certain inner attitudes, such as concentration on the present instant, wonder at the presence of the world, looking at things from above--"to take flight every day," as Georges Friedmann said--becoming conscious of the mystery of existence. I must admit that as I get older, and this is certainly a default of age, I increasingly prefer experience to discourse. I even dare admit that I am very fond of the phrase, one that is paradoxical, enigmatic, but weighty with meaning, of a Chinese critic cited by Simon Leys, "All that can be stated is bereft of importance."
The Present Alone Is Our Happiness
Q. Among the inner attitudes and the spiritual exercises of ancient philosophy, which ones do you prefer, and perhaps practice?
I would say that the theme that has struck me the most is the meditation on death. I have always been amazed that the though of death helps one to live better, to live as though one were living one's last day, one's last hour. An attitude such as this one requires a total conversion of attention. To no longer project oneself into the future, but to consider the action one is carrying out in itself and for itself; to no longer consider the world as the simple background of our action, but to look at it in itself and for itself--this attitude has both an existential and an ethical value. It allows one, first of all, to become aware of the infinite value of the present moment, of the infinite value of today's moments, as well as the infinitue value of tomorrow's moments, which one will greet with gratitude as an unexpected piece of good fortune. But it also allows one to become conscious of the seriousness of every moment of life. To do what one does habitually, but not out of habit, but as though one were doing it for the first time, discovering everything this action implies for it to be well done. What matters is not what one does, but how one does it. The thought of death thus lead me to this exercise of concentration on the present, recommended by both the Epicureans and the Stoics.
Q. You like to cite the verses from Goethe's Faust II, to which you have devoted an article: "The the spirit looks neither forward nor backward. The present alone is our happiness." How can one say that the present alone is our happiness?
Goethe made repeated and abundant use of the idea, both Epicurean and Stoic, that one finds happiness only in the present moment. For him, the characteristic feature of ancient life and art was to know how to live in the present, to know, as he said, "the health of the moment." Happiness is in the present moment, first for the simple reason that we live only in the present, and then because the past and the future are always the source of suffering. The past makes us grieve, either simply because it is past and escapes us, or because it gives us the impression of imperfection; the future worries us because it is uncertain and unknown. But every present moment offers us the possibility of happiness. If we put ourselves in a Stoic perspective, it gives us the opportunity to attend to our duties, to live according to reason; if we put ourselves in an Epicurean perspective, it affords us the pleasure of existing at every instant.
Q. What do you mean by this wealth of the present instant or moment?
This wealth is the one we give it, or that we should give it, thanks to a transformation of our relationship to time. Ordinarily our life is always incomplete, in the strongest sense of the term, because we project all our hopes, all our aspirations, all our attention into the future, telling ourselves that we will be happy once we have attained this or that goal. We are afraid as long as the goal is not attained, but if we attain it, already it no longer interests us and we continue to run after something else. We do not live, we hope to live, we are waiting to live. Stoics and Epicureans invite us, then, to carry out a total conversion of our relation to time, to live in the only moment in which we live, that is, the present; to live not in the future but, on the contrary, as though there were no future, as though we only had this day, only this moment, to live; to live it then as well as possible, as though--as we were saying earlier--it were the last day, the last moment of our life, in our relationship to ourselves and to those around us. We are not talking here about melodrama, which would be ridiculous, but of a way to discover all that we can possess in the instant. First of all, we can realize in it an action that is well done, done for itself, with attention and consciousness. We cann tell ourselves, I am applying myself to concentrating on the action I am carrying out this moment; I am doing as well as possible. We can also tell ourselves, I am here, alive, and that's enough; in other words, we can become aware of the value of existence, enjoy the pleasure of existence. We can repeat Montaigne's inexhaustible phrase on this subject, saying to someone who has the impression of having done nothing, "What? Have you not lived? It is not only the most fundamental, but the most illustrious of your occupations." We can even add, Here I am, in an immense and wonderful world. It is the present instant, Marcus Aurelius said, that puts ut into contact with the whole cosmos. At every instant I can thingk of the indescribable cosmic event of which I am a part. To live in the present is to live as though we were seeing the world for the first and for the last time. Each present moment can therefore be a moment of happiness, whether it is the pleasure of existing or the joy of doing things well.
Q. In your books, it seems to me that you also talk a great deal about what you call the look from above.
This exercise consists in imaginatively traversing the immensity of space, and in accompanying the movement of the stars, but also in looking at the Earth from above, to observe the behavior of humans. It is described very frequently, for example, in Plato, Epicurus, Lucretius, Philo of Alexandria, Ovid, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucian. This effort of the imagination, but also of the intellect, is intended above all to replace the human being within the vastness of the universe, making him aware of who he is. First of all, awareness of one's weakness--because it makes one sense the extent to which the human things that seem to us to be of crucial importance are, envisaged from this perspective, ridiculously petty. The ancient authors, such as Lucian, this allude to the wars that, seen from above, seem to be battles of ants, and to borders, which seem ridiculous. The point is also to make human beings become aware of human greatness, because human minds are capable of traversing the whole universe. This exercise leads to an expansion of awareness, to a sort of flight of the soul into the infinite. It especially has the effect of allowing an individual to see things in a universal perspective, and to rid himself of his egoistical point of view. This is why this look from above leads to impartiality.
Q. One last theme recurs very frequently in your work, the theme of wonder before the splendor of existence and of the universe. Is this once again an attitude of the ancient philosophers that you consider to be still alive?
To work at seeing the world as though one were seeing it for the first time is to get rid of the conventional and routine vision we have of things, to rediscover a raw, naive vision of reality, to take note of the splendor of the world, which habitually escapes us. This is what Lucretius tries to do when he says that if the spectacle of the world were suddenly to appear unexpectedly to our eyes, the human imagination would be incapable of conceiving anything more wonderful. In the final analysis, the world is perhaps splendid, it is often atrocious, but it is above all enigmatic. Admiration can become astonishment, stupefaction, even terror. Lucretius, speaking about the vision of nature that Epicurus revealed to him, cries out: "At this spectacle, a sort of divine pleasure and a quiver of terror seize me." These are indeed the two components of our relation to the world, both divine pleasure and terror. This quiver of terror foreshadows the sacred quiver that humans feel, according to Goethe's Faust, before the enigmatic character of reality; a sacred quiver that is, he says, "the best part of humanity," because it is an intensification of the awareness that we have of the world. One does not produce this sacred quiver at will, but on the rare occasions that it takes hold of one, one must not attempt to get away from it, because one must have the courage to confront the inexpressible mystery of existence.
What Is Ethics
Q. You have noted, with regard to Marcus Aurelius, that spiritual exercises are also exercises of language. With regard to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, you speak of "writing exercises that are always renewed, always taken up again." What is the role of writing and language in the transformation of the self carried out by ethics?
There are two kinds of discourse. The Stoics said so, but it is a question of common sense. There is an external discourse, that is, for instance, the discourse that the philosopher utters or writes, and there is an internal discourse. In the perspective of ethics, even in the broad sensse, external discourse can be reduced to received formulations, at least for people like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. To find a very simple example of discourse, it is enough to remember an essential point for the Stoics: there is no good but moral good, and there is no evil but moral evil. Such formulations were taught in philosophy classes. Once they are received, however, they must be realized and applied, and this is where internal discourse comes in. The goal was to interiorize or to assimilate the teaching. To achieve this, it is not enough to remember that there is no good but moral good, and no evil ut moral evil, but this formulation must really become attractive, so that it induces one to say, for example, "I am suffering, but it is nothing as compared to moral evil; it is not an evil compared to moral evil." All kinds of factors, however, imaginative or affective, for instance, must intervene to enable this application. Cardinal Newman postulates an interesting distinction between notional assent and real assent. He had seen that all the notional assents in the world will never bring about a Christian's belief, unless he also gives a real assent, in the strong sense implied by the word realize. In the perspective of ethics, internal discourse, especially when it "realizes" or when it is "realized," is thus extremely important.
Selected Quotes On The Cosmic Or "Oceanic" Feeling
Sacred dread, that is the best part of humans. However dearly the world makes them pay for what they feel, it is in shock that they deeply feel prodigious reality.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
Let us suppose that we say yes to a single moment; we will thus have said yes not only to ourselves, but to all existence. For nothing is isolated, either in ourselves, or in things. And if happiness makes our souls vibrate and resonate even once, all the eternities will have been necessary to create the conditions of this single event, and all eternity has been approved, saved, justified, affirmed in this unique instant in which we have said yes.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal:
Most people do not live in life, but in a simulacrum, in a sort of algebra in which nothing exists and in which everything only signifies. I would like to profoundly experience the being of each thing...
One can never express a thing quite as it is.