Skholiast recently pointed to a sad event that I’d been unaware of until he mentioned it: the death of Pierre Hadot. Skholiast’s involvement with Hadot, from the look of things, is deeper than mine – I’ve read some of his work and referred to him a couple of times on the blog, but I don’t think that he has (yet) had a deep effect on my thinking. Still, I find myself very much in sympathy with Hadot’s approach, and I think his loss is a real one, so I’d like to offer a few musings in memoriam.
The idea that I always associate with Hadot is encapsulated in the translated English title of one of his major works: philosophy as a way of life. Hadot, a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, treats this philosophy as a way of life, a set of “spiritual practices,” and in so doing he helps remind us of the distance between ancient and modern philosophy. And I don’t just mean that he gives us yet another reason to critique contemporary philosophy departments, which (whether analytic or continental) typically seem far from any ancient ideal of the love of wisdom. I mean also that he reminds us why philosophy has so little place in contemporary Western culture.
I’ve noticed that a fairly large number of my posts have to do with “religion and science,” and the supposed relation between them. This wasn’t my original intent, since I don’t care much for the idea of “religion” in the first place, as most of those posts attest; and the most animated question in “religion and science” debates – the relation between evolution and Hebrew Bible accounts of creation – is of relatively little interest to me, since I’ve never bought any of those accounts to begin with. But I’ve been realizing something about most people today, even well educated people who might be expected to know some philosophy, and not only in the Western world. When moderns look for the things that Greek and Roman philosophy was supposed to provide – answers to big questions about the purpose of our lives, our proper view of the world and our place in it, ways of dealing with death – they don’t turn to philosophy. They turn to “religion” – Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, various “Hindu” traditions – and they turn to natural science, above all to psychology. It is in the realms of religion and science, that is to say, that philosophy is found today, especially any sense of philosophy as a way of life. Scientists often claim their work to be value-free, but especially for those who are not part of a “religious” community, much of the guidance we receive in life comes from scientific evidence and the people charged to apply it to our daily lives. The title we use for those people – “doctor” – originally referred to learned Christian religious. It is doctors who warn us that our behaviours are self-destructive, that we need to change our views and habits and ways of life, and that we fail to do so at our own peril – and this advice often involves codes of behaviour toward food that rival Leviticus in their complexity.
But philosophy – that is what we don’t have. Hadot reminds us that the ancients did. It’s not just that their academic work was not so carved up into disciplines, so that the inquiries now called “science” would have been known as “philosophy” (though of course it was that). The Stoic practice of prosoche, attention to one’s soul, bears a startling resemblance to Buddhist mindfulness – conducted in the name of philosophy. When the Greek explorer Megasthenes explained ancient Indian society to his fellow Greeks , the name he gave to the brahmins and to the samana wandering monks – the Buddhists, Jains and their ilk – was “philosophers.” He recognized what the Greeks called philosophy in what they were doing. It is in the Christian (and Islamic?) Middle Ages, Hadot notes, that philosophy loses this status, becoming “the handmaid of theology.” It is not a huge step from there to the analytic philosophy of today, which (I think it would be hard to deny) sees itself largely as “the handmaid of science,” answering only those questions left over from the empirical inquiries of natural science.
Now the terms “religion” and “science” seem unlikely to go away any time soon. We are probably stuck with them. Perhaps more importantly, the realms of knowledge and practice that the terms cover – from Kierkegaard to prayer, from Einstein to psychotherapy – are of inestimable value to human life. As much as I might wish for a world where these terms went away (at least the “religion” term), I would find it devastating if the phenomena were to disappear. So for better and for worse, “religion” and “science” are here to stay. So while I have always identified the present venue as a blog about philosophy, it necessarily also becomes a blog about religion and science.
What then happens to “philosophy”? Can it ever again become the way of life that Hadot tells us of? Not in the terms of the ancient world. If one were to start a monastic garden of philosophers the way that Epicurus did – even if one were explicitly to call it Epicurean – most people would invariably call it a religion (or worse, a cult). At the same time, I think philosophy takes on a crucial role in the world of “religion” and “science,” as a middle ground between the two. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, full of bile toward “religion,” nevertheless affirm the value of (at least analytic) philosophy; and philosophy, even today’s academic philosophy, has tools to examine even conservative forms of “religion” critically on their own terms, terms that science does not have. Even to the fundamentalist who denies philosophy as heretical, one may still ask the fundamental questions: why is scripture inerrant? Why must faith take precedence over knowledge? The answers to these questions can be interrogated by philosophy, but not by experimental science. One might even say that the problem with Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA is that, in separating the realms of science and religion, it ignores the third realm that unites them, namely philosophy.
This all is at the theoretical level. But it matters at the level of practice as well. One can always try to live one’s life entirely within the guidance specified by a particular tradition of inquiry, including the tradition of natural science. But once one tries to be both at once – to be both “religious” and “scientific,” or even to inhabit more than one “religion” – then one needs philosophy to settle their differences. One can no longer take philosophy by itself as a way of life. But philosophy may yet turn out to be an inescapable part of the best way of life today.