Unflinching attention to the real self

A survey of the earliest Western philosophers

Pierre Hadot is determined to change our view of ancient philosophy, and by extension, of philosophy as a discipline.

In his new book, the professor emeritus at Collège de France writes, "The university tends to make the philosophy professor a civil servant whose job, to a large extent, consists in training other civil servants."

Instead of the civil servant, Hadot's model is the shoeless gadfly Socrates. The tension between the political and the philosophical life is one of the many themes that run through Hadot's "What Is Ancient Philosophy?"

As in earlier works, some of which have appeared in translation, Hadot proves himself a masterful guide to complex ideas. He also argues a sweeping thesis: Ancient philosophy is not merely a set of ideas but a way of life. In less than 350 pages, "What is Ancient Philosophy?" surveys thought from the early Greeks to the monks of the 6th century BC. Without obscuring differences, Hadot reveals a common spirit: unflinching attention to the self.

Starting with a portrait of Socrates and his ironic career of awkward questions and luminous silences, Hadot wanders purposefully through the Stoics, Epicurians, Cynics, and Neoplatonists, down to the monk Dorotheus, whose philosophical exercise reduces the egoistic will and encourages acceptance of things as they are. It is an invigorating tour among the monuments, some familiar, some not.

Unlike the theoretical and systematic thought of modern philosophy, ancient philosophy keeps returning to the image of Socrates: "Deprived of wisdom, beauty, and the good, he desires and loves wisdom, beauty, and the good."

For Hadot, "philosophy consists in the movement by which the individual transcends himself toward something which lies beyond him." One's desire for wisdom is in direct ratio to one's detachment from immediate satisfactions.

For Hadot, all the ancient schools "called for a kind of self-duplication in which the 'I' refuses to be conflated with its desires and appetites, takes up a distance from the object of its desires, and becomes aware of its power to become detached from them."

The reader gradually becomes a connoisseur of philosophical desire as Hadot distinguishes between this and that position. The book is also a wonderful collection of memorable passages, as when he explains Aristotle's "paradoxical and enigmatical view" that "the intellect is what is most essential in man, yet at the same time it is something divine that enters into him; what transcends man constitutes his true personality."

Explaining the ascent of the self in Plotinus, Hadot writes: "According to Plotinus' image, the Intellect in which we are submerged is like a wave, which, as it swells, raises us up toward a new vision."

This is heady stuff. It is pitched against modern university philosophy, which "always serves the imperatives of the overall organization of education, or, in the contemporary period, of scientific research."

Hadot has the scruples of his trade. Noteworthy is his coverage of the Hellenistic period, marked by the sack of Athens in 86 BC and successive fires in the libraries of Alexandria. "Our image of the history of philosophy," he warns, "has thus been irredeemably falsified by the contingencies of history." Yet he finds, contrary to academic cliché, the philosophical life of the period "extremely rich and diverse."

Elsewhere Hadot admits he is troubled by analogies between philosophical attitudes of antiquity and the Orient because they cannot be explained by historical influences. Nevertheless, he now recognizes them as pointing to models found in every civilization. He quotes Chuang-tzu: "All I knew of the Tao was what a vinegar-fly stuck inside a barrel can know of the universe. If the master had not lifted the lid, I would still be unaware of the universe in its integral grandeur."

While the complex relationship between Christianity and philosophy continues to engage his attention, Hadot concludes that "in antiquity it was the philosopher's choice of a way of life which conditioned and determined the fundamental tendencies of his philosophical discourse. I also think that this is ultimately true of all philosophy."

Like Hadot's hero Socrates, "What is Ancient Philosophy?" is a triumph of irony: a meticulous historical survey that ends by inspiring the reader to actually do philosophy. Handsomely designed, with useful bibliography and chronology, it's a compact text for the "never-ending quest."

Hadot's grateful reader may well feel like Chuang-tzu's vinegar fly. With the publication of "What is Ancient Philosophy?" the master has lifted the lid.

• Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.

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