Pierre Hadot’s Stoicism by Matthew Sharpe

Alongside Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius themselves, if there is one figure whose work underlies the rise of modern Stoicism, it would be the French philosopher, Pierre Hadot.

Hadot passed away in 2011.  He remained unaware of the extraordinary growth in interest in Stoicism that his own works on ancient philosophy were helping to inspire in the English-speaking world, aided by Michael Chase’s lucid translations.  But he would not have been altogether surprised by today’s “return to the porch”.

Hadot spent much of his adult life working as a philologist and historian of philosophy, producing recondite studies with long lists of references to works in multiple languages.  Yet, in interviews, Hadot would confess that he believed that Stoicism and Epicureanism could be meaningfully revived in the later modern world, by ordinary men and women.

Later in his life, Hadot also admitted to writing esoterically.  He wanted, he said, to issue in between the lines of his texts a quiet invitation to readers to take the ancient philosophies he was describing seriously—not simply as conceptual edifices, but as offering reasoned ways of life.

It is this protreptic aim to make people “love a few old truths”, in one of Hadot’s favourite quotes, that most distinguishes Hadot’s work from many other scholars’ who have returned to the study of Stoicism since 1970.  In fact, Hadot’s reading of the Stoics is highly distinctive, and reflects his own debts to several key thinkers who informed and inspired him.  Given Hadot’s influence today, it is perhaps worthwhile then to recount his influences, and to consider what Hadot took from each in turn.

Four Key Antecedents

First, surprisingly, comes the 20th century philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein.  In 1958-‘59, Hadot became one of the first French authors to write on Wittgenstein’s work.  He was initially attracted to the eccentric Austrian philosopher due to the mysticism that emerges at the end of Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which Hadot heard echoes of his own youthful mystical experiencesBut it was Hadot’s encounter with the later Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games”, in the Philosophical Investigations, that would prove decisive for Hadot’s approach to ancient philosophy. 

According to this idea, we can only understand the meaning of any utterance, sentence, speech, essay or book by understanding the context from which it emerged, and the particular intention it reflected in that context.  In a way which it is fair to say that Wittgenstein himself never dreamed of, Hadot saw that this insight could have profound effects on how we read ancient philosophical texts.

Often, as in a case like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, modern commentators have found ancient philosophical writings to be poorly composed, needlessly fragmentary, even self-contradictory.  But perhaps, Hadot wondered, this is because they did not understand the historical context and “language games” which these old books originally belonged to.

When we for instance see Marcus’ Meditations not as a failed draft of a systematic treatise, like that a modern philosopher might attempt, but as notes written to himself in which the philosopher-emperor tried to vividly recall his Stoic principles, the book lights up in a wholly new way.  We see that it is in no way a literary failure.  It is testimony to:

a person training himself to live and to think like a human being … the personal effort appears … in the repetitions, the multiple variations developed around the same theme and the stylistic effort as well, which always seeks for a striking, effective formula … when we read [the Meditations] we get the impression of encountering not the Stoic system, although Marcus constantly refers to it, but a man of good will, who does not hesitate to criticise and to examine himself, who constantly takes up again the task of exhorting and persuading himself, and of finding the words which will help him to live, and to live well … (Hadot, Inner Citadel, 312-313)

Probably the second greatest influence on Hadot’s reading of Stoicism is the work of his wife, Ilsetraut Hadot, including her extraordinary study: Seneca und die grieschisch-römische Tradition der Seelenleitung (Seneca and the Graeco-Roman Tradition of Spiritual Direction, first published in German in 1969, and 2014 in French).

At the same time as Pierre Hadot was beginning to apply his post-Wittgensteinian methodology to ancient texts, Ilsetraut Hadot was independently developing the argument that ancient philosophers were above all “spiritual directors”: counsellors, models and living guides for students, more concerned with forming the latter’s characters than in dazzling by their conceptual creations or rhetorical finery.

It is in this way that we must for instance read arguably Seneca’s most famous work, the Letters to Lucilius, Ilsetraut Hadot arguesIn one dimension, as the sequence of letters develops, Lucilius is given more and more of Stoic theory, in longer and longer instalments.  But in another dimension, related to Lucilius’ personal development, Seneca as spiritual director continually returns his pupil to the basic ethical precepts of Stoicism. Lucilius is enjoined to deeply internalise and enact these precepts in his life, even as his theoretical understanding of their physical and logical bases expands over the course of the text.

The third key influence on Hadot’s Stoicism is the German author, Paul Rabbow.  Rabbow’s 1954 study Seelenführung: Methodik der Exerzitien in der Antike already argued that, in the ancient philosophical schools, philosophers had prescribed “moral exercises” to their pupils: “procedures or determinate acts, intended to influence oneself, carried out with the express goal of achieving a moral effect … to be always repeated or … linked with other actions to form a methodical ensemble.”

Hadot’s conception of philosophical “spiritual exercises” is avowedly indebted to Rabbow’s conception of these “moral exercises”, like the premeditation of death or evils which we see recommended in Seneca, or the nightly examination of conscience which looks back to Pythagoras.

Without the conception of such exercises, Hadot argues, large swathes of the philosophical texts of the Epicureans and Stoics just do not make sense. For these texts are, in one of their dimensions, texts of exhortation (paranêsis) and spiritual guidance, in which different forms of spiritual exercise are described and recommended.

Fourthly, and again perhaps surprisingly, Hadot’s reading of Stoicism bears the marks of a decisive encounter with the great French scholar Victor Goldschmidt’s 1953 work, Le Système stoïcien et l’idée de temps (The Stoic System and the Idea of Time).

We see this debt not only in Hadot’s focus on Marcus (although this already marked out Goldschmidt’s engagement with Stoicism from many other scholarly treatments of the school).  Above all, this debt is apparent in Hadot’s stress upon the idea of attention to the present moment as a defining dimension of Stoic ethical or spiritual practice.  We do not find any such emphasis in pre-Hadotian anglophone commentators on Stoicism.

Goldschmidt had already noted how this stress upon being attentive to the present follows from the key Stoic distinction between what is and is not in our control.  “The present alone is our happiness,” as Hadot would quote Goethe: certainly, the present is the only temporal tense in which we can act and suffer.

Hadot also took from Goldschmidt however the “cosmic” dimension to such Stoic prosochē.  This is the sense that a person can only wholly “be in the moment” to the extent that s/he is able to understand everything that happens as necessary to the greater Whole of the natural order.  In this way, as Hadot will stress, the Stoic Sage discerns this Whole in every instant, in even the most incidental things:

For instance: when bread is baked, some parts of it develop cracks in their surface. Now, it is precisely these small openings which, although they seem somehow to have escaped the intentions which presided over the making of the bread, somehow please us and stimulate our appetite in a quite particular way … Ears of corn which bend toward the earth; the lion’s wrinkled brow; the foam trailing from the mouth of boars: these things, and many others like them, would be far from beautiful to look at, if we considered them only in themselves. And yet … if one possesses experience and a thorough knowledge of the workings of the universe, there will be scarcely a single one of those phenomena which accompany natural processes … which will not appear to him, under some aspect at least, as pleasing (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, III, 2).

Becoming Hadot

So, when and how did Hadot’s distinct vision of Stoicism, bringing together these diverse influences, take the form we find it expressed in The Inner Citadel, Hadot’s masterwork on Marcus Aurelius (of 1992, translated in 1998)?

Hadot begun lecturing on Marcus’ Stoicism at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1971, and his first article on “physics as a spiritual exercise” in the Meditations was published the following year.

Hadot focuses in this piece on those fragments in the Meditations wherein Marcus enjoins himself to look at external things dispassionately, not referring everything back to his own individual hopes and fears.  This exercise is closely related to the “view from above”, in which the philosopher-emperor strives to look down upon his worldly concerns and weigh them in the cosmic scale: as the minute, passing, repetitive and, in a word, “indifferent” affairs that they are, relative to the Stoic perspective for which virtue is the only good.

It is however in a 1978 piece on Epictetus that Hadot’s central insight into understanding Roman Stoicism as a way of life emerges.  As the piece’s title reflects (“Une clé des Pensées de Marc Aurèle: les trois topoi philosophiques selon Épictète”), Hadot contends here that we can discern a “key” to understanding Marcus’ Meditations in Epictetus’ Discourses. 

This key will be known to many readers.  It begins from the idea that there are three exercise topoi or disciplines “in which the man who is going to be good and excellent must first have been trained” (Epictetus, Discourses, III, 2): those of judgment or belief, action, and desire.

Adolf Bonhoeffer had already seen, in the late 19th century, how Epictetus recurs to these three disciplines throughout his Discourses. However, Bonhoeffer had not aligned these three practical disciplines with the three parts of Stoic philosophical discourse: those of logic, ethics, and physics.  The alignment of Stoic logic with the discipline of judgment, Stoic ethics with the discipline of action, and the discipline of desire with Stoic physics is original in Hadot’s post-1978 work.

Hadot will from here on begin to talk of a “lived” or “practiced logic”, which consists in monitoring one’s inner thoughts for the fallacies and distortions engendered by our passions; a “lived ethics”, which concerns how we relate to others, including how we for instance should respond to perceived or real insults (it’s not our problem, unless the criticism is true, but then we should change); and, most singularly, a “lived physics”.  This discipline consists in cultivating the ability to accept whatever happens concerning externals like power, fame, and money as necessary within the greater Whole, and to always understand the limits of what we can control (our thoughts, desires, and impulses).

With this alignment of the three Epictetan exercise-disciplines with the three parts of Stoic theory, Hadot forged that link between Stoic theoretical discourse and the practice of spiritual exercises which is most distinctive to his reading of Stoicism.

A person cannot be a Stoic, for Hadot, without developing theoretical understandings of the physical and logical bases of the Stoic way of life.  Otherwise, s/he will be more like a Cynic or Aristo of Chios, who broke from the Stoic school, thinking ethics alone sufficient.

Yet a person cannot be a philosopher full stop, if s/he only develops her theoretical understandings, perhaps writing books or papers.  Otherwise, s/he will remain more like a sophist or scholar of Stoicism, than a Stoic philosopher.

Cue the modern Stoic movement, whose reach now extends far beyond the walls of academia, into that agora of everyday life that the steps of the original Painted Porch opened onto.  To end figuratively, today we might well imagine a portrait of Pierre Hadot, alongside those of the great Hellenistics, smiling gently down from the ornamental friezes.

Matthew Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University in Australia.  He is presently working on a coauthored work on philosophy as a way of life throughout Western history, and a series of translations of Pierre Hadot’s essays, with Federico Testa (both texts are due to appear with Bloomsbury in 2019).

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

2 thoughts on “Pierre Hadot’s Stoicism by Matthew Sharpe”

  1. This is a very necessary and welcome article praising the great Pierre Hadot. I fount it very insightful and easy to read. Thanks to the author for his work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.