According to the commonly accepted story about the early spread of Christianity, the followers of Jesus, taking their cues from Judaism and the Master’s personal teachings, converted the ancient Greeks, Romans, and other peoples from a superstitious polytheism—usually joined with a more or less open licentiousness—to a belief in the one true God and a more fully moral life. That is certainly correct, so far as it goes. But there is a lot more to the story.
Pious pagans existed, of course, but they usually belonged to some philosophical rather than religious sect. Russell Crowe as Maximus in Gladiator, for instance, was a rarity in real life and would have owed a lot to his friendship with the great philosopher/emperor Marcus Aurelius. Ancient polytheism was not a full-service religion like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It had religious figures but no authoritative interpreters. Adherents developed no real theology or moral code, perhaps because the gods themselves misbehaved so often in the myths. The gods might punish human slights and reward piety, but then again they might not, since they had little interest in lowly human affairs. The man seeking wisdom paid the gods their due, but was mostly on his own in developing the virtues of a happy life.
The most serious and substantial competitor to Christianity around the time of its birth, then, was philosophy, but not philosophy as it is usually presented in the histories. Ancient philosophy, as its name attests, was first of all a love of wisdom—not wisdom per se, since the philosophers were quite aware of their failure to meet that high standard. Socrates started the trend: When the oracle at Delphi told him there was no man wiser than he, Socrates realized that his only claim to wisdom was that he knew he knew nothing. That pagan precursor to humility was itself the beginning of a kind of wisdom.
Yet Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle inspired schools that, particularly after the collapse of Athenian democracy and the rise of the Macedonian and Roman empires, at times resembled nothing so much as religious orders. The main postclassical philosophies—Stoicism, Skepticism, Neoplatonism, and Epicureanism—each developed a body of teaching and the kind of communities in which people could be formed to lives of wisdom. Pierre Hadot, the distinguished French scholar, now emeritus at the College de France, has demonstrated in a series of studies that these schools even had spiritual exercises, both physical and mental, intended to help members practice the truths they believed. His most recent book, What Is Ancient Philosophy? (Harvard, 2002), looks back to these philosophers for an alternative to the way philosophy is done in most universities today.
What is that alternative way? Instead of merely studying a series of intellectual systems (i.e., Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, and some 20th-century figures such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger), the great ancients practiced philosophy as the choice of a way of life. The usual university courses, Hadot says, limit themselves to one important dimension of philosophy; for their purposes, philosophy is rational discourse. They offer internally consistent and comprehensive accounts of the world, the human person, human society, causation, knowledge, and other traditional themes. The ancients had great skill in these areas as well. But modern, professionalized philosophy stops far short of the reason philosophy arose in the first place.
Hadot reminds us that the choice of a way of life and a philosopher’s systematic reflections are related to one another. Someone who chooses, say, Stoicism’s virtuous indifference to the incessant change, loss, and suffering of every human life will usually attend to different things and think different thoughts than someone who chooses to be a professional philosopher in the modern mode. Of course, there were also plenty of mercenary teachers and merely clever minds in the ancient world, and Hadot does not claim that the modern professional philosopher is only pursuing a career. But he wants to push us further; he wants philosophy once again to be something more than an academic subject.
We have many indications of the spiritual exercises the ancients performed. Epicureans, for instance, seem to have practiced meditation on four central truths:
The gods are not to be feared
Death is not to be dreaded
What is good is easy to acquire
What is bad is easy to bear.
Such truths were a common patrimony of the various schools and were intended to lead to peace of soul. The Epicureans went on, despite their belief that the gods did not bother about lowly humans, to practice a kind of confession, fraternal correction within the community, and even certain quasi-sacramental rites. Other schools actually held something like retreats. All these were intended to bring home the theoretical truths in ways that would inform the philosophers’ thoughts and emotions.
Hadot’s exposition of the various practices of the philosophical schools is a welcome supplement to the standard histories of philosophy. Yet there is a certain thinness in his presentation, perhaps because of his unwillingness to state too openly what his views might entail. These issues have been fleshed out better by Martha Nussbaum in The Therapy of Desire (though with some special pleading for current liberal notions) and even in fictional accounts such as Stephen Pressfleld’s Gates of Fire (where Spartan methods of disciplining the soul to control fear in battle come alive).
Yet Hadot has helped unearth a powerful current too often ignored. The gap between philosophy as discourse and philosophy as the choice of a way of life began to widen in the Middle Ages, particularly at the new medieval universities. Unfortunately, Hadot is not very probing on the reasons for this shift. The distinction between philosophy and theology, and the separation of both from spiritual practice brought both gains and losses. Initially, the independent pursuit of systematic philosophical and theological knowledge produced a great harvest in the Middle Ages. But when these activities began to overshadow the larger spiritual practices that were part of the daily life of Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus, they gradually turned into what we typically see today: philosophies that offer rational obstacles to the life of wisdom.
Beyond detachment from worldly things and a calm view from above the tempests of the world, Hadot does not have much to say about what a philosophical life in the ancient sense might mean. But he has done no small thing in showing that a careful reading of the ancients opens up some lost—and much needed—perspectives.