I have recently read both Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and Sloterdijk’s The Art of Philosophy. Both books place at their centers an ideal of the philosopher as one who is able to lift themselves from their particular circumstances and adopt a perspective from eternity, blankly reflecting how things are and perhaps seeing in all things some variety of sublime necessity. For Hadot, this ideal was the point of philosophy in ancient times: philosophy was a practice, or set of spiritual exercises, aimed at training the initiate into being a sage. For Sloterdijk, this ideal has been “murdered” over the last two centuries, and is no longer defensible as an ideal. The question for him is what comes next.
Hadot insists that the “spiritual exercises” of the ancients do not necessarily imply any spiritual stance, but it is hard for me to believe this. The point of training for this sort of philosophical enlightenment is to attain a perspective from a supernatural place: a place where life makes no demands of you, and where you have no name or history. If it is at all possible to attain this perspective, it is hard to see why it should be privileged. If by undergoing Stoic or Epicurean brainwashing, I am able to dissociate myself from life as we all know it, why should the resulting perspective be regarded as wiser, juster, or better? The only answer I can imagine involves a supernatural defense: that being out of this world is better than being in it, and garden-variety mortality is inferior to eternal changelessness. Maybe it is true merely that adopting this perspective ends up making the initiate happier, or more tranquil, or at least not thoroughly disappointed. But in that case, the training does not carry with it any more philosophical validity than a prescription for Prozac.
Having to reach this conclusion about the beautiful vision Hadot celebrates is, for me, the most disappointing consequence of my own flat-footed naturalism. Once I have rid my house of God and other invisible friends, I would still like to believe that some human experiences are more profound, more beautiful, and deeper than others. But my naturalism does not allow this. I remember being on a long plane ride, listening to Beethoven’s string quartets from first to last, and coming to the third movement of his A minor quartet (#15, op. 132). This is a piece LvB wrote in gratitude for surviving an illness; it is a prayer, lifted to the sky, in gratitude for being alive. Tears were streaming down my face, and I thought then that if I do not try to re-capture this gratitude in some sort of philosophical writing, then all that I would ever do would be entirely in vain. The joy and gratitude I felt was not remotely like the pleasure in hearing a pretty song; it was heartfelt, profound, transformative, and (yes) spiritual. But, according to my flat-footed naturalism, I can only say that this work of LvB – together with my cultural background and philosophical inclinations, etc, etc – caused in me some particular psychological state that is in itself nothing special; being in that state is not more closely aligned with The Way Things Are (or Should Be), for there is no such Way. Not really. It is a state I value being in, for psychological and cultural reasons, but this does not make it a revelation of anything, let alone anything that is holy or transcendent. If someone managed to develop a drug that caused such a state – “Profounderal” – then being in that state because of the drug would not be inherently less valuable than being in that state through more “legitimate” means (hearing Beethoven, losing one’s gaze among Van Gogh’s sunflowers, meditating in a zen garden, etc).
Similarly, Hadot relates the philosophical ecstasy of the view from above with precision and sympathy. His collection of essays is really just an historical meditation on an exhortation by his contemporary, Georges Friedmann:
Take flight each day! At least for a moment, however brief, as long as it is intense. Every day a “spiritual exercise,” alone or in the company of a man who wishes to better himself …. Leave ordinary time behind. Make an effort to rid yourself of your own passions …. Become eternal by surpassing yourself.
And there is no doubt that, for those who succeed in surpassing themselves, all else dwindles in significance – even philosophical and historical commentaries on the sages of the past. Hadot quotes Epictetus’s smack-down of scholars:
“Come and listen to my commentaries … I will explain Chrysippus to you like no one else can, and I’ll provide a complete analysis of his entire text … If necessary, I can even add the views of Antipater and Archedemos” … So it’s for this, is it, that young men are to leave their fatherlands and their own parents: to come and listen to you explain words? Trifling little words?
It is true: when one dwells in the Deep, it is impossible not to feel with certainty that most of what we do is trifling. But it’s an optical illusion. Even what we do down in the Deep is trifling. Nothing is inherently more significant than anything else – that’s the true meaning of naturalism. We feel some things to be more significant – but that feeling can be flat-footed away through the explanations of psychology so that, if we pay heed to those explanations, we realize the deep divide between Appearance and Reality. Significance dwells entirely on the side of Appearance.
This is the lesson we should have learned by now, if Sloterdijk is right. The ideal of the ideal observer – the one who dwells namelessly in eternal epoché, or suspended life – has been shown to be a hollow idol. There have been ten assassins of this ideal, all falling upon the ideal like dagger-wielding Roman senators falling upon Caesar. The assassins range from Nietzsche and Freud to Antonio Damasio, from Darwin and Marx to Judith Butler. What they have taught us is that there never is a view of No One from No Place. Every view comes from someone somewhere, in a class with psychological fixations and social agendas and the blinders of an age. When Hadot and Friedmann extolled the virtues of eternal escape, one suspects they were finding a way to carve out a safe haven for spiritual significance during the student revolts of the late 60s and 70s, as well as during the waves of consumerism and anti-intellectualism that followed. If the ancient sages were right, then it was still possible to live a superior life even when left behind by those on the move. In this, they were doing no more than repeating the defensive maneuvers of the ancients they esteemed.
As usual, it is not clear where this leaves us, in Sloterdijk’s view. He gives the last word to Fernando Pessoa, whose Kafka-like insights issue from dozens of pseudonyms. Perhaps the Hegelian dream of providing “our time in concepts” is irretrievable, and perhaps we are left only with the occasional piercing insight coming from someone we are pretending to be.
Many thanks again for your readings of Sloterdijk. He is certainly among the most interesting and impudent philosophers today, always stimulating and refreshingly anti-PC. I read your booklet on his spheres trilogy on the plane from Copenhagen to China recently and wondered whether his theories would apply to an Asian mindset and concluded that they really don’t. Gish Jen’s recent book “The Girl at the Baggage Claim. Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” has fresh ideas on the definitions of self in the West: like an avocado with a hard center and the flexi-self of the East. Anyway, this is just to thank you again for your lucid and concise writing. A post from you is an intellectual gift. Keep them coming.
What an interesting question about the relevance of PS for other cultures! I shall look into Gish Jen’s book. Thank you for the kind words.
I read a theory about psychedelics once that I found interesting. That the use of psychedelics temporarily causes the brain to fire in new ways that it doesn’t ever normal do. This uniqueness of experience can’t be achieved in sobriety because your brain will no longer operate as it once did under the influence of the psychedelic. You can’t even remember the state fully or speak of it completely because you frankly can’t relive it. After reading some people’s experience in their use, I have no doubt some might be able to label it as “profounderal”.
In a similar way I’ve often been curious if perhaps we give too much power to certain state of emotions in their power to determine what is or what isn’t reality. What state of emotion is best to perform metaphysics? If I give myself to an understanding of eternity in the midst of Beethoven’s bliss, can I understand eternity in the same way when I am in horrendous boredom? Maybe the mystic caught up in rapture of love sees something different than the psychologist who declares impartially that all feelings are equal in their eternal significance from an entirely different emotionally state?
I don’t know. Maybe the origin of the belief of naturalism had some beginning in an emotion that promoted such a belief, where likewise a view of eternity only came from a state of emotion that could support it.
Interesting post. I’d like to read the book.
“Maybe the origin of the belief of naturalism had some beginning in an emotion that promoted such a belief, where likewise a view of eternity only came from a state of emotion that could support it” – oh, great, go ahead and out-Nietzsche me!!!
On the Road Home
It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You . . . You said
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,
Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.
It was when I said,
“Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye”;
It was when you said,
“The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth”;
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.
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Ah, poets – cluttering up truth with actual experiences.
There once was a man from Rangoon
Whose farts could be heard on the moon.
When least you’d expect ’em
They’d burst from his rectum
With the force of a raging typhoon.
= equally profound?
Seems less profound, doesn’t it? But why? and so what?
Well, if everything is equally profound, why don’t we just say that everything is profound? Does it necessitate that nothing is profound?
I think I’m only saying that the assessment of something as profound doesn’t itself give us any reason for believing it reaches a deeper level of truth. Of course, it feels like it does; but I can’t see there’s space in flat-footed naturalism for making sense of “deeper levels of truth”.
Some (e.g. Thomas Nagel) might argue that, since FFN entails these consequences, it must be false. Does that argument — or even the form of that argument — have any traction for you?
It’s tempting. But it forces me to ask myself which I have more confidence in: my inner intuitions of profundity, or the explanatory success of FFN? And I go with FFN, perhaps because of the Party-Pooper Principle. https://huenemanniac.com/2011/03/21/the-party-pooper-principle/
I read Jim Holt who is obsessed (in an interesting way) with why there is something rather than nothing. I looked through some Sloterdijk at our local library, and just read a New Yorker spiel on him. He is certainly interesting. But his writing, in a sense is poetic. Hence Wallace Stevens and in my mind Heidegger, Nietzsche and other philosophers seem inherently as philosophic as they are ‘literary’. But on deeper meaning, as a teenager I read ‘Texts and Pretexts’ by Huxley. There is nothing re drugs in there but he touches on magic (it is an anthology of poetry mainly), and mysticism, love, each chapter having a title. He also is in doubt re whether listening to Bach means say that we are ‘hearing God’ (as some think they are although they listen more to the words which I don’t not knowing German which I like as that I feel distracts). I feel that we are always operating at different “logic space levels” where we apply higher or lower levels of astringency of test (for knowledge which is not Steven’s truth). The Stevens poem quoted is good. My own conclusion is that I simply don’t know. (I don’t think we can go either with a religious or mystical view or way or with any certainty towards a Dawkinisian religion of Atheism. But this is an interesting post and these philosophers you read do look interesting.
I think you’re right that the writing is poetic. And at least sometimes that is just what we need!
for a sunnier left-coast view see: