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.