Letter writing as spiritual exercise

Aperitif the First: Yesterday around noon I was running in Central Park. It was unseasonably warm–mid-50s I want to say. I was rounding Lasker Rink and Pool when I caught something out of the corner of my eye and belatedly, unpoetically jumped out of the way. I looked down and began to laugh. It was a snowball.

In New York, there’s always something being thrown at you. Playfully or hostilely.

These amusements recollected in tranquility…  More anecdotal evidence in support of delayed decoding

Aperitif the Second: I had a keen recollection of a Mr. Yuk sticker stuck to the dial-up phone in the foyer of the old house I grew up in. It was faded and, in my memory, much less expressive than the picture that appears below.

The voice in my head would have it that “Mr. Yuk says ‘yuck!'” And then, finger dialing a friend, the child would have felt a qualia of harm and frisson.

Apertif the Last: Erich Auerbach writes, apropos Rabelais and Montaigne, “It is as much a style of life as a literary style.”

Entree: The following is the last section that happened to get cut, for reasons of length restrictions, from the final version of my paper, “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise,” Philosophical Practice 6.3 (2011), 856-68. The paper, I’m afraid, is located rather snugly behind a pay wall. If you’d like an offprint copy, you can drop me a note in my Contact form, and I’ll send it to you as a .pdf file. Enjoy.

A Provisional Conclusion: Notes on the Meaning of Spiritual Exercise

When Kate Mehuron, the Managing Editor of Philosophical Practice, sent me the comments from one of the referees, I began to see how much care would be required to uproot these letters from their original context and replant them in fresh intellectual soil. The referee, who was otherwise warm and receptive, asked me to discuss the generic relevance of epistolary exchange to philosophical practice, to disentangle the various threads in our conception of spiritual exercise, and to provide a “clearer, more developed supporting critical apparatus.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what to say or how to proceed. Whereas before there were but two of us who had been making intimate claims discernible in the face-to-face, now there were two heterogeneous contexts and new addresses making an entirely different set and order of demands that, though less pressing, were no less legitimate. Worse, it was not inconceivable that, in revising the paper according to the referee’s reasonable suggestions, I might be meeting the demands of one interlocutor at the expense of another: turning the exchange into a case study or casting the letters in the armature of a worked-out argument might entail losing the texture of the experience or turning my conversation partner into a stage prop. Nor did it seem to me any small matter to seek to define concepts such as “the spiritual” or “spiritual exercise” in hopes of “tying them down” (cf. Plato 1997: 97e-98b) where once they had roamed free. To define these terms—might this already presume that they have an essence, and would it not run the risk of ending an inquiry too soon and in the wrong place, as if theoretical insight were the long sought after desideratum? Then there was the question of self-deception. Contrary to my self-presentation in the letters as someone who professes to be humble, would I not now be purporting, petard-hoisting, to be wise? If the questions persisted in the form of questions, the reason could very well be that Anika and I were trying out answers and that those answers were our lives.

Here, in short, were multiple questions, multiple genres, and heterogeneous responsibilities, all of which demanded some form of higher reconciliation. Not unlike the first-order questions between Anika and me, the second-order questions posed by my new interlocutor would not go away. For weeks, I wasn’t sure that I could even formulate them intelligibly, much less respond to them coherently, and so I set the paper aside and sat painfully with the project, uncompleted and stuck halfway in.

It was not until I returned, as much by accident as by design, to the work of Pierre Hadot that I made any headway in this endeavor. Once I started re-reading his books in the spirit of the lectio divina, it was as if I had found a guide who was addressing his discourse to the very questions I had raised, as if his thoughts were letters written to me with my confusions in mind.

Much of Hadot’s work is devoted to showing how ancient philosophers adopted rigorous spiritual exercises to shape and transform themselves and their pupils with a view to realizing a particular way of life. What, for Hadot, began as a methodological problem concerning the most judicious way of interpreting ancient texts, especially those that had come down to us in the form of fragments and citations, resulted in insights about the close-knit relationship between the genres of philosophical inquiry and the practice of ancient philosophy.

In an interview with Arnold Davidson conducted in what was to be the final decade of his life, Hadot relates that spiritual exercises are “voluntary, personal practices meant to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transformation of the self” (Hadot 2009: 87). The “view from above,” an ascent from my first-person perspective to a cosmic perspective; premedatitio malorum, a meditation on the worse things that can befall me and, from there, an intense concentration on the freshness of the eternal present; epilegein, the daily repetition of a school’s maxims, precepts, and dicta; hypomnemata, personal notes that consist solely of “efficacious thoughts” intended to transform one’s “way of living” (Hadot 1998: 31); examination of conscience, an awareness of one’s moral defects and a commitment to moral progress (Hadot 202: 198-202): among Hellenistic philosophers, these and other forms of inner discourse were meant to strengthen the practitioner’s resolve and to bring him moral uplift.

And theoretical discourses were principally acts. The philosopher’s investigation of metaphysical doctrines or logical operations were always situated in a context, often, Hadot writes, presenting itself “in the form of an answer to a question, in connection with the school’s method of instruction” (Hadot 2009: 88), always also a mode of education—of bringing out the pupil, of leading him forth into the light of reason, of shepherding him from doxa to truth. The words they used, the lines they mumbled, the thoughts they followed all were aimed more at “forming” than at “informing” self and other through friendship, insight, and diligence.

I came back to the problems at hand with a new way of seeing. What, I wondered, are we asking for when we ask for conceptual clarity and intellectual scaffolding? Such requests often come only after we have lost our way in a dialogue or an essay. The request follows a sense of frustration and intends to point us in the right direction, to get us back on track. Maybe we’ve said something such as “I can’t quite follow you,” “I can’t see where we’re going,” or “Honestly, I think we’re stuck.” “What do you mean by ‘mood’?” is meant, for instance, to get us one step further in our inquiry concerning better moods, richer practices, and higher forms of life. It follows that we undertake conceptual analysis in situ not as an end in itself but in order to overcome our sense of unstuckness and to walk along again together.

A first clue to letting go of my disquietude might be to regard the questions of genre and conceptual clarity as being integrally related. I began to see that I could prize apart the genre of the letter from the genre of this note. The latter, which is addressed to fellow philosophical practitioners, to you, is a meditation, a second-order discourse on spiritual exercise, as well as an exhortation, an act whose purpose is recommend a certain form of philosophical practice. It no longer seemed contradictory or presumptuous to propose that the letter exchange was indispensible for bringing some provisional conceptual clarity regarding the ways Anika and I spoke about spiritual exercise nor to think that you, the one I’m addressing here and now, and I might get on better in this conversation once we can see more clearly our way about.

It seems to me, then, that “the spiritual” and “spiritual exercise” can be understood in three different, albeit related senses. For Anika and me, the “spiritual” is first a form of contemplation on what it means to live after Kant in our fragile secular age. As Kant showed in the First Critique, all rational proofs for God’s existence, the immortality of the soul, and the ex nihilo creation of the universe have failed, and yet from these results we have no grounds for concluding that a God can’t exist, that the self can’t perdure in some form or another, or that the universe can’t have a beginning “from without.” As a result, religious and metaphysical questions have persisted well into our time and have been raised with no less force or weight today because they can’t so easily be put to rest.

Spiritual exercise is also and at the same time a practical exercise in reasoning well in our daily lives. In my second letter, for example, I mean to instruct Anika in the movement from worse to better reasoning, from hasty conclusions to care and circumspection (eulabeia). As Ivan Illich would have it, there is beauty as well as justice in our capacity for and the cultivation of second thoughts (Illich 1989). Indeed, even events as insignificant as summer ants or as mundane as missed appointments can be occasions for training ourselves in good ways of thinking, can be invitations to reason well with just generosity.

My recent conversations with David E. Cooper have helped me to see the third sense of spiritual exercise as a “spiritual dispensation” (Cooper 2009: 1). In “Food and Spiritual Reflection: The Daoist Example,” he writes that the “discipline of eating” once consisted not just of food prohibitions, rituals, customs, and taboos but of a certain manner or ethos of partaking of food (Ibid: 1). It is also the manner that matters in the Japanese tea ceremony which, in the seventeenth century, “offered the only opportunity possible for the free communion of artistic spirits” (Okakura 2001: 44). The “spiritual dispensation” captures the graceful or careful or delicate way of drinking water, of putting food in our mouths, of sharing our only bowls with our guests and neighbors.

But why letters? There are a number of reasons, not the least being that they are rooted in lived experience and responsive to life needs. One does not choose to write them; one feels called to do so as if by necessity and in order to speak honestly. Then, too, in the space opened up by letter exchange, Anika and I are acting in the spirit of conviviality. The mood created by the genre, the style revealed in the tête-à-tête is intimate, meditative, lyrical, and ludic. Most important, letters are dated and provisional, suggesting that our lives are incomplete yet, for all that, not imperfect: incomplete since there is more living to be done, more conversing to be had, yet not imperfect since, through our investigations, we have arrived at some conclusions about ourselves and each other. We affix dates to letters, reminding ourselves of our time together but also of absence, transience, death.

Ultimately, I think the transplanted letters have been alchemized, as it were, into an exhortation. As such, they entreat you to be as experimental as possible in your philosophical practice, to be willing to try out what works and to let go of what doesn’t. They invite you to treat a particular topic—be it work life or family life, trust or selfhood, God or nature—not as an end in itself but as that which is intelligible only within the larger context of an overall way of life. They enjoin you to think seriously about all aspects of your philosophical practice—everything from the mundane to the divine, from the practical to the theoretical, from the food we eat to the loves we affirm. And they encourage you to think of humor as a shared experience that, at its best, can serve to draw us closer together.

One final note about spiritual exercise. As I write this, I am told that my computer may go at any moment. I am told that the video card on this model, which is now almost four years old, is and has always been defective. My computer could last for years, or it could stop working while I am in mid-sentence. Death kindly stopping by. In the morning, I found this unsettling; by evening, it seemed enlightening.

A.T., October 2011

Dessert: “In Rome, for the first time in my life,” writes Robert Hughes, “I felt surrounded by speaking water.”