‘What was most essential for us could not be expressed’

In this remarkable excerpt from the opening pages of The Present Alone is Our Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, translated by Marc Djaballah, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009, 5-7, Pierre Hadot speaks about the boyhood mystical experiences that led him, many years later, to embrace philosophical inquiry.

“What was most essential for us,” Hadot says, “could not be expressed” (my italics). The ineffable has always presented philosophy with a challenge. On the one hand, philosophy wants to say what there is, yet this wanting to say what there is runs the risk of hubris: the temptation of reducing the unsayable or the otherwise to a linguistic regimen that distinguishes items and pins them down. On the other hand, philosophy’s standing wordlessly, humbly before the ineffable can, in due course, amount either to dumbness (blankly staring) or to horror (falling eternally within the abyss).

Perhaps a path still remains for philosophy to tread: the path of neither ‘effing’ the ineffable nor wordlessly ignoring it, a path, instead, that seeks to cradle the mystical experience by making it more explicit. Philosophy would thereby provide a conceptual shelter for what is most alive about what is most human.


Jeannie Carlier: Were you a pious child yourself?

Pierre Hadot: Yes, I had a faith that was completely naive but, I must say, without enthusiasm. For example, the day of my first Communion my grandfather said, “This is the happiest day of your life,” and I wasn’t happy at all that he had told me that, because I did not feel special. When, at the age of twelve, I went to Rome on a pilgrimage with my two brothers and the pope appeared on the sedia gesatoria [portable throne], my brother Henri began to scream, “Long live the pope!” and I was completely surprised by his enthusiasm. I thought it was interesting but that he did not need to put himself into such a state.

Things changed at the time of my adolescence. Indeed, for a long time I have had the impression of having been in the world only from the time of my adolescence. I will always regret having thrown away–out of Christian humility–the first notes written that were like the echo of my personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychological content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then. I do remember their framework. One happened on rue Ruinart, on the path I took home to my parents’ house every day from the Petit Seminaire. Night had fallen. The stars were shining in the immense sky. At this time one could still see them.

Another took place in a room of our house. In both cases I was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me in that world. In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am I? Why am I here? What is this world I am in? I experienced a sentiment of strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there. At the same time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars. This world was present to me, immensely present. Much later I would discover that this awareness of belonging to the Whole was what Romain Rolland called the “oceanic sentiment.”

I believe that I have been a philosopher since that time, if by philosophy one means this awareness of existence, of being-in-the-world. At that time I did not know how to formulate what I felt, but I experienced the need to write, and I remember very clearly that the first text I wrote was a sort of monologue in which Adam discovers his body and the world around him. From this moment on I have had the sentiment of being apart from others, for it did not seem possible that my friends or even my parents could imagine things of the kind. It was only much later that I realized that many people have analogous experiences, but do not speak of them.

I began to perceive the world in a new way. The sky, the clouds, the stars, the “evenings of the world,” as I would say to myself, fascinated me. With my back on the window ledge, I looked toward the sky at night with the impression of being plunged into the starry immensity. This experience dominated my entire life. I experienced it many times again–several times, for example, in front of Lac Majeur at Ascona; or at the sight of the chain of the Alps from the bank of Lake Geneva at Lausanne or from Salvan, in Valais. This experience has been the discovery for me of something overwhelming and fascinating that was absolutely not connected to Christian faith. Thus it played an important role in my inner development. Moreover, it considerably influenced my conception of philosophy. I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one’s perception of the world.

Since then, I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life–which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world–and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.” I did not dare tell anyone what I had experienced: I felt for the first time that there are things that cannot be said. I also remembered that when the priests spoke about God or about death, crushing or terrifying realities, they recited ready-made phrases that appeared conventional and contrived to me. What was most essential for us could not be expressed.