‘Philosophy is not suited to the classroom’: An essay on ascesis

Today I begin with a remarkable meditation from Pierre Hadot on philosophical life. I then discuss the supreme value of ascesis: the style of reasoning that is aimed less at informing and more at forming and re-forming the self.

This symbol, [ ], denotes my own additions. This symbol, […], denotes my editorial decision to skip over a stretch and resume further on.

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It has always been emphasized that the real philosopher is not the one who speaks but the one who acts…. Basically, one can speak of philosophy as an ellipsis that has two poles–a pole of discourse and a pole of action, outer but also inner–for philosophy, in opposition to philosophical discourse, is also an effort to put oneself into certain inner dispositions.

In antiquity, these two poles appear clearly in two different social phenomena: philosophical discourse corresponds to the teaching dispensed in the school [i.e., in relation to the philosophical life], and the philosophical life corresponds to the community of institutional life that reunites master and disciple and implies a certain genre of life–a spiritual direction, examinations of conscience, exercises of meditation–and it also corresponds to the right way to live as a citizen of one’s city. On the one hand, as I have said, philosophy as life is inspired by a discourse of philosophical teaching; for example, one sees Marcus Aurelius write his Pensees [Meditations] in order to revive in himself philosophical discourse that always ends up [i.e., has a tendency to end up] being abstract. That is, by habit, distractions, and the concerns of life, philosophical discourse quickly becomes purely theoretical and no longer has the force necessary to motivate the individual to live his or her philosophy. On the other hand, pedagogical discourse in antiquity is rarely purely theoretical: it often takes the form of an exercise. There is the perfect example of Socratic dialogue, but there is also, even in teaching that is not a dialogue, a rhetorical effort to influence the minds of the disciples. The two poles of philosophy are indispensable, but it is important to distinguish them.

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[Of the modern world,] Thoreau will say, “We have philosophy professors [purveyors of theoretical discourse alone], but no philosophers [exemplars of philosophical life].” As for Schopenhauer, he wrote a pamphlet called Against Academic Philosophy. To get back to the twentieth century, and to give a single example, I have never forgotten my amazement upon reading in Charles Peguy the phrase “La philosophie ne va pas en classe de philosophie” [Philosophy is not suited to the classroom].”

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By recognizing, as I am proposing, two poles of philosophy, there would be a place once again in our contemporary world for philosophers in the etymological sense of the word, that is, seekers of wisdom who certainly would not renew philosophical discourse but would search not for happiness–it seems that that is no longer in style–but for a life that is more conscious, more rational, more open to others and the immensity of the world.

–Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone Is Our Happiness

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In my discussion of the importance of “holding good converse with oneself,” I concluded that speaking properly to oneself may be identical with taking proper care of oneself. In this post, I want to examine how ascesis–discourse whose chief point and purpose is self-transformation–fits into philosophical life. The post is written in the genre of an inquiry, with the question leading to an answer which leads, in turn, to another question.

What does it mean to reason well with respect to our lives?

Good reasoning is structured according to an inquiry that, by means of self-examination, arrives at a “tied-down” conclusion.

Let’s consider the concept of an inquiry first.

In an inquiry, I put myself to the question, where this “putting myself to the question” must be intelligible and well-formulated. There is an art to formulating the right question in connection with my life. Most questions are ill-suited for inquiry.

Some questions such as “What is the Meaning of Life?” are either unintelligible or unanswerable. It is not clear what reply could possibly be regarded as an answer to such a query. Here, as one of my friends likes to point out, we have a problem of scale.

Some questions are not questions proper but rather accusations. For instance, “What the fuck were you thinking? Huh? Answer me.”

Some questions are not questions but forms of despair. For instance, “What the hell am I doing here? Why don’t I belong anywhere?”

Some questions are inappropriate or in poor taste. At a funeral, someone who asks another, “Is the deceased really wearing a green dress?,” is not asking a question open to inquiry. Figuratively speaking, this person should be slapped.

In sum, a good question that I put to myself must be well-formulated, gently worded, genuine, and appropriate.

Furthermore, an inquiry must be ‘ownmost.’ That is, any inquiry that matters ownmost (hereafter simply: inquiry) must arise from a life need. The question must be ‘fraught’ for me or it must be something that I am ‘alive to.’ The only inquiry I have in mind as counting as an inquiry that matters ownmost is of the following form or is some softer variant thereof: ‘if life is brought into question.’

Hence, for an inquiry to count as an inquiry, a question must be of the right kind and what is at stake must be ‘ownmost.’ Just insofar as the latter, not to mention the former, is not possible within our educational establishment, philosophy may not be suited to the classroom.

And being “tied down”?

I said that a conclusion must be “tied down.” I mean that it must be livable, that it mustn’t “blow away,” and that it mustn’t be reversed in the next breath or 10 breaths later. If I have arrived at this conclusion by a process of reasoning, I cannot return to whims, caprices, wishes, or sillinesses. I do not believe that most people grasp this sense of “not going back” to a previous form of understanding. I have found this troubling, puzzling and troubling.

If a conclusion cannot be reversed 10 breaths later, it does not follow that a “tied-down” conclusion is final and forever. It may be provisional but at the same time must be life-guiding. I am living according to my understanding so long as this understanding suits.

What is the nature of ascesis?

Spiritual exercise (hereafter: ascesis) is reasoning that is, in and through its course, self-transformative: I am not exactly the same person afterward that I was beforehand. I feel as if I have changed and as if I have gotten somewhere; feel both at once.

Ascesis seems to bring me along, carry me forward, move me away from some previous understanding or misconception and into a better understanding of myself in relation to the world.

Additionally, ascesis is a reminder of what road has already been taken. After I have undertaken a successful inquiry with myself, I now have a “formula” that I “hold to” thereafter. I need not think about or in terms of the conception of, say, the career (see below) because this path is no longer available to me.

It cannot be stated too often that ascesis is, and cannot be otherwise than, lived out. As Hadot implies, it is a common modern misconception to believe that thinking is a theoretical activity, living a practical activity. This is true insofar as this is how our educational system has taught thinking and living, yet it is false insofar as it contravenes philosophical life. Ascesis is not an activity divorced from living; thinking is living, actuated in and as living.

Ascesis is lived daily. Ascesis is philosophical life.

I doubt most people will ever exercise ascesis. They will live and die in a muddle. I know our educational institutions do not teach ascesis or know how to teach it, nor would I be inclined to say that educators would be practitioners of it in their own lives. (Physicists, no less than accountants, are in muddles about living.) This is all the more pity, since philosophy–let us say, for the moment: the capacity for holding good and rigorous converse with oneself–is one of the greatest gifts available to us in this humble, glorious life. By comparison, most of what is generally accorded supreme value is not worth a fig. All the more pity for the rarity of what is most precious.

What kinds of activities would not count as forms of ascesis

Most of what goes for ‘thinking’ in our culture is not anything like. There is nothing more exhausting than having a conversation with someone who conceives of thinking in terms of:

  • venting or complaining;
  • vacillating back and forth;
  • wishing or moping;
  • going round and round.

If someone insists on venting, then the proper question is: “What could it possibly mean to get something out, out of you, especially when we are only ever beings-in-the-world? What magical thinking is this ‘exorcism’ anyway?” Our thoughts do not ‘leave us,’ because they are always ‘with us’ and, being with us, they have nowhere else to go. Besides, venting is what children do when they have not learned how to think properly about themselves or others. If an adult vents too often, then he is no friend of mine. He is also not an adult.

Vacillating back an forth is not reasoning, for nothing is reasoned through or “tied down.” Philosophers mull over and consider; we do not vacillate.

Wishing is a fool’s game. It is also self-indulgent inasmuch as it supposes that the world, having been ‘unfair to me’ so far, ‘owes me something’ for having been so. Nonsense. “I wish I weren’t like this.” That is a very silly thing to say. “I wish I weren’t in this relationship.” Wouldn’t you be better off learning to put yourself to the question? Or are you afraid of what you might learn about yourself?

Finally, going round in circles (e.g., becoming overly preoccupied with something, being obsessed, worrying) is not thinking properly. I’m not even sure going round qualifies as thinking, as I understand this graceful activity. Going in circles implies that the one who goes on this way has not learned how to examine what ails him and is only self-indulgent. “This should not have happened to me. Why did this person do this to me? Why doesn’t he love me?” Those are not questions, in truth. They are only the superficial balms of silliness and thus are not really balms at all. There is a sense in which this person cannot be talked with.

What might a good inquiry look like? 

It is difficult to describe the nature of a good inquiry outside of the practice of philosophy. (Discourse about inquiry–i.e., meta-inquiry–is not inquiry proper.) Suffice it to say, most people’s talk would not count as good inquiry, let alone inquiry, and I am inclined to think that few are so capable. To make the implicit nature of inquiry somewhat more explicit, though, let me offer a fairly rudimentary example.

One conversation partner has a very scientific cast of mind. It is marvelous. She has the capacity to ask a question, to see it as the question to ask, here and now, and to examine the source of mystery or the wellspring of joy.

With her, I reason almost exclusively in terms of venturing hypotheses. There is fitness (pun intended: keep reading) in this hypothesis-venturing. In one respect, we must be strong enough to stay with the question. (Most people lack the attention and easily trail off or turn away. They are easily distracted.) In another respect, we are seeking a ‘fitting’ explanation, one that properly fits the experiences she has had. Rigorously, we essay many hypotheses during a 2 hour conversation, then watch as they go awry, one after another. The correct answer comes after some considerable pauses, examination, re-evaluations, and a final sense of harmony.

It is of the first importance to understand that the point we reach is thereby “tied down,” fundamentally changing how she understands herself in the world. The following conversation may begin “just here.” If we go back, it is only to remind ourselves of a path that has ended (fallen cherry blossoms) or to honor what we love fondly (buttery grass, as one conversation partner put it).

What might be an example of ascesis

This past summer, I wrote an essay whose conclusion was that the conception of the career is going out of existence. The claim was not that this or that career was going away but that the career as an organizing conception of human life in modernity was coming to an end. I admitted that this was a speculative thesis, though I find it no less compelling now than I did then.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about the frequency of career change. I am not speaking of “stalling” careers or “slower” career progression. And I am excluding from my analysis the few remaining professions such as law and medicine, professions where the concept still applies.

If, in general, the conception of the career is failing to track lived social reality, then in-house and remote freelancers, writers (excepting those who teach at universities), consultants (excepting those attached to large consulting firms), immigrant workers, small business owners, social entrepreneurs, former academics, project managers–in a word, the growing labor force in the developed world–have no business whatsoever speaking of their lives as “following” careers. None. (Does a plumber have a career? No, he is a craftsman.)

The implications of this spiritual exercise are potentially more far-reaching than it would seem, especially but not exclusively for my life. For the concept of the career is not a single concept but one that exists within a conceptual framework that includes life plans, worldly ambition, networking, promotions, climbing the ladder, achieving social recognition or social status, etc., and these concepts must be let go of along with the career. For how could I climb a ladder without also being a part of an organization, and how could I achieve long-term social recognition among my peers unless I created a range of pieces that could possibly be well-received within a stable institution (say, the art world)? (Artists have never had careers. They may have a body of a work.)

Provided I live according to this “tied-down” conclusion, how my live might go would have to change radically. It has. In my philosophy practice, I am now deeply attuned to doing well by a few likeminded others within a larger conception of a way of being in the world. When I am talking with another, with this other, I am not hedged on all sides by the pseudo-question: shouldn’t I be elsewhere, doing something else or more or better ‘with’ my time? (As if time were something you did something with. Time is not a sexual object.)

Consider further: When I am with her, I have no ambitions to use her as a means for my ends. I am not with her in order to extract money from her, though I do expect her to support the practice to which she belongs. I am not in a hurry to be elsewhere than where I am. I am not seeing this moment with her as a throughway with the end of being a grand plan for life. I am not impatient. Indeed, I am ruling out the very possibility of being inattentive in the ways we regularly are in everyday life: by turning away, by failing to see, by trying an angle, by working around.

Because I have no career, I can give myself over to being alive.

But, come now, you have a career as a philosophical practitioner?

I have no idea what that could possibly mean.

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