To paraphrase a well-known saying, We are all revisionists now! Yet somehow even our revisionists are timid—they wait for favorable winds before they “revise” history, economics, philosophy, and science, then write books about “how it really started,” “how it really happened.” I suspect that revisionism is a branch of popularized hermeneutics whose self-assigned function is to place under suspicion every human enterprise, in the name of other enterprises that are above suspicion: Darwin’s, Freud’s, Nietzsche’s, Marx’s, Heidegger’s are never suspected themselves. Theirs are the unquestioned idola fori.
Parallel to the fashionable revisionism, as conformist as other intellectual novelties, there is a quieter variety which indeed allows us to take a new look at past, therefore also at present, situations and movements. What I have in mind is the painstaking restudy of the philosophical enterprise whose unity of inspiration we take so easily for granted, from Thales to Sartre. No detergent or toothpaste is so routinely praised as our “Western philosophical heritage,” as if the unity of our heritage were a verifiable and justifiable conclusion. If pressured, we acknowledge that Plato and Aristotle are vastly different in presupposition, method, and world view, and also that Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, Cynics, Neo-Platonists further enlivened the scene. We might also concede that philosophy after Augustine and Boethius became “theology’s handmaiden” and that Descartes, et al. launched new postulates; yet we stubbornly insist that Western philosophy has been one long speculative twine never pulled any way but forward.
There is, however, new thinking on the matter, which—unspectacular and superficial as the various deconstructionisms—has not received a great deal of attention from the academic dandies. This genuine revisionism—genuine because it is documented inquiry, not merely sudden inspiration and semantic interpretation—is based on the exhaustive rereading of the Ancients’ works. What was found in them is a spirituality that has been occulted by at least three centuries of excessive intellectualism. In my own rereading, I was both right and wrong with my book God and the Knowledge of Reality, published 15 years ago. The argument there correctly distinguished two lines of Western philosophical speculations, the discursive and the absolute knowledge, the first represented by Aristotle, Thomas, Leibnitz, et al., and the second by Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, perhaps Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and others. Unconsciously I was inclined toward Bergson’s dichotomy between those who intuit reality and those who measure it; but while Bergson gave his preference to the intuitive type of knowledge, I argued, in order to “save reason” and the reasoning way to God, in favor of the primacy of the second kind.
In the light of recent revisionism I was not blatantly wrong, but was content with an incomplete grasp of things. No wonder; we have been accustomed to philosophical systems announcing their color through a kind of philosopher’s calling card, with epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and politics written on it, one following from what preceded. Any thinker not able to display the five “philosophical disciplines” under one canopy was a dilettante like Pascal or Nietzsche, the guiltier since in their times philosophy was no longer a servant of theology but a master of the university. By the 18th century, the philosopher had to be a Herr Doktor Professor, or he was undeserving of the name. Needless to say, philosophy is today shattered by over-intellectualization, and some of the disjecta membra are called phenomenology, linguistic analysis, existentialism, structuralism. It is not necessary to put things back together to justify a new perspective.
The new perspective may be summed up by mentioning the title of Pierre Hadot’s new book, Spiritual Exercises and Ancient Philosophy. Hadot is teaching at the College de France, founded in the 16th century as a focus of high learning, a place where Bergson used to teach. The thesis is that Greek thinkers understood their function not as schoolmasters but as therapeutes of the soul. Rather than speak of the “unity of Western philosophy,” we might, without denying this aspect of speculation, add to it an aspect of discontinuity, the break occurring by the 12th century when Scholastics, later the Cartesians, turned philosophy into science. The speculative enterprise up to the year 1000 or so was not primarily scientific; it was also a way of calming the soul through meditation, discipline of soul and body (to avoid devastation by passions), and exercise. We tend to shrug off yoga, but our rejection is justified when we understand yoga’s character as a spiritual athleticism; we should reject the emptiness, the objectlessness, but not the therapeutic aspect itself For the Greek philosophers the moral content was always present while leading the soul to the understanding of the cosmos and to peace. What is Plato’s teaching if not the apprenticeship of the Logos and the guiding of the soul away from the sensory world? Plato was not very far removed from certain conclusions of Oriental wisdom, yet he profoundly recast it because while Oriental wisdom directs the vision toward absorption in Nothingness, Plato turns to pure thought and conversion to the Good.
The outstanding thinkers of Hellas elaborated their own paideia, not of course for youth but for the mature man who educates his soul in view of the soul’s adjustment to the essence of the universe. This essence varied from Plato to the Stoics to the Epicureans: it was interpreted as the Good, the nous, reason or cosmic harmony, but all—the Academy, the Stoa, the Gardens—were united in adopting and teaching a way of life. Disciples did not join in order to learn things new—as the modern school defines the teacher’s and student’s task—but to hear further refined arguments why the chosen way of life was wise and practicable. This is why we find mature men around Socrates, thinkers and politicians, who do not wish to learn but to penetrate more deeply into the practice of the good life and to acquire dialectical skills in the defense of their world view.
The chief works of Greek philosophy, those we now buy in paperback and write term papers about, were spiritual exercises, Hadot argues. They were meant to lead souls, the way Hermes, as a psychopompos, led souls, namely to the realm of death. Death here does not mean the Hindus’ self-annihilation; it means apprenticeship in the demands of the spirit which gradually conquers the body and its passion-derailed will. It is a transfiguration, an overcoming—neither an ascesis nor a frenzy. Even in search of wisdom, the Greek mind aspired to harmony and measure. Plato formulated it with great precision in the Republic: “[The wise man only goes to sleep] after awakening his reasonable part and nourishing it with fair thoughts. . . . Only after having calmed the sensual and irascible parts of his being . . . does his soul attain truth.”
Wisdom can be reached through training, a training well-directed toward universal reason (Marcus Aurelius) or toward the contemplation of the One in a mystical act (Plohnus). In the ancient Greek school (the term derived from schola is of course out of place here) the therapeute’s dogma and methodology were not discussed because to adhere to philo-sophy, to philosophize, was to be converted to this dogma and method. This is why the fundamental doctrine and the way of life derived from it did not change within one school over the centuries. The disciple who found his passions becalmed at the feet of Pythagoras, Plato, Zeno, or Epicurus saw no motivation to probe in other directions—except perhaps Aristotle, who rejected his master’s doctrine and method completely! But then to be an Aristotelian was already to become a man of science, not a sage.
Ancient philosophy was therefore anything but what we understand by philosophy. First, it could not be learned from books; it was rather an imitatio through the living word and through example. A more interesting case than Plato’s discipleship in the Socratic circle was, perhaps, the nondiscipleship of Alcibiades, who understood the Socratic truth but was unable (that is unwilling, too possessed by passion) to imitate the way of life. Medieval Christians would say that his concupiscence was stronger than his “fair thoughts.” We do not, therefore, speak of Alcibiades as a disciple of Socrates; at best he was a distant and jealous admirer.
It follows that the ancient philosopher taught orally, not through books. Discipleship was achieved by listening to the living word—listening not individually but in a group, or rather in a community, and in view not of knowledge but of spiritual progress. “Plagiarism” as we understand it did not matter; the utilization of long-accepted formulas, obvious from the reading of the philosopher’s lives in Diogenes Laertius, was licit; they were only adapted to different situations.
It is fairly evident that religion in Hellas was an affair of external manifestations, of cold ceremonies addressed to tribal-cultic deities, objects of magic manipulations, supplications, gratitude. What we call religion, that is conversion to an insight, a way of life, a grace touching us, was the business of philosophy—internal conversion, the turning of the soul, but also, as in our religious life, a consciousness that life is limited and that the art of dying well requires good habits from the soul, a technique of inner life and the soul’s movements. Whether for Platonism or the Stoics, the good life and readiness before death were obtained by liberation from individual anguish and a passage to a universal perspective wherein the self is transcended in the direction of a totality. Let us observe that this is emphatically not what Christianity understands by religion, the good life, and salvation. Not a word of good works, charity, love of fellowmen, except as a consequence of self-controlled behavior and avoidance of passion. Let us not entertain, therefore, the error that one can step back and forth between Greek philosophy and the Christian religion, or that Socrates was an alter ego of Christ. Plato’s spirituality was a huge step away and above what Hindus, for example, understand by this term. But it is not religion in our sense.
If we adopt these views about ancient Greek philosophy as plausible and borne out by a careful reading of the documents, we are obliged to rethink the current position and conclude that there was indeed a break somewhere along the “Western” history of speculation. Hegel’s dialectics is the first to be dismissed, namely that the philosophy of history is contained in the history of philosophy. Other formulations do not fare much better. They are flawed because they posit the same problematics uninterrupted through 25 centuries and because they read backwards into that chronicle the evolution of system-formation from Thales to Wittgenstein and Ricoeur.
Another by-product of the “revisionist” view is the rehabilitation of religion as an enterprise in which the greatest minds of the West engaged. If, from Augustine to Gilson, it is said that one cannot philosophize without taking religion into account, we have Plato’s confirming testimony that the philosopher must have fair thoughts and live a good life in order to qualify.
This would leave our academic philosophers and Ph.D.’s out on a limb and would mean that they are unable to teach their discipline because it cannot be learned from twice-aweek courses or from so-tagged Great Books. Our students want an A, in philosophy not less than in home economics, and are not ready to devote their lives to sophia unless she is a pretty coed.
But let us draw a more substantial lesson. It is not relativism to say that things change according to the viewer and the perspective—in our case, that philosophy is not the search for truth but a personal conversion because, obviously, the disciple of Plotinus had little in common with the adept of Epicurus. Only through this wider grasp can we advance to the overall ideal of ancient philosophy: finding among the itineraries of conversion the privileged one, the via recta. Yet the last thing that the post-Kantian era, in which we are still orbiting, would suppose is that spiritual exercises (Hadot refers to those of Ignatius of Loyola) were at the heart of Greek wisdom. Our philosophy lessons usually begin with the Cartesian cogito or, nowadays, with the structure of language which is said to determine it. At any rate, the modern student’s first encounter with philosophy is a thorough skepticism in regard to the outside world, as well as to his own existence. Cogitur (it thinks) is the watchword three centuries after Descartes. How does it feel for student and professor to be told that the gray plaster busts of Greek sages do not hide iconoclastic inquiries, but ways of going beyond mere self and seeking out the Good?