Philosophy as a Way of Life

Friday, April 30, 2010

Philosophy literally means "love of wisdom." Yet a glance at contemporary academic philosophy is enough to make one ask, "What's love got to do with it?" How could such dry, tedious, soulless verbal excursions ever have been meaningful to anyone, let alone some of the greatest minds in history? 

The answer is that in its origins philosophy was not an abstract theoretical enterprise but a way of being in the world--an exercise of reason in furtherance of a broader spiritual and moral regimen. Restoring this lost perspective was the work of the French intellectual historian Pierre Hadot, who died last week at eighty-eight. Hadot was not Jewish, but scholars of Jewish thought are among the beneficiaries of his writings.  

From its Socratic beginnings, Hadot showed, philosophy sought to liberate the self from both egoism and despair.  Argument and analysis were certainly central to the effort—not, however, as ends in themselves but as the means to a moral life and human community. All this changed in the late Middle Ages when, under the influence of the Church, a few, officially sanctioned avenues of thought became formalized into doctrines and dogmas. By the time the ancient heritage was passed on to modern universities, it had been reduced to a set of concepts, propositions, and ideas.  

Hilary Putnam, an influential American philosopher who returned to Jewish practice later in life, was one of the first to call attention to the light cast by Hadot's ideas on the work of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, and other modern Jewish thinkers seeking the heart of philosophy in lived experience and moral responsibility. Working in the area of the ancient world, the historian Jonathan Schofer has recruited Hadot to clarify the ways in which the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud were themselves engaged, albeit from the perspective of Torah and divine justice, in the sort of spiritual exercise characteristic of Hellenistic philosophy. Hadot's work has also proved fruitful to students of medieval Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah.   

A simple return to ancient and medieval philosophizing is neither possible nor desirable. We have learned too much in the interim about nature, society, and history. But, for Jews as for others, to see how essential to the life of the mind was once the commitment to spiritual elevation and ethical wholeness is not only to read the ancients with greater understanding but to reconsider modern ways of thinking, what they may lack, and what might with effort be retrieved. 


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