On Pierre Hadot
An email circulated a few hours ago in the PHILOS-L mailing list:
I have just received an unconfirmed report that Pierre Hadot died last
night of pneumonia, after a week in hospital, just a few days after the death of another great scholar, Jacques Brunschwig.
Sit eis terra levis.
CNRS UPR 76
followed by a somber
This has now been confirmed
I am not familiar with Brunschwig’s work, but Hadot‘s death profoundly saddens me. Years ago, his work rekindled in me a passion for Greek philosophy, and his particular interpretation of it greatly influenced my own approach to philosophy as a whole. He was a deeply erudite philologist (his early work on Porphyry and Victorinus is still a milestone in the study of the diffusion of neoplatonism the Latin world, and of its fusion with early Christian doctrine) and a philosopher displaying a rare, and serene, historical consciousness both of the world around him and of that Greek world which he loved so much, whilst having very clear his own (privileged) status as an intellectual.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that, were it not for my encounter with his work (particularly with What is Ancient Philosophy and with Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision) my own philosophical orientation (and formation) would be radically different, for I had the chance to read him during a period of deep disillusionment (and boredom) with the kind of militant and self-congratulatory intellectualism which I perceived to be widespread in the philosophical establishement. Not that reading Hadot corrected that perception: if anything, it gave me the tools to lay down a more ‘pragmatic’ understanding of my studies (well, pragmatic perhaps it’s not the word: back in those days the common jokes circulating amoung some friends of mine were that whatever was more recent than the 3rd century CE was ‘too contemporary’ for me, and that a ‘Plotinian sounds like something out of Star Trek’).
Today, I see the limits of (and the background reasons for) his positions, and of my reactions to them. The return to the Greek world had at times the flavour of a retreat, and the words Hadot spent praising the Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life (words often borrowed from the vocabulary of the greatest mystic of pre-Christian antiquity, Plotinus) hinted towards a nostalgic movement of return (those exercices spirituels which will take another form in Foucault’s souci de soi) and expansion of consciousness from the world and into the world.
This was largely a byproduct of his Christian upbringing (as he himself made clear in interviews) and by his passion for that ‘oceanic feeling’ of relatedness with the world which he always longed for. Today, with more cynical eyes I can see that his appeal for a return to the epicurean and stoic traditions as ways of philosophical life could probably be read as a somewhat backward-looking, reactionary way of reading the history of philosophy. And yet what he kept calling for was the simple, and in some ways naive, need for philosophy to go back being a community of people working to improve their existence. Delightfully anachronistic, Hadot had a passion for reality, and developed his own take on the neoplatonic tradition in an attempt to bring its tropes of simplicity and apophatic contact with the Real to have a bearing on his contemporary world. All while shamelessly declaring at every step his final aim: making of philosophy what he thought it had to be — an authentic way of life, a pursuit of happiness.
My own intellectual evolution makes me skeptical, today, of the more openly ‘mystic’ sides of Hadot’s work, and my own interests brought me ironically very far from the clear visions of Hadot. And yet, it is from his denouncements of the bureaucratization of academia that I matured that general skepticism towards ‘organized philosophy’ and coiled-up philosophizing which I still carry with me, and that sobering comprehension of philosophy as an organic discipline and not as a set of techniques.
So much so, that I wrote my undergraduate final dissertation on his work and his reading of ancient philosophy. The day of my viva (the Italian system requires an oral discussion of your dissertation even at UG level) my dissertation supervisor introduced me by saying: ‘It is somewhat of an irony that today’s candidate sits here in front of us [a commission of 11 members of academic staff as rule wants], for in his dissertation he dissimualtes himself behind Hadot, systematically denigrating academic philosophy and philosophy professors…in other words, us‘.
Indeed, I wrote Hadot a letter (a real, old-fashined paper one) to ask him if he would be available to receive a number of questions from me, to set up an interview which would have concluded my dissertation. A month or so later, I received a long letter back from him (which should still be somewhere in my parent’s house) where he apologized for turning down my invitation. He explained to me that he was just going through the recovery from an accident in which he broke his hipbone, and that he suffered from chronic problems with his eyes (this was in 2006 and he was already 84) which made it hard for him to read. He nonetheless wished me best of luck for my dissertation and my future career. Even so, I felt very grateful to him for taking the time to write back to me.
I am not keen on eulogies and this is sounding too much like one: most of them are for the speaker’s (or writer’s) sake more than for the deceased, the kairos being good for a genuine and heartfelt remembrance as well as for a public display of rhetorical skill and humane compassion. All I aim for is to remind others of the work of an author who has influenced and moved many, as he influenced and moved me as a young and somewhat confused undergraduate. I mostly moved on from my antiphilosophical ‘Hadot days’, and yet I look back at them with gratitude.
EDIT 2 – Watch and/or download a video of the last public appereance of Hadot, in a recent seminar dedicated to his work, here.