This text was delivered at a conference at UC-San Diego titled “Trespasses: The Future of the Humanities, a tribute to Masao Miyoshi,” October 28, 2011.
In September 2002, after having dinner in Torrey Pines, Masao Miyoshi and I were talking (as usual) about the dire state of the university in general and the bleak state of the humanities in particular. Amid all the indignation and ruthless critique, Miyoshi suddenly changed topics and surprised me by saying that he’d been reading a lot of Plato lately. He said he admired Socrates for his “bluntness,” and asked if I’d read a book by Pierre Hadot titled Philosophy as a Way of Life. No, I hadn’t, but I scribbled it down and resolved to find it right away.
In retrospect it is clear that Miyoshi was reading Socrates and Hadot at roughly the same time he was proposing, in the essay “Turn to the Planet” and other interventions, that our intellectual future had to be framed in terms of the condition he called “planetarity.” As far as I know there’s no explicit trace of Hadot in Miyoshi’s writing, and it may well be that he was interested in Hadot mostly in terms of the link between pedagogy and everyday life, rather than as a key ingredient in his intellectual program. But if the conjuncture of these references was not Miyoshi’s concern, it has certainly become mine. If critical theory, or even thinking as such, does not somehow become a way of life, then it is condemned to be useless, a misfortune. In the time I have here, I want to outline a few points where a reading of Hadot on ancient philosophy may intersect with the urgent contemporary tasks proposed in Trespasses.
First I should offer a few remarks about Hadot and his place in current theoretical discussions. He is perhaps best known as the historian of ancient philosophy whose work was taken up by Foucault—somewhat incorrectly, in Hadot’s view—in Foucault’s final works The Uses of Pleasure and Care of the Self. As more of his work has been translated, Hadot has been turned into yet another “French theorist,” celebrated as a partisan of “practice” in its age-old battle against “doctrine.” It is a mistake, according to Hadot, to read the ancient schools as so many different philosophical systems: they should be understood instead as various ways of life, each offering a distinctive set of “spiritual exercises” aimed at an ongoing “transformation of our vision of the world and […] a metamorphosis of our personality.” (PWL, 82) This conception of “spiritual exercises”—encompassing psychic, intellectual, and ethical concerns, all of which it grounds in material practices—has proven to be a very attractive idea to all kinds of people, ranging from anti-theory humanists to post-humanist theorists.
For our purposes it is not a matter of translating Miyoshi into the terms of ancient philosophy, but rather of recognizing that the critique and program launched under the slogan of “planetarity” will necessarily involve certain kinds of “spiritual exercise”—even and especially insofar as we need to break from the old ways of thinking. For Miyoshi, the question of how to carry out the fundamental changes we need necessarily includes the face-to-face work of teaching and learning. By reading Hadot in light of Miyoshi, then, what once appeared to be ethical attitudes can now only be understood as political positions. Let me review, then, the four basic kinds of spiritual exercise described by Hadot, as they are brought into focus by Miyoshi.
1. First, We must learn to live. Of course this is the first lesson of every ethical teacher or spiritual guide: you may think that you’re already living, but you’re not really living yet. “You must change your life,” as the torso of Apollo challenged Rilke. The demand that we must learn to live will always come as a painful blow before it can become an inspiring task. In Trespasses, however, this imperative is not expressed in the usual subjective register. Instead it is a question of learning that we are alive, which has less to do with individual awakening than with a more disorienting realization that the very idea of “life” can only be grasped on a planetary scale. Miyoshi calls it “a realization of the total commonality.” (261) And yet such an insight arrives, if it ever does, not as a vision of some future state but rather as a shattering glimpse of the situation we have already brought about, “the environmental deterioration of the planet as a result of human consumption of natural resources.” (260) In other words, “planetarity” does not designate some kind of higher awareness attained by beautiful souls; it is instead a woeful realization of the bare conditions of life shared by everyone in the world. The question thus becomes: what can we do with this lesson?
2. Second, we must learn to dialogue. Again, it is tempting to hear this demand as an obligation to have good manners, to be deferential to every sign of difference. That is not how Miyoshi understands dialogue. When he said that he admired the bluntness of Socrates, he was praising what the ancient Greeks called parrhesia: frankness or fearless speech. Miyoshi always insisted on and demonstrated that the kind of “dialogue” we need is combative and uncompromising. Dialogue is the medium through which our common bonds are made explicit. He writes: “By far the most difficult task in this project is how to invent a way to persuade, not advertise, culturally as well as politically, that there is no other future for any of us.” This is a disabused, defiant kind of dialogue, something that can be carried out only as a collective task. I think that Miyoshi would recognize the Occupy Wall Street movement as an attempt to generate just this kind of dialogic learning process, carried out in the face of an otherwise deadening and monotone public sphere.
Third, we must learn how to die. Hadot lays great stress on the Platonic notion that philosophy is a “training for death,” and he traces the idea through its Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptical variants. One learns how to die by contemplating the Whole, taking up a perspective that leaves behind the cares of mere mortal creatures. Thus the study of physics can be approached as one of the most important ancient spiritual exercise, insofar as it forces the individual subject to surrender its privileged position, dissolving into atoms or flowing into the cosmos. In this light we can recognize Miyoshi’s insistence that we all learn about science, as well as his repeated reminders that we might fail in our efforts to “reimagine our common and universal culture.” We have to put extinction on the agenda because any pursuit of knowledge nowadays that does not admit that danger is falsified in advance. Such a sentiment is perfectly consistent with a neo-Stoic view that our only ethical task is to “be worthy of what happens to us.” As Miyoshi says, “perhaps we deserve to perish.” Like Lucretius, we should pursue this knowledge cheerfully. The program of planetarity, then, will proceed as much under the open threat of death as in the guarded hope for life.
Finally, we have to learn how to read. As Hadot puts it, “Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to reread [the] ‘old truths.’” It is certainly the case that “learning to read” must keep starting from scratch: that is why we are always able to invest teaching and learning with such revolutionary aspirations. It is a practice without finality: we are obliged to acquire our most basic abilities anew every time, without the confidence that we already know what we need and without the despair that it is already too late. But, for Miyoshi, it is not the “old truths” that need to be reread, but the new untruths, especially the ones that suggest that it is somehow possible to go back, or even to stay still. Reading calls for a reckoning, and that breaks the spell of stasis and banishes the allure of nostalgia or regression. That is why this lesson crystallizes all of the others in an absolutely immediate way: “learning to read” is what we can do right now, right here, in order for there to be a future. It is a kind of “work on ourselves” that is not a retreat into solipsism; on the contrary, it is aimed precisely at practicing the “courage” evoked by Miyoshi at the end of “Literary Elaborations.” And so it is a practice whereby we not only make ourselves worthy of whatever happens, but makes ourselves ready for the kinds of unforeseeable change that might be capable of changing the planetary situation. Taken together, these lessons help us to see how to carry out the ultimate act of trespassing: to learn how to break into the already doomed future now being prepared for us, so that we might finally live on this planet as if everybody belongs here, as if we owe ourselves and each other a good life. How we can fulfill this obligation remains to be seen.
Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold Davidson, trans. Michael Chase (Blackwell, 1995).
Masao Miyoshi, Trespasses: Selected Writings, ed. Eric Cazdyn (Duke University Press, 2010).