In his insightful study of ancient philosophy, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell, 1995), Pierre Hadot disabuses one of the notion that philosophy was for the ancients what it has become in modernity (and postmodernity) since Kant, namely a specialised theoretical practice. Rather, he argues — citing many passages from ancient philosophers during the Hellenic and Hellenistic-Roman periods — that it was literally a “way of life”. If one did not “live” the philosophical precepts that you discovered through self-reflection, you could not call yourself a philosopher.
Hence his remark about Hellenistic and Roman philosophy (pp265-266): “During this period, philosophy was a way of life. This is not only to say that it was a specific type of moral conduct … rather, it means that philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life … philosophy was a method of spiritual progress which demanded a radical conversion and transformation of the individual’s way of being … wisdom, then, was a way of life which brought peace of mind (ataraxia), inner freedom (autarkeia), and a cosmic consciousness.
“Although their methodologies differ, we find in all philosophical schools the same awareness of the power of the human self to free itself from everything which is alien to it … in Epicureanism and in Stoicism, cosmic consciousness was added to these fundamental dispositions. By ‘cosmic consciousness,’ we mean the consciousness that we are a part of the cosmos, and the consequent dilation of our self throughout the infinity of universal nature … at each instant, the ancient sage was conscious of living in the cosmos, and he placed himself in harmony with the cosmos.”
Hadot states emphatically that, for these philosophers, there was a fundamental distinction between “discourse about philosophy and philosophy itself”, and that, while they distinguished between different parts of the discourse about philosophy — such as logic, ethics, epistemology and cosmology — when it came to their way of living, it assumed the character of a “unitary act”, which amounted to “living” logic, epistemology, ethics and cosmology. Seen in this way, what passes for philosophy today, would really be “discourse about philosophy”, assuming that there was a “philosophical living” for which such discourse prepared one. Sadly, this is not the case, and more often than not, “philosophy” amounts to the study of philosophical texts and the reconstruction, during examinations and tests, of the arguments of past and living philosophers, with perhaps the obligation to offer some critical comment or argument.
From Hadot’s account of ancient philosophy it seems to me that the present world would benefit hugely from a return to philosophy as “a way of life”, which would entail living in accordance with the knowledge that one has gained at the level of philosophical discourse. Inner freedom (autarkeia — “ruling over the self”) and peace of mind seem to me worthy values to pursue in practice. However, it is especially the addition of “cosmic consciousness” to the other things imparted by a pursuit of philosophy that is pertinent for the state of the world today, in light of the evident disharmony between humans and nature.
As for the disharmony among humans themselves, the ancient philosophers did not seem to have any illusions about it ever being dissolved conclusively (just as they did not believe that “complete” knowledge was attainable). The precept of a life according to philosophical wisdom, where one posited an attainable goal, namely inner freedom and peace of mind in the face of things one could not change, was partly a response to this.
Not that one can turn back the clock and return to a way of life that existed 2000 years ago; if a renewed sense of having to “live” according to one’s (in principle never-conclusive) knowledge were to be kindled in today’s world, it would be for historically singular reasons. And perhaps we are standing at a juncture where this has become possible once again, judging by many commentaries on events that are shaping the present. In a chapter of Aftermath: The Cultures of the Economic Crisis (eds Manuel Castells, Joao Caraca and Gustavo Cardoso; Oxford 2012), titled “Surfing the crisis: Cultures of belonging and networked social change,” Gustavo Cardoso and Pedro Jacobetty draw attention to the contrast between two kinds of cultures today — those of “networked self-interest”, which formed the basis of the unfolding financial crisis, and those of “networked belonging,” which are currently emerging as a response to the crisis.
The former strikes me as being quite paradoxical. On the one hand, this culture of “networked self-interest” developed within the context of the emerging “network society” (Castells), with its material infrastructure of technologically interconnected information and communication systems — millions of computers connected through the internet — that made technological, social and economic interdependence possible at an unprecedented level.
On the other hand, however, instead of promoting a truly cohesive, community-oriented society of “networked belonging”, it was driven by the “networked self-interest” of a new breed of managerial elites who acted chiefly as agents for the maximisation of profits at all costs. Ultimately, Cordosa and Jacobetty show, the newly self-centred managerial class (formerly characterised by professionalism and a high degree of moral accountability) was transformed into a powerful global class at the helm of a new corporate model, namely investor capitalism. The values underpinning their actions were a combination of extreme self-centredness and individualism (p166), where the networks at their disposal were employed to advance their own and their shareholders’ interests, rather than those of the community at large, by means of a new kind of capital, namely “network capital”.
Although the crisis that commenced in 2007 originated in the housing market, it spread globally via virtual financial markets, and diffused from there into the social world of concrete human lives. This is demonstrated at length in this book. In the chapter under discussion attention is also given to the other side of what emerged from the crisis, or what the authors call “networked belonging”. Ironically, one of the phenomena they focus on is a direct response to the greed and self-centredness of the managerial elites at the root of the crisis, to wit, the “MBA oath movement toward the ethical professionalisation of management”. This is an attempt to restore moral accountability to a class evidently lacking in it: apart from being the source of the crisis, which resulted in the implosion of the financial sector itself, this was followed by its absorption of the financial assets of several states (p172). It also represents a return to “living according to one’s (ethical) knowledge” in the field of management.
I lack the space to elaborate on all the movements Cardoso and Jacobetty discuss as instances of “networked belonging” — movements which owe their existence to the character of the network society, but more importantly, to a fundamental choice in favour of values diametrically opposed to those of “networked self-interest”. These include the International Pirate Party, the loosely connected organisation known as Anonymous, the á rasca generation Portuguese movement, the #spanishrevolution and Wikileaks. One could add the millions of individuals who are in the process of returning to a life close to nature by practising permaculture.
What all of these share, is a commitment to live, once again, according to certain ethical precepts, instead of the sham of businesses and governments worldwide masquerading as entities that bear the interests of clients and citizens at heart, while the only interests they pursue are really their own — at the cost of ordinary people.