Who was Pierre Hadot?

Unknown-1.jpegPierre Hadot was born in Reims, France on February 21, 1922, to a Catholic family. Raised in a Catholic household, Hadot would be influenced in his views later in life by such beliefs, although he soon renounced his religious beliefs, finding them incompatible with his life. His experience with Catholicism, however, would not be completely over, as it would play a bigger role when he began studying mysticism. When studying at college, Hadot befriended the eminent Aquinas scholar Jacques Maritain, who was prolific in his works. Thomism is a combination of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, and through working with Maritain, Hadot developed a fascination with ancient and medieval philosophy and mysticism. It was around this time in Hadot’s life that he began questioning his faith. He got started in Biblical criticism, asking himself whether Catholicism was viable as a way of life and whether ancient manuscripts could still be understood in the modern age.

From 1942-6, Hadot claimed he went through a “metaphysical phase,” in which he turned his attention to religious mysticism, specifically the Gnosticism of Plotinus, a post-Unknown-2.jpegPlatonic philosopher who had a considerable influence on Christianity. Hadot went to the Sorbonne for two years, from 1946-7, where he found Existentialism, Marxism, and Bergsonism, each of which would have a profound effect on his thinking. Some important lessons Hadot learned from his times there were praxis, perception, and experience, respectively. It was important to Hadot that philosophy be centered around action, and that we pay attention to how we perceive the world, how we experience it individually. In the same year, Hadot collaborated with Paul Henry on a translation and commentary of a work by the Neoplatonist Marius Victorinus, a thitherto untranslated author, earning him acclaim in the intellectual world. Hadot had the honor of writing the commentary by himself, which sparked his love for philology—the study of ancient texts—and the works of ancient philosophers. Just as with the Bible, Hadot wondered whether old texts could be used in daily life.

Hadot’s early writings took place between the period of 1957-68. He read Heidegger and Wittgenstein in the late 1950’s, and the latter again in 1960; he was particularly
influenced by Wittgenstein’s
Tractatus, a favorite quote of his being, “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” Hadot was the first author to introduce Wittgenstein to French audiences. It was in 1957 that Hadot got into Plotinian philosophy, and his first book came out six years later, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, at the urging of his colleagues. From there, he continued writing commentaries on Plato and Plotinus before switching to Hellenistic philosophy. He moved away from Plato, focusing instead on Stoicism and Epicureanism—two schools that offered a practical way of life, he felt. Hadot received his diploma from the École Pratique de Hautes Études (The Practical School of Higher Studies) in 1961. The same year, he was elected to the Fifth Section: Religious Sciences; three years later, he became the director thereof. Then, in 1982, Hadot was awarded the prestigious position of chair of History of Hellenistic and Roman Thought at the Collège de France; he got this position without going to the École Normale Supérieure, to which most professors are expected to go before getting such a title.

Hadot did not like the way philosophy was taught in school. Too much time and effort was wasted on the theoretical and the abstract, rather than the practical and the concrete. Dialectic and discussion were valued more than practice. The scholarly Unknown-4.jpegenvironment of schools, he thought, created a cloud of obscurity over the name of philosophy. Hadot believed in living in harmony with the world and with others, a view he adopted from his extensive studies of Stoicism. When asked about how to use spiritual exercises in our daily life, Hadot replied, “We must … use striking formulations of ideas in order to exhort ourselves. We must create habits, and fortify ourselves by preparing ourselves against hardships in advance.”[1] This quote also expresses Hadot’s opinions on reason. According to Hadot, man should use his reason to perfect himself, to “exercise” himself, so to say. Spiritual exercises, for Hadot, were about perfecting the character and living life to its fullest.

At the age of 88, Pierre Hadot died on April 24, 2010, with 15 books to his name. His most famous works are Philosophy as a Way of Life, What is Ancient Philosophy?, The Inner Citadel, and, of course, his first book, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. Thanks to Hadot, philosophy has been studied in a new direction, a direction of which he would be proud, which sees philosophy not as abstract reasoning, but as a manière de vivre, a way of life. Through his brilliant interpretation of ancient manuscripts, insightful commentaries on obscure authors, and fresh style of writing, Hadot reinvented the study of philosophy, making it accessible to all readers. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, was, in Hadot’s eyes, an endless quest for the truth, for the best way of living, from Socrates to Foucault. Overall, looking at Hadot’s life, it is evident philosophy was, for him, a way of life.


[1] Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 284


For further reading: Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot (1995)


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