Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

The vocation of philosophy


John Haldane

In the ordinary run of things Roman documents offer little in the way of philosophical interest. The present pontificate, by contrast, has been distinguished by the number of occasions on which John Paul II has invoked philosophical considerations in the course of addressing the Church. Three encyclicals come to mind: Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae and Fides et Ratio. In the first two, moral philosophy is in view and certain contemporary normative theories are criticised. [1] In the third, philosophy itself is discussed directly - mostly in relation to theology but also in its own right. This last is what I wish to examine, focusing on Ch VII 'Current Requirements and Tasks' in the course of which John Paul writes of the need to recover the sapiential dimension of philosophy. In my lecture I shall make reference to and discuss the text itself but in this shorter (and complementary) text I will limit myself to offering a general reflection on the relationship between philosophy conceived of as the practice of wisdom and the idea of spirituality as a demeanour adopted in the face of reality as one's speculative metaphysics takes it to be.


There seems little difficulty in understanding the idea of spirituality and of the spiritual life within the context of religious thought. In Christianity especially these are given definite content by reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and to practices of prayer, meditation and devotion by which the soul progressively partakes in the life of God - not substantially but relationally as an adopted child might increasingly partake in the life of a family. [2]

        When we turn to (non-religious) philosophy, however, a question arises whether any form of spirituality can find a home there. Yet even the most cursory reflection upon human experience and on the efforts of great writers and others to give expression to it, suggests that there is a domain of thought, feeling and action that is concerned with discerning the ultimate truth about the human condition and with cultivating an appropriate mode of being or demeanour in response to that truth. The phenomenology is compelling, the concerns are intelligible, and for some reason intelligent people persist in supposing that it must be a central part of philosophy to deal with these matters and therefore look to it to do so.

        Philosophers themselves, at least academics in the dominant Anglo-American tradition, either ignore such appeals as one might the entreaties of a door to door evangelist; suggest they are confused in ways similar to those in which some metaphysicians suggest that people are mixed up when they ask about first or ultimate causes; or else, if they are inclined to grant something to the claim that questions of non-religious meaning and spirit do arise and call for attention, they point to moral theory or possibly to aesthetics as being the relevant departments to visit.

        While this last option has the merit of recognising that there is something to be catered for, it makes a mistake in consigning it to moral philosophy as this is now understood, for that is concerned essentially with rightness of conduct, and first and foremost with conduct bearing upon other moral subjects. Notwithstanding its welcome breadth, contemporary virtue ethics remains a version of moral theory and as such is concerned principally with action. Likewise, aesthetics is concerned principally with disinterested contemplation of objects of experience. Spirituality involves intellect, will and emotion and is essentially contemplative, but the process of discovering the nature of reality, evaluating its implications for the human condition and cultivating an appropriate demeanour in the face of these is not reducible to ethics, nor to aesthetics. Yet unless philosophers can show this enterprise to be confused or exclusively religious they are open to the change of neglecting something of fundamental, indeed perhaps of ultimate human importance.


The French classical scholar and historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot has made a series of very interesting studies of the aims and methods of the six ancient schools of philosophy, viz. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Cynicism and Pyrrhorism, arguing that each reflects and in turn seeks to develop a permanent possibility of the human spirit. These studies have been collected and translated into English under the title Philosophy as a Way of Life and I strongly recommend them. [3] I shall not even attempt to summarise his many conclusions but I do want to extract one or two points so as to advance my own discussion.

        First, then, Hadot discerns in the various ancient traditions, but especially in the Stoics, a distinction between 'philosophy' (philo-sophia conceived of as the formation of the soul; or in Quinton's terms the deep structure of character, with the addition of an orientation towards the good), and discourse about philosophy (understood as the investigation of the nature of things, and to a lesser extent our knowledge of them). This, of course, is related to the more familiar distinction between practical and speculative philosophy. But whereas modern, recent and contemporary thought has invested greatest effort and talent in the pursuit of speculation in the form of epistemology and metaphysics, the ancients, and again I am focusing on the Stoics, give priority to thinking about practice, and within that to the cultivation of wisdom and the development of the spiritual life. Epictetus observes that 'the lecture room of the philosopher is a hospital' [4] which is to say that his work is the cure of souls. Later he writes:

How shall I free myself? have you not heard it taught that you ought to eliminate desire entirely? ... give up everything ... for if you once deviate from your course, you are a slave, you are a subject. [5]

        Hadot's reading of such texts is both informed and imaginative. It also encourages him to make three claims of great interest. First, he construes much more of the writing of antiquity as belonging to philosophy in the sense of the practice of wisdom, than has been common among historians of ancient philosophy. More precisely and more strikingly he argues that these texts concern and in some cases are spiritual exercises. Second, and in direct opposition to the assumption which I mentioned that the notion of spirituality is in origin a religious one, he claims that in fact Christianity appropriated this area of reflective practice from pre- existing philosophical traditions and even that it took over 'as its own certain techniques of spiritual exercises as they had already been practised in antiquity'. [6] Third, he implies that the historical interest of all of this is perhaps its least significant aspect. In an essay responding to Foucault's use of his earlier work Hadot writes:

I think modern man can practice the spiritual exercises of antiquity, at the same time separating them from the philosophical [metaphysical] or mythic discourse which came along with them. The same spiritual exercises can, in fact, be justified by extremely diverse philosophical discourses. These latter are nothing but clumsy attempts, coming after the fact, to describe and justify inner experiences whose existential security is not, in the last analysis, susceptible of any attempts at theorization or systematisation ... It is therefore not necessary to believe in the Stoic's nature or universal reason. Rather as one lives concretely according to reason. In the words of Marcus Aurelius "Although everything happens at random, don't you, too, act at random". In this way, we can accede concretely to the universality of the cosmic perspective, and the wonderful mystery of the presence of the universe. [7]

        This passage is full of promise, but a few comments are called for. First, the exercises he refers to, what Foucault called 'pratiques de soi' (practices of the self) [8] are designed to liberate one from (inappropriate) attachment to exterior objects and the pleasures deriving from them. By regular self- examination one keeps a check on the tendency to exteriority, and by contemplating the impermanence of things one seeks to master or to possess oneself, attaining happiness in interior formation. Writing-up this examination, or better, perhaps, examining through writing is one form of spiritual exercise.

        Where Hadot takes issue with Foucault is in claiming with the ancient authors (including Plotinus) that the movement toward interiorization is 'inseparably linked to another movement, whereby one rises to a higher psychic level, at which one encounters another kind of exteriorization, another relationship with the 'exterior' - or what one might term the 'real'. [9] Without necessarily wishing to reject it, one mat reasonably call for further specification of this transcendent movement. A major direction of development is likely to lead to the inexpressibility of the mystical encounter with the 'One', but other possibilities suggest themselves including moderate versions of Platonist ontology and even naturalistic Aristotelianism. Rather than pursue this, however, let me voice a reservation about the claim that spiritual formation may proceed independently of the truth of the accompanying philosophical discourse (metaphysics).

        Presumably even Hadot thinks there are some limits to just how wrong one can be at the speculative level while keeping on track in the practice of wisdom. Also there is reason to tie the two together as constituent components of a single enterprise, such that the content of spiritual formation is dependent upon its metaphysical compliment. The argument for this is quite straightforward. One reason for believing that the issue of spirituality arises within philosophy is reflection on a parallel relationship between religious belief and practice. Suppose someone was persuaded by philosophical or historical arguments that the God of Christian theism exists, but that he or she then seemed wholly unmoved by this acceptance. One would be inclined to say, I think, that religiously speaking the thing (conversion) has not yet begun. For that belief requires the formation of a demeanour appropriate to its content. Likewise I wish to say that a reductive materialist who really believes that his philosophy gives the ultimate truth about reality should be moved (by reason) to ask how in the face of this immensely significant belief he or she should compose themselves. It seems unintelligible to suppose that nothing follows for the enquirer from arriving at a fundamental view of reality be it physicalist or theist. Not only does the question arise of how to compose one's spirit in the face of this, but the content of the metaphysical belief must condition the character of the resulting demeanour.



The believer in Christian theism will be moved towards familiar Christian religious practices, and the reductive physicalist whose metaphysics is after all not so very different from that of the Old Stoics may wish to explore their spirituality. I think, therefore, that Hadot is wrong to try to loosen the link between philosophy and philosophical discourse; spirituality and metaphysics go together as I believe the writers of antiquity would agree.

        The example of the Stoics and of other figures in antiquity gives some reason for thinking that a kind of philosophical spirituality can be fashioned on a non-theological world view. Suppose, however, that this is an illusion. That raises the following question. If it should seem after all that the necessary condition for the possibility of spirituality is some religious truth, and if the need and possibility of spirituality should seem compelling then might we have the beginnings of (a new version of) an (old) argument for religion?

        Academic philosophy has travelled far from the concern of its founding fathers to provide a guide to life. Along the way it has lost sight of the very idea of spiritual values, and in its current phase it may have difficulty recovering or refashioning this idea. This very fact deserves to be examined and that examination might itself mark the beginning of a form of philosophical-cum- spiritual exercise: nothing less than an assessment of the value of what most academic philosophers currently practice in the name of their discipline.

Put another way and in prophetic voice:

... philosophy needs first of all too recover its sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life. This first requirement is in fact most helpful in stimulating philosophy to conform to its proper nature ... In doing so it will be not only the decisive and critical factor which determines the foundations and limits of the different fields of scientific learning, but will also take its place as the ultimate framework of the unity of human knowledge and action, leading them to converge towards a final goal and meaning (Fides et Ratio VII, 81).


[1] Re Veritatis Splendor see J. Haldane, "From Law to Virtue and Back Again: On Veritatis Splendor " in J. W. Rogerson et. al. (eds.) The Bible in Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 1995).

[2] I use the analogy of participation in the life of a family rather than that of a parent given that in Christian mystical theology partaking in the life of God involves entering into the mutual Divine life of three persons.

[3] See P. Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (ed. A. I. Davidson) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

[4] The Discourses of Epictetus (ed.) C. Gill (London : Everyman, 1995) 3, 23, 30.

[5] Epictetus, op. cit ., 4, 4, 33.

[6] Hadot, op. cit ., p. 206.

[7] 'Reflections on the Idea of the "Cultivation of the Self"' in Hadot op. cit . p. 212.

[8] See M. Foucault, History of Sexuality (trans. R. Hurley (New York, 1984) Vol. 3.

[9] Hadot, op. cit ., p. 211.