Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (I): Pierre Hadot

Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (I): Pierre Hadot

A few years ago, I became invested in spirituality as a humanistic subject. By “humanistic” I mean a category that pertains to the humanities more than to the history of humanism per se, but also something irreducible to religion or theology, which is where one typically finds attention to spirituality.

Or so one used to. While one still finds extraordinary scholarship on the meaning of spirituality within religious traditions (e.g., the robust scholarship on mysticism), spirituality in the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) era has widely come to represent a turn away from the definitions associated with organized religion to those that are more personal and self-willed, earthier (whether imagined in terms of ecological consciousness or New Age hipsterism), eclectic and idiosyncratic, more responsive to changes of mood and life circumstance, less implicated in belief than in modalities of belonging. As the sociologist Robert Wuthnow puts it, spirituality in our present era is more one of “seeking” than of “dwelling,” of negotiation than of covenant, of ephemeral flow than of steady cultivation.

This is, in short, a spirituality fitted to the sensibilities of a modern (better said, perhaps, a postmodern) age. And yet, for all its pop cultural cachet, many scholars in the humanities are still loath to speak its name given its historical associations with the inner life of religion. One scholar who recently invoked it in the context of literary studies acknowledges that she did so with trepidation: “Spirituality is a charged word, one I use gingerly.” And yet, she continues, she appeals to it “deliberately, in hopes that it might give [her peers] a way of thinking broadly about the intellectual, moral, ethical, personal, and political resources that literature affords in a secular age.” She appeals to spirituality, that is, because of its holistic agglomeration of meanings: it’s intellectual but not of the intellect only; it’s ethical but not of ethics only; and so on. Hence, what this scholar implies is that spirituality, perhaps better than any other word, captures the inner life of her discipline, or of what she wishes it were: an engrossing and even transformative practice, one that truly matters.

This conviction implicitly conjures a fascinating book I read recently: Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life, a compilation of Hadot’s lectures, mostly from the 1980s and early 1990s. Ordained to the Catholic priesthood as a young man, Hadot gave up the prospects of life as a priest to teach philosophy, and he eventually became renowned for his insights into the ancient Greco-Roman philosophies of “Socratism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Cynicism, [and] Skepticism.” Borrowing from his theological training, Hadot identified within these schools a set of “spiritual exercises,” a term more widely identified with the religious regimen formulated in the mid-sixteenth century by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. But for Hadot, the term bears wider circulation:

“Spiritual exercises.” The expression is a bit disconcerting for the contemporary reader. In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word “spiritual.” It is nevertheless necessary to use this term, I believe, because none of the other adjectives we could use—“psychic,” “moral,” “ethical,” “intellectual,” “of thought,” “of the soul”—covers all the aspects of the reality we want to describe…. [T]hese exercises in fact correspond to a transformation of our vision of the world, and to a metamorphosis of our personality. [81-82]

The purpose of ancient philosophy, Hadot contends, was not to teach us concepts, but to inculcate a way of life. As he explains, these spiritual exercises drew—again, holistically: a hallmark of spirituality—on logic, ethics, and physics (how we think, behave, and understand the cosmos) in the shaping of a whole person. “The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual … to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom” (83).

Hadot’s argument invites some fascinating side notes. For one thing, he believed that spiritual exercises predated Christianity; in fact, Christianity exerted a transformative effect on ancient philosophy, and mostly for the worse. How so? As Hadot sees it, it introduced a rift into the ancient conception of the cosmos, invoking a “higher” sphere that dimmed the significance of the “lower” one, downgrading philosophy to the status of an accessory to theology. Once this occurred, spirituality no longer involved a holistic relation between the various parts of life, but instead implied the prospective and necessary transcendence of life altogether. Hence, from a facilitator of union, spirituality became an agent of division.

A second side note regards a development that is more recent and, for most humanities scholars and students, more relevant. Hadot’s spiritual exercises intrigued Michel Foucault, whose thought took a similar spiritual turn late in his life, at least after a fashion. Like Hadot, Foucault became invested in ancient philosophy, specifically for its conception of ethics as the care of the self. Amanda Anderson, one of our Humanities Center guests last fall, recently published a set of lectures in which she mentions how Foucault shifted “his attention from the systemic critique of modern disciplinary power,” the work for which he is best known, “to a more situated study of individual practices of the self within classical culture, drawing some implications for how we might approach ethical and political life.” But Foucault’s ethical turn was ultimately a narrow one, a matter of individual ethos; as Anderson has it, it thus reflected broader theoretical trends that emphasized “vulnerable humanity subject to inescapable forces of normalizing power and the complex conditions of attenuated agency under which all decisions and actions occur.” That is, and very much in the spirit of his earlier work, Foucault was obsessed with the overriding force of the systems that govern all aspects of modern life, sweeping human agency into their vortex. This view, widely evident across a broad swathe of theory, “has profoundly affected the field of literary studies, and in ways that displace the importance of the moral life, and in particular the importance of moral reflection and moral judgment as they are experienced in time.”

Anderson does not cite Hadot in this study, but she basically reiterates his argument, or at least a portion of it. As he put it, Foucault rewrote the spiritual exercises as “techniques of the self” and, accordingly, “focused far too much on the ‘self,’ or at least on a specific conception of the self” (207). Whereas the spiritual exercises emphasized a relationship between self, others, and cosmos, Foucault insisted instead on the relationship of the self to writing, the fashioning of the self through a fusion of the traditional authority and sources on which it drew with the present circumstances that reinterpreted and reanimated it. But the point of spiritual exercises, Hadot contended, “is not to forge oneself a spiritual identity by writing, but rather to liberate oneself from one’s individuality, in order to raise oneself up to universality” (210). This entails a “cosmic dimension […] upon which,” Hadot believed, “Foucault did not sufficiently insist…. [He] is propounding a culture of the self which is too aesthetic … a new form of Dandyism” (211).

That’s a pretty trenchant critique. Anderson is not that scathing toward Foucault, although she certainly expresses concern about the (merely) therapeutic turn that has long governed contemporary criticism, and that leaves a more holistic relation to moral concerns in its wake. To a degree, Hadot might contend that even Anderson’s principled argument still comes up a little shy of the spiritual exercises it implicitly evokes. Anderson’s normative judgment goes significantly further, to be sure, than Foucault’s aesthetic disposition, for she recuperates a genuinely ethical – moral – dimension of modern literary criticism. This is a daring and important move. But by Hadot’s reckoning, morality alone is not yet cosmic, not yet one with the world that surrounds us. Hence, even a brilliant moral polemic like Anderson’s is not a spiritual exercise, not of itself.

Can there be such a cosmic connection, such a spiritual connection, in our present age? Anderson might well ask: should there be one? In what form, and by whose authority? These are all questions Hadot’s philosophy implies. (Anderson may have more to say on this subject at our fall symposium on vulnerability and transformation).

So, sure, the appeal to spirituality makes many scholars squeamish in our present age. And it probably should, but not because spirituality is the language of religion. Indeed, whether this is still true in any meaningful way is debatable, to the consternation of secularists and defenders of religion alike. The squeamishness, rather, should result from the association between spirituality and a holism to which we modern subjects aspire – a holism in which how we think and how we respond to and care for each other is a natural extension of the worlds, the cosmos, in which we live. Once viewed as a chimera in an era of transcendental homelessness, such holism increasingly seems like a modern imperative. (To cite one example brilliantly, if disconcertingly, raised by Dipesh Chakrabarty, “difference,” the watchword of the cultural studies era and the bad conscience of all calls to collectivity, itself seems ever less relevant in the age of the Anthropocene. In this new epoch, what we have in common—the burning of fossil fuels—is more immediately impactful than the ways we are unique. Culture diminishes in value when life itself is threatened.) Spirituality thus becomes the index and indicator of what critique alone does not yield, for powerful new ways to think are not yet tantamount to a way of life. And it’s new ways of life that we increasingly believe we need. We must become spiritual beings if we are to be anything at all.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center

[1] See, for example, Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[1] After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[1] Dawn Coleman, “The Spiritual Authority of Literature in a Secular Age,” Christianity and Literature 67.3 (2018): 519-30 (521).

[1] Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. Arnold I. Davidson, translated by Michael Chase (London: Blackwell, 1995), 273. Subsequent references will be cited in the body of the essay.

[1] Psyche and Ethos: Moral Life after Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 4-5.

[1] Psyche and Ethos, 2, 1.

[1] See Chakrabarty, “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History 43.1 (2012): 1-18.


  1. I have been reading Hadot closely also, in connection with my study of the translation and reception of ancient Greek thought in Islam. I use his work to show what did not, and could not, have been translated and received in Arabic, and, later in medieval Latin. It is an elaboration on the “lost in translation” theme. Each culture–Islam, medieval Christian, Enlightenment European, modern secular Western– offers “ways of life” (sometimes connected with religion, sometimes not)–even “spiritual” ways of being that use spolia from Greek philosophy, as well as bits that have developed along the transcultural journeys of philosophy, in new and creative ways.

    • Great, Glen — it’s a fascinating history/path to trace.

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