Philosophy As a Way of Life

By Jack Sherefkin
September 13, 2017
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

“Vain is the word of that philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man." 1. Epicurus

Philosophy, as it is practiced today, is abstract, theoretical, and detached from life, just one academic subject among others. In the Greco-Roman world, it was something quite different, argues the French philosopher Pierre Hadot. Philosophy was a way of life. Not merely a subject of study, philosophy was considered an art of living, a practice aimed at relieving suffering and shaping and remaking the self according to an ideal of wisdom; “Such is the lesson of ancient philosophy: an invitation to each human being to transform himself. Philosophy is a conversion, a transformation of one's way of being and living, and a quest for wisdom.” 2. It is the practice of what Hadot calls "spiritual exercises" that brings about self-transformation and makes philosophy a way of life.

fresco painting

The School of Athens (Scuola di Atene) by Raphael

The Ancient Schools

For the Greeks and Romans, doing philosophy meant choosing a school and adopting their way of life. It involved what today would be called a religious conversion.  “The philosophical school …demands from the individual a total change of lifestyle, a conversion of one’s entire being, and…a…desire to be and live in a certain way.” 3.    Each school had their own set of spiritual exercises that corresponded to their respective ideals of wisdom.    

The exercises the students practiced were those that we still associate with academic study i.e., reading, writing, research, and dialogue.  But they also employed exercises that we identify with religious or spiritual organizations, e.g. exercises in self-control, therapies to calm the passions, self-examination, meditation, and memorization of the principles of the school. 

(It should be noted that Hadot’s picture of ancient philosophy is more accurately a description of philosophy as practiced by Socrates and the Hellenistic schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism rather than the schools of Plato and Aristotle.)           

The Loss of Spiritual Exercises

In 529 AD the Christian Emperor, Justinian, closed the Athenian Academy, a neo-Platonic school, and brought to an end the teaching of classical philosophy in the West.  Now Christianity alone was considered a way of life and philosophy was reduced to being a servant or handmaiden to theology, supplying philosophical language and concepts to defend the dogmas of the church.    

The spiritual exercises of philosophy became part of Christian spirituality. Hadot argues that the exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas à Kempis are but a Christian adoption of these ancient practices.  In place of wisdom, the imitation of Christ became the ideal that shaped spiritual practice.   In the words of Paul “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise… Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” 4.           

For Hadot, the poverty of modern philosophy is the consequence of the abandonment of spiritual exercises. With the waning of Christianity and the rise of secularism, there has been a re-emergence of philosophy understood as a way of life. This can be seen in the works of philosophers like Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. 


The practice of spiritual exercises in the West is first seen in Socrates who famously proclaimed that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” When he stood before the Athenian court facing charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, Socrates told the judges: “I have no concern at all for what most people are concerned about: financial affairs, administration of property…political factions. I did not take this path…but [instead]…where I could do the most good to each one of you…by persuading you to be less concerned with what you have than what you are…” 5.  Socrates, a self-described gadfly, kept harassing his fellow citizens to question their beliefs and way of life.  Foucault argues that from this “care of oneself, consecrated by Socrates... [there] evolved …procedures, practices, and formulas…” 6.  

Philosophy As Therapy

“unless the soul is cured, which cannot be done without philosophy, there will be no end to our miseries.” 7. Cicero

The Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics all believed the task of philosophy is to treat and relieve suffering.   Philosophy was viewed as analogous to medicine, and the philosopher was seen as the physician of the soul who cured us of false beliefs, irrational fears, and empty desires.

They believed that the passions or emotions were the principal source of our suffering and unhappiness.  That without philosophy, disorder, worries, fears, and unrest rules our soul.     “Philosophy thus appears…as a therapeutic of the passions. Each school had its therapeutic method…linked…to a profound transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being.” 8.                                                                               

Stoic Therapy

The Stoics did not seek to control or moderate the passions, rather they sought their elimination.  For them, the good life is a life without passion.  The Stoic sage is apatheia, from the Greek meaning without feeling. 

The Stoic urges us not to give importance to external things.     When we attach ourselves to what is not under our control we set ourselves up for upset and grief.   Love, for instance, brings with it fear of losing it, anger when it is threatened, envy if someone else has it, and grief over its loss. For the Stoics, the passions are the source of all our sorrow.

There is but one thing that is safely under our control, our will to do good or evil.  Everything else is not up to us and is neither good nor bad, but indifferent.  This distinction is the  constant focus of their attention.  The  "Stoic always has ‘at hand’ the fundamental rule of life…the distinction between what depends on us and what does not.” 9.       

The Stoic will not rejoice if he inherits a fortune nor grieve if he loses a loved one.  Health and wealth, as well as poverty and illness, are equally indifferent.  External goods have no effect on whether we are happy or miserable. It is our bad choices that harm us, not what happens in the world. The only thing necessary for happiness is virtue.

Their model is not Achilles, weeping, rolling in the dust, tearing his hair out over the death of his friend, Patroclus.  Rather, they looked to Socratics and how he calmly faced death or to the philosopher, Anaxagoras, who when told that his child had died, remarked, “I was already aware that I had begotten a mortal.” 10.    

Even though the Stoic belief in complete self-sufficiency is obviously false, there is something to be said for a person who is not enslaved to the glitter of the world.  Put in a positive light the Stoic can be described as “a self-commanding person-one who, rather than being the slave of fortune, is truly free just because she doesn’t care for the things that fortune controls.  Commanding herself, she commands all that is important for living well…in a world in which most people value things-such as money...that appear to offer power but really offer slavery…the wise person is the only truly free person.”  11.

Epicurean Therapy

Epicureanism is a philosophy that seeks peace of mind above all else. To achieve that peace requires removing the sources of our unhappiness and unrest.   (Mental pain is seen as far worse than bodily pain.)  Epicurus lays the blame on empty desires and false beliefs.  "The reason people are unhappy is that they are tortured by immense, hollow desires, such as those for wealthy, luxury, and domination." 12   Epicurus calls such desires “hollow” because they know no limit and can never be satisfied.  No amount of money will ever be enough for those who pursue a life of wealth. These desires are not natural but a consequence of false beliefs and a corrupt society.  Natural desires, on the other hand, have limits and are easily satisfied.  Simple food can satisfy our hunger as well as the most expensive delicacies.          

But the greatest source of misery and unhappiness, more than living an empty life, is our fear of death.    The fear of death can be so intense that it can drive a person to suicide.  As Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus wrote:

“…fear of death

Induces hate of life and light, and men

Are so depressed that they destroy themselves

Having forgotten that this very fear

Was the first cause and source of all their woe.”  13.     

Epicurus argues that the fear of death is a consequence of false beliefs and he is confident that if we follow his arguments we will be persuaded that "death is nothing to us." The Skeptics and Stoics shared Epicurus' belief that our fear of death is mistaken and irrational.  (In contrast, almost all modern philosophers believe that it is rational to fear death.) 

Epicurus main argument is that if death is bad, it has to be bad for somebody.  But death cannot be bad for the living since they are alive, nor for the dead since they don’t exist. There is no subject that exists after death that can experience pleasure or pain or be harmed in any way. Therefore, death means nothing to us. The poet Philip Larkin was not convinced.  “… And specious stuff that says No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anaesthetic from which none come round.” 14.   

Far more convincing is the so called "symmetry argument" used by Lucretius.   He argued that since we do not fear our non-existence before birth we should not fear our non-existence after death.  Or in the vivid language of Seneca: “Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago?  And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now?  It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not.”  15.  

From the ancient to the modern world,  Epicurus has been condemned as a hedonist and a subverter of traditional values for identifiying  happiness with pleasure.    He was in fact  an ascetic.  Pleasure, for him, is not sensuality and luxury but freedom from pain and tranquility.   If we live a simple life, restrict our desires, free ourselves from the fear of death, and learn to accept our mortal condition, we can have a tranquil life, and recover the simple joy of existing, with a feeling of profound gratitude for life.  16                                                                      

Spiritual Exercises

All the ancient schools practiced "exercises designed to ensure spiritual progress toward the ideal state of wisdom ...Generally, they consist...of self-control and meditation.  Self-control is fundamentally being attentive to oneself... In all of the schools...philosophy will be especially a meditation upon death and an attentive concentration on the present moment in order in full consciousness,"  17.     PWL, 59

Hadot groups the exercises practiced by the different schools under three headings:  1) concentration on the present, 2) viewing things from above and 3) meditation on death.  The exercise of death was always practiced with the other two exercises.

Attention to the Present Moment     

“…man lives in the world without perceiving the world.” 18. Pierre Hadot 

 We can only be in the present if we free ourselves from the past and the future.  Time has to be experienced in a way entirely different from everyday experience where we flit incessantly between memory and expectation, regret and worry, and in the process lose the present moment.    "For the ancients...the transformation of one's view of the world was intimately linked to exercises which involved concentrating one's mind on the present instant...such exercises consisted in "separating oneself from the future and past," in order to'delimit the present instant." 19.   

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans stressed the importance of being in the present moment. But what this meant in practice for them was very different. For the Stoic being in the present moment demanded constant tension and effort. For the Epicurean being in the present meant learning how to relax and have peace of mind.    “The difference between the two attitudes [are]…the…Epicurean enjoys the present moment, whereas the Stoic wills it intensely; for the one, it is a pleasure; for the other, a duty.” 20.  Though they seem like opposites, Stoicism and Epicureanism, like inhalation and exhalation, complement each other.                                                            

Death & the Present

Most of us live as if we have endless time which is why we give it so little thought and spend it so freely.  Meditating on death can awaken us from our slumber, make us realize our time is brief and each moment precious.   Samuel Johnson’s famous quip is to the point: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." 21.  

The Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, believed we would be radically changed if we lived as if each day were our last. “The thought of imminent death…transforms our way of acting in a radical way, by forcing us to become aware of the infinite value of each instant: ‘We must accomplish each of life’s actions as if it were the last.” 22.    

 Dostoevsky was confronted by imminent death and was forever changed.   He, along with  fellow members of the Petrashevsky Circle, a literary group, were placed before a firing squad, only to be pardoned at the last minute by the Tsar Nicholas I. This mock execution had been carefully staged by the Tsar. One prisoner went mad, the others permanently scarred.  Dostoevsky’s account appeared twenty years later in his novel, The Idiot.  “But better if I tell you of another man I met last year…this man was led out along with others on to a scaffold and had his sentence of death by shooting read out to him, for political offenses…he says that nothing was more terrible at that moment than the nagging thought: “What if I didn’t have to die!…I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for…” 23.                                                                              

View from Above

Homer’s depiction of the Greek gods during the Trojan War calmly looking down from the heavens at the spectacle of the warring Greeks and Trojans may be the source for the spiritual exercise of viewing life from above, from the point of the view of the gods.

This exercise seeks to teach us to view the world and ourselves with detachment and objectivity, from the standpoint of universality.   “The point is…to liberate oneself from one’s individuality, in order to raise oneself up to universality…in becoming aware of oneself as a part of nature, and a portion of universal reason.”  24.       

From the perspective of the universal, our cares and concerns seem trivial and insignificant.  “The view from above changes our value judgments on things: luxury, power, war…and the worries of everyday life become ridiculous.” 25.

Death & the View from Above

“To view things from above is to look at them from the perspective of death....” 26   For Plato,  the philosopher is always trying  to  detach himself, as much as is possible, from  his body and senses.  Its  this spiritual separation  of the soul from the body that is a training for death. “Training for death is training to die to one's individuality and passions, in order to look at things from the perspective of universality and objectivity.” 27.     (Here Plato borrows the Orphic idea that the soul is trapped in the body, that the body is a tomb.)  

The existentialists argue that this flight to the universal is an illusion and a denial of death.  From a universal standpoint, death may seem abstract and unreal but such unconcern vanishes quickly when we face the prospect of our own death.   As Montaigne observed, “When I looked upon death as the end of my life, universally, then I looked upon it with indifference.  Wholesale, I could master it: Retail, it savaged me…” 28.                                         

Meditation on Death

The meditation on death has been put to varied uses.   It was used by all the schools to encourage  concentration on the present moment,  to make us "seize the day." For the Epicureans “meditation on death is intended to make us aware of both the absolute value of existence and the nothingness of death, to give us love of life and to suppress the fear of death.” 29.    Christian monasticism put the mediation  on death to a very different use.  It was practiced not to promote love of life but hatred of it. “The lesson taught by Abbott Evagrius [a Desert Father] to the monks under his charge, that they should think contiqnually of death and the pains of hell…this became the universally accepted teaching throughout the Christian centuries.  One must continually despise the present life, meditate on death as punishment for sin, think of the moment of death as one of extreme importance, and contemplate the tortures of the other world.”  30. 

For Epicurus, the fear of death promoted by religion corrupts the soul and destroys the joy of existence.  Likewise, Montaigne wanted to learn like the ancients to despise death “We are to contemplate death, not, as the Church would insist, that we may fear it, and order our lives accordingly, but that we may become so inured to its presence that we are unaffected by it.” 31.   In short, either despise life or despise death.

Paths to the Universal

Painting of woman seated with skull on her lap next to candle in front of mirror

The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de La Tour

As Hadot grouped spiritual exercises under three headings, so he also reduced them to two directions.  They either are focused on the self or on identifying with what is beyond the self.   There is a  “profound kinship that existed among all these exercises…they ultimately can be reduced to two movements, opposed but complementary…one of concentration of the self, and the other of expansion of the self…[each] striving for a single ideal…the sage [as a universal model]…” 32.

With the exception of Skepticism, the goal of all the ancient philosophical schools was to reach the universal.  The spiritual exercises of “concentrating on the present” and “viewing the world from above” are but different paths to the same end.                                                                                   

Spiritual Exercises & Asceticism

Hadot distinguished spiritual exercises from asceticism. The spiritual exercises practiced by the ancient philosophers were primarily intellectual and imaginative, that is, philosophical thought exercises, while asceticism involves the “complete abstinence or restriction in the use of food, drink, sleep, dress, and property, and especially continence in sexual matters.” 33.     Although there is certainly an ascetic element in all the ancient schools.   

Hadot has been criticized for limiting spiritual exercises to mental exercises.  The bodily exercises as practiced in Hatha Yoga, Zen, and T’ai chi ch’uan could equally be considered spiritual exercises. 

Spiritual Exercises in the Modern World

In most of the philosophical schools the belief in a cosmic order was the backdrop and context in which spiritual exercises were practiced.  The aim of the exercises was to bring the soul into harmony with the order of the universe.    

The Epicureans are the great exception.  For them, there is no universal reason or cosmic order, the world is conceived as a product of chance, and merely one of an infinite number of universes. (In many ways the Epicureans seem like contemporaries.) But “the Epicureans did make use of spiritual exercises…however, these practices are not based on the norms of nature or universal reason.” 34.  

The problem with Hadot’s effort to revive the ancient spiritual exercises is that we no longer inhabit a cosmos.  We no longer believe, as the Stoics and Platonists did, that the universe is infused with reason and is something to imitate and order one’s life by.  We now view the universe as an accident, without purpose or direction, not as a model to imitate.  We look for meaning not in some external, objective order, but within ourselves.

Nonetheless, Hadot was critical of Foucault’s restriction of the ancient spiritual exercises to techniques for shaping the self rather than an effort to reach the universal.  It is “difficult to accept that the philosophical practice of the Stoics and Platonists was nothing but a relationship to one’s self…the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element…Such a cosmic perspective transforms the feeling one has of oneself.” 35.       

But Hadot is of two minds. He believes that the practice of spiritual exercises can still be meaningful in the modern age.  You do not need to become a Hindu to practice Hatha Yoga. Still, something has been lost; the “highest point the self can attain is…[where] one has the impression of losing oneself in something that totally overcomes one.” 36.       

For us moderns, the world is neither a creation of God nor divine but purposeless and without meaning.  As the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg lamented, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” 37.     

Nietzsche spins a fable that captures the modern condition.  “In some remote corner of the universe…there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of "world history"—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened... only its owner and producer gives it such importance as if the world pivoted around it. But if we could communicate with the mosquito, then we would learn that he floats through the air with the same self-importance, feeling within itself the flying center of the world.” 38.   Nietzsche’s vision might be called a disenchanted view from above.   A similiar fable is told by Bertrand Russell in probably his most well known essay, "A Free Man's Worship."  39


The revival of interest in spiritual exercises as a vital part of philosophy is in large part the result of Hadot.  Two of the more important works influenced by Hadot is Martha Nussbaum’s The therapy of desire: theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics and Michel Foucault’s second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality.

For the role of spiritual exercises in Nietzsche see Horst Hutter, Shaping the Future: Nietzsche’s New Regime of the Soul and Its Ascetic Practices  and Michael Uhr,  Nietzsche’s Therapy: Self Cultivation in the Middle Works


1. Hadot, Pierre, and Arnold I. Davidson. 1995. Philosophy as a way of life: spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Malden, MA: Blackwell.  110n15, attributed to Epicurus.    

2. Hadot,  Philosophy as a way of life: spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault275.

3. Hadot, Pierre. 2002. What is ancient philosophy? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 3.

4. Crossway Bibles. 2007. The Holy Bible: ESV, English Standard Version containing the Old and New Testaments: pew and worship Bible. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles.  1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

5.   Socrates, Apology 30 a-b, trans.  Hadot, What is ancient philosophy? , 29.

6.  Foucault, Michel. 1986. The care of the self: Volume 3 of The history of sexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 44, 45      

7.   Cicero, Marcus Tullius, and J. E. King. 1966. Tusculan disputations. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, III.13.

8.  Hadot, Philosophy as a way of life, 83.

9.  Ibid.,   Philosophy as a way of life84. 

10.  Nussbaum, Martha Craven. 1994. The therapy of desire: theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 363.

11.  Nussbaum, Martha. “Pity and Mercy: Nietzsche’s Stoicism” in Richard Schacht. 1994. Nietzsche, genealogy, morality: essays on Nietzsche's Genealogy of morals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 146.

12.  Hadot, What is ancient philosophy?  117.

13.  The Lucretius Carus, Titus, and Rolfe Humphries. 1968. The way things are: the De rerum natura of Titus Lucretius Carus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 69.

14.  Philip Larkin, "Aubade" from Collected Poems   Larkin, Philip, and Anthony Thwaite. 1989. Collected poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

15.  Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Richard M. Gummere. “On Taking One’s Own Life”   1953. Ad Lucilium epistulae morales: with an English translation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard.  Letter 77.  

16.   Sherefkin, Jack.  Immortality and the Fear of Death.

17.  Hadot,  Philosophy as a way of life,   PWL, 59.

18.  Ibid., 258. 

19. Ibid.,, 259.  

20. Ibid,  230.    

21.  Boswell, James, C. P. Chadsey, and Gordon Ross. 1946. The life of Samuel Johnson. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co. September 19, 1777

22.  Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. 1944. The meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus 1. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, II, 5, 2. quoted in Hadot, What is ancient philosophy, 137. 

23.    Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. 2003. The idiot. New York: Vintage Books, part 1,  chap 5.

24.  Hadot, Philosophy as a way of life, 210-211.

25.   Hadot, What is ancient philosophy?  207

26.   Hadot, What is ancient philosophy?  207

27.  Hadot, ,What is ancient philosophy  197.

28.  Montaigne, Michel de, and M. A. Screech. 1993.  "On Diversion"  The complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books, 943.

29.  Hadot, What is ancient philosophy, 197.

30.  Spencer, Theodore. 1960. Death and Elizabethan tragedy; a study of convention and opinion in the Elizabethan drama. New York: Pageant Books, 8.

31.   Montaigne, Michel de, and M. A. Screech. 1993. The complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books, 60.  ???

32.  Hadot,   What is ancient philosophy? 189.  

33.  Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, 128.

34.   Ibid., 208

35.   Ibid. 208

36.   Hadot, Pierre, Marc Djaballah, Jeannie Carlier, and Arnold I. Davidson. 2009. The present alone is our happiness: conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 84.

37.  Weinberg, Steven. 1993. The first three minutes: a modern view of the origin of the universe. New York: Basic Books, 154.

38.  Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. “From On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” 1976. The portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin Books, 42.  

39.   Russell, Bertrand.   "A Free Man's Worship".