Philosophy and Buddhism as Ways of Life


Back in the late 1990s there was some excitement in the Buddhist community in which I practise, then known as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, prompted by the publication of Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life.[i] This collection of essays by an eminent scholar of classical Greek and Roman philosophy revealed, as if for the first time, that ancient philosophy was not quite like modern philosophy. Whereas philosophy since Descartes has mostly involved the study of difficult problems concerning knowledge, reality and ethics, for the sake of gaining a theoretical clarity and for informing one’s life and values, ancient philosophy was itself the love, the longing, for wisdom. It involved a fundamental commitment to examine one’s thoughts, one’s values, one’s actions, to submit oneself constantly to searching investigations, to practice spiritual exercises that inculcated the attitudes necessary to bring about transformations of thought and life. All this was philosophy – in contrast to the theoretical discourses about philosophy which the various philosophers and schools produced to explain, justify and communicate their ways of life and practices – their philosophy.

To think of philosophy in this way was a paradigm shift. We had grown used to philosophy as theoretical discourse, logical and often systematic ways of analysing the world, language, science, society, ethics; something that was most often a subject for academic study, something practiced in the academic context, an academic profession. This is what ‘philosophy’ means today, and, despite its often narrow concern and highly abstract and technical methods, there is much to appreciate in the study and practice of philosophy in this sense. My own studies in philosophy were mostly in the ‘continental’ tradition of phenomenology and existentialism, which is all quite theoretical despite its often practical orientation. Nowadays I teach contemporary analytic philosophy, which in fact I appreciate for its clarity and the communal, serious, humbling sense of working steadily on difficult problems. But Hadot’s book was a reminder of a quite different conception of what it is all about. To be a philosopher was to commit to an ideal of wisdom, and to practice a philosophical way of life among other such practitioners, in a community of those on the quest.

One of the best essays, in my view, in Philosophy as a Way of Life is ‘The Figure of Socrates’. Hadot brings alive how Socrates, who wrote nothing and whom we only know through the testimonies of Plato and Xenophon, was a true philosopher in that he knew that he was ignorant. He knew, that is, that he did not possess wisdom, he did not know what the human good consisted in, but he was impassioned in his desire for wisdom and for knowledge of the good. In his commitment to philosophy he engaged anyone willing to talk in searching dialogue. What is virtue? What is knowledge? What is the good life? But it was not as though Socrates even expected to find answers in his discussions. Rather, in a spirit of what appears to have been irony, he allowed his interlocutors to voice their thoughts, before asking questions which quickly showed they were as ignorant and confused as he was. But there was a love and longing, an eros in this constant questioning, which itself was Socrates’ way of life, and which had the effect of setting off the whole subsequent tradition of philosophical enquiry into the human good.

Hadot’s re-enlivening of the ancient conception of philosophy has prompted excitement among western Buddhists. Was the teaching of the Buddha, rather than being a set of systematic doctrines, more like the communication of spiritual exercises? Should we think of the Dharma less as doctrine and more as discourses or views that support and explain the essentially practical teaching of the path? Were there exercises and attitudes in common between ancient Greek philosophy and ancient Indian Buddhism? It turns out, however, that, whatever the similarities might be between philosophy and Buddhism, there are many differences. The ancient Indian context in which Buddhism arose starts from very different assumptions. Yet philosophically-minded scholars have begun making the connections more explicit.[ii]

Part of the reason, I think, for a kind of lull after the initial excitement, is that Hadot’s book Philosophy as a Way of Life does not do much more than open the door onto an interesting-looking garden. Hadot’s subsequent book, What is Ancient Philosophy?,[iii] goes the next step. It introduces the idea of philosophy as a way of life more systematically. Again, the whole tradition starts with Socrates. But this time we are introduced to the Hellenistic schools of philosophy (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism) where philosophy was practiced as a way of life. Hadot presents each school as representing an existential choice, and as developing its distinctive methods around the implications of that choice. For instance, Epicureanism represents the experience of the body (the “flesh” as Hadot puts it) as constantly in thrall to pleasure and pain. The fundamental existential choice that the Epicurean makes is to learn to find a constant reliable pleasure, for only pleasure is intrinsically good and only pain is intrinsically bad. This involves a philosophical therapy of our desires, based on a constantly practiced investigation of our pleasures and pains. All this has some close parallels in the teaching of the Buddha, about which I hope to write more elsewhere.

Nevertheless, despite or perhaps because of the added detail of What is Ancient Philosophy?, the reader is forced back upon the conclusion that all this philosophy as a way of life is now history. The ancient schools which maintained the living practices and communities of thought are long gone. In fact, Hadot traces the eclipse of philosophy in the late Roman Empire and the transformation of philosophy in medieval Christian Europe into something rather different. By contrast, Buddhism is a living spiritual tradition, with continuities of practice and community that remain effective. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to explore ways in which Buddhist philosophy overlap at least in general ways with ancient Greek conceptions. The exploration might continue the cultural dialogue that is bringing into being western forms of Buddhist life.

While Pierre Hadot died in 2010, his work has prompted further explorations in uncovering philosophy as a way of life. I have recently read Pursuits of Wisdom by John Cooper,[iv] which takes off where Hadot ends. Cooper is a senior scholar of Greek philosophy at Princeton, hence immersed in the whole subject from an ‘expert’ perspective. He writes that he found the theme for his book after discovering Hadot. Although inspired and stimulated by Hadot’s approach, Cooper found two problems in it: firstly, that Hadot almost completely omits the central role of reason and argument in ancient philosophy, and, secondly, that he treats the very different approaches of the various philosophical schools as too much alike. So, he characterises the different nature of the aims and methods of six approaches to philosophy as a way of life (that of Socrates, Aristotle, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Neoplatonism). And, most valuably, he discerns for each the central role of reasoning and argument in explaining the basic existential choice of each approach, and in the ongoing communal philosophical life of each. Cooper’s book is not easy, but is designed to be thought over carefully, and is a rewarding read.

His chapter on Epicureanism, for instance, draws out exactly how the Epicureans analysed the nature of pleasure, to produce arguments that would help in the therapy of desire. They distinguished between two kinds of pleasure: ‘kinetic’ and ‘katastematic’. Kinetic pleasures are those we experience when actively doing something to avoid pain and gain pleasure, such as eating, drinking, having sex. Katastematic pleasure is that stable, constitutional pleasure or sense of well-being that comes from being free of bodily pain and aware of one’s own existence. Based on the fundamental recognition that pleasure alone is good, Epicureans therefore reasoned that we should train ourselves to identify the katastematic pleasure that is constant and reliable, while practicing the observation of the changing nature of kinetic pleasure, which turns to pain when satiated. The therapy of desire that follows this analysis of pleasure distinguishes between desires which are natural and necessary (like those for food and water), desires which are natural and unnecessary (like those for luxury foods) and desires which are groundless (like those for wealth and fame). To be truly happy, which is our human good, is to learn to rest in the stable katastematic pleasure that becomes possible when one’s desires are limited to those easy to acquire, simple natural pleasures such as nourishing food and good friendship. All this bears some comparison to aspects of the meditative culture of pleasure in Buddhism, which is intriguing.

Yet Cooper’s work is essentially that of the reconstruction of ancient thought. How we might practice philosophy as a way life today – that is a different question. How we might commit ourselves to an existential choice that leads to the possibility of an ongoing philosophical quest for the human good – that is an exciting question. It is one that Buddhism is already answering, in its own way (or ways). To bring Buddhism into dialogue with the ongoing research into how philosophy was once a way or ways of life is very exciting indeed.

[i] Pierre Hadot, 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. Arnold Davidson and trans. Michael Chase. Oxford: Blackwell. The introduction by Arnold Davidson is worth reading for itself.

[ii] A couple of recent contributions are: Matthew Kapstein, 2013. ‘“Spiritual Exercise” and Buddhist Epistemologists in India and Tibet’, in Steven Emmanuel, ed., A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.270–89; and Douglass Smith and Justin Whitaker, 2016. ‘Reading the Buddha as a Philosopher’, Philosophy East and West 66:2, pp.515–38.

[iii] Pierre Hadot, 2002. What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[iv] John E. Cooper, 2012. Pursuits of Wisdom. Princeton University Press.