Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Acsesis and Arete

"Spiritual exercises can be best observed in the context of Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an "exercise"." (Hadot, pp 82-3)

From the recesses of Plato's allegory of the Cave in Book seven of the Republic to the reflections of Iris Murdoch, the British novelist-philosopher of late twentieth century, I recently spent six weeks in reading and discussing the nature of the good and philosophy as ascesis or exercise. By rereading Plato's allegory from the Republic, along with selections from the Phaedo and the Seventh Letter, the stage was set for an excursion into the realm of Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot and the stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus' thoughts included the notion that you are capable of controlling yourself:
"The way nature has blended you into the compound whole does not present you drawing a boundary around yourself and keeping what is your own under control." (7.67)

For Marcus the 'good life' could be found, "In doing what man's nature requires." (8.1) And what should a man do with his life, "direct his endeavor? Here only -- a right mind, action for the common good, speech incapable of lies, a disposition to welcome all that happens as necessary, intelligible, flowing from an equally intelligible spring of origin." (4.33)
While Marcus meditated on death and life, goodness and beauty, and other issues his overriding serenity in the face of the tumult he dealt with everyday came through the notes that he has bequeathed to us. They bear further reflection. But even as he thought of these issues almost two millennia ago the nature of goodness is still an issue today in the writings of Iris Murdoch. In reading her essay, "The Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts", we found her returning to the allegory of the cave and the metaphor of the Sun that we first read in Plato. Murdoch claims that "'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is." (p 91) For Murdoch this is a claim that Art is the way that humans can reach this unity in that,
"The mind which has ascended to the vision of the Good can subsequently see concepts through which it has ascended (art, work, nature, people, ideas, institutions, situations, etc.) in their true nature and in their proper relationships to each other." (p 92)

The discussion of the good by Iris Murdoch reconsiders some of the themes found in Marcus Aurelius and Plato. This brought the philosophy exercises of the summer fitness class to a conclusion, but the exercise of philosophy did not end there for me. There will be further questions and meditation on these texts and others and on the ideas they consider, for philosophy, to me, consists of asking questions and searching and, perhaps, getting closer to the Sun.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics, New York. 2006 (181)
Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK. 1995
Dialogues of Plato. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns, ed. Princeton University. 1961
The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch. Routledge Classics, London. 2001 (1970)

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