A towering figure in the study of ancient thought, Pierre Hadot outlined three aspects of pursuing philosophy in Antiquity. Crucial to his distinction was the context of doing philosophy, rather than its methods, form, or content. Hadot then correlated the three aspects to archetypal figures, namely “the philosopher living within his school, the philosopher living in the City, the philosopher living with himself (and with what transcends him).”[1]

To non-specialists in ancient thought, the distinction may seem odd, to say the least. Don’t most philosophers live in cities? Don’t they all belong to one school of thought or another? And how are we to envision “the philosopher living with himself” or with herself, if not through a broken prism of intellectual biographies and autobiographies?

Let’s take a closer look at the first and the third of Hadot’s points. Living in a school of philosophy is a proto-monastic experience, replete with a venerated spiritual master and a clear organizational structure set up at an arm’s length from the world. A philosopher living with herself or himself engages in what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises,” including examinations of conscience, meditations, and “the inner and mystical life.”[2] Both of these aspects of doing philosophy seem hopelessly outdated, surviving in a hardly recognizable form, at best. The proverbial ivory tower of the university is a distant and perverted echo of ancient schools, while spiritual exercises in the commercial wrapping of yoga and meditation classes are no more than hobbies only incidentally relevant to obtaining tenure or dealing with the stress of the publication assembly line.

 More curious is the fate of “living in the City.” With respect to this contextual facet of philosophizing, Hadot writes:

…the philosophical schools never renounced exercising an active influence on their fellow citizens. The means mobilized to achieve this end are certainly different. Some philosophers attempted to effect direct political action, dreaming of seizing power. Others contented themselves with counselling the rulers. Others still put themselves in service of the city, in giving lessons to the ephebes or in attempting to rescue it by becoming ambassadors. Others hoped to make their fellow citizens comprehend what the true life is, proposing to them the example of their own life. All, in fact, think to change the way of life of their fellow citizens.[3]

Hadot confirms that philosophy in Antiquity is quintessentially ethical and political. The effects philosophers intended to have on their fellow citizens and on rulers are not belated additions to their theoretical programs. These hands-on consequences are at the core of philosophizing, whether the philosopher lives in the city or in a quasi-monastic setting. And it is at this level that distinctions start getting a little blurry: no matter how secluded a philosophical school, it aims to intervene into public life, just as no matter how singularly individual a spiritual exercise, its ultimate goal is to lead others by example.     

Taken together, the three dimensions of philosophy imply that this type of human pursuit is simultaneously personal and public, esoteric and exoteric, thanks to the linkage its desired ethical and political effects provide. This deep integration of philosophical theories and practices all but dissipates in our times.

Philosophers who do not have “ethical and political thought” as their specialization are largely aloof to the broader effects of their writings or thought experiments. The few, who still endeavor to counsel rulers, function as apologists for the status quo (a case in point is Bernard-Henri Lévy in France, though many others can be cited as well). Those teaching at Harvard, Yale or Stanford—and, therefore, de facto bearing responsibility for the preparation of future political cadres for the United States and other countries around the world—rarely assume the onus of this implicit responsibility. So-called public intellectuals often reduce their messages to a set of therapeutic platitudes.

If, as Hadot states about ancient philosophers, all of them “think to change the way of life of their fellow citizens,” then the question for us in the twenty-first century is: why think at all in a world where any such change is ruled out from the get-go? Or do we only think that we are still thinking after a vital aspect of philosophizing has fizzled out?

Recall that the ethical and political power of philosophy in Antiquity is, far from an extraneous addition, part and parcel of the task of philosophizing. (Were it not, philosophy with its advocacy of change would have been nothing but ideology.) It is along these lines that Aristotle saw in political science the queen of all sciences. For the Greek thinker, the most important question was the question of ends: what for? what good is it? The question of ends was the question bearing on the good, even and especially in its most pragmatic and practical versions. Now, the science called “political” was concerned with the common good, which, in its universal embrace of all other ends, was the most encompassing. That’s why politics, for Aristotle, was the highest of sciences, situated above the study of nature (physics) or of household management (economy).

To follow the thread of the above example (which is, of course, more than an example), contemporary philosophy and everyday discourse assume the irrelevance of ends and berate the Aristotelian final causes. The consensus emerging through a pervasive critique of teleology is that there are no fixed ends, with the attendant conclusion that completion and accomplishment boil down to a bunch of shameful illusions. Nevertheless, one and the same end, tied to ever-growing profit margins, animates much of cultural, intellectual, political, not to mention economic life behind the scenes of the collapse of teleologies.

What we have before us is a blatant, albeit unacknowledged, contradiction: there are no fixed ends, but everything hinges on and is made to serve the end of profit-making. A similar contradiction looms large in twenty-first-century philosophy as a whole. Metaphysics, with its perennial claim that the world is reducible to a single idea, substance, or being, which, at the same time, transcends it, has been declared dead. Still, under the guise of postmetaphysical neutrality, we find the metaphysics of a technological (more precisely, the technicist) mindset, armed with numeric abstractions and algorithms for managing social and political life, patterns of consumption, and so forth. In other words, metaphysics has come to a close, but everything is imbued with the metaphysics of technicity.

We are a long way, indeed, from the three aspects of philosophical practice, as Hadot summarized them. But, instead of nostalgically bemoaning the current situation, let’s ask: what if the powerlessness of philosophy were a blessing in disguise? After all, when philosophers are perceived as direct, or even indirect, influences on fellow citizens and the authorities, they are often violently rejected and, worse, are subject to persecution and death. Just think of the trial of Socrates, in the course of which the Athenian jury found him guilty of “corrupting the young,” as well as of Seneca’s condemnation to suicide by Nero, Hypatia’s mob lynching, Thomas More’s beheading, Baruch Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu nationalist…

Against this depressing background, the powerlessness of philosophy, a discipline that is no longer taken seriously, is a blessing in disguise, not because philosophers can finally save their own skin—or, at least, not only because of that. In line with the other two contradictions we have already discerned, it means that philosophers and philosophy have no power, but everything depends on the power of philosophy. The metaphysical mindset triumphed after philosophers were convinced that it was over and done with; philosophy itself is poised to gain strength when the public at large and those in the positions of authority are persuaded that it is utterly useless.

The powerlessness of philosophers and of philosophy itself is the power of thinking in the face of multiple crises, when tried-and-tested solutions fail. It is the power of what appears to be futile in the present and of what, all of a sudden, becomes invaluable the moment the established order no longer works, be it due to the earth-shattering effects of a pandemic or of climate change. A power that, shorn of obvious effectiveness and immediate applications, is still consistent with the much-maligned highest ends of Aristotelian thought.

In 1847, Karl Marx published The Poverty of Philosophy, punning on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1846 The Philosophy of Poverty, to which Marx intended to respond. Despite the promise of the title, Marx actually has little to say about philosophy in this work, developing instead the foundations for a future critique of political economy. Implicitly, though, his conclusion is that philosophy is poor due to its adherence to sheer abstraction, which puts it on the side of exchange-value, oblivious to qualitatively differentiated ends. While alluding to this intellectual prehistory, “the powerlessness of philosophy” is not meant to be either exceedingly critical or dismissive of the philosophical endeavor. Quite the contrary, my point is that we should assume such powerlessness without a smidgeon of defeatism and in keeping with the other contradictions of our age. And, once we do, philosophy might finally become something that truly matters.



[1] Pierre Hadot, “The Ancient Philosophers,” in The Selected Writings of Pierre Hadot: Philosophy as Practice (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2020), p. 50.

[2] Hadot, “The Ancient Philosophers,” p. 51.

[3] Hadot, “The Ancient Philosophers,” p. 51.