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Stoic Spiritual Exercises – Episode 7


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Today’s podcast is an introduction to the concept of Stoic spiritual exercises. Over the next few episodes, I will be covering three Stoic spiritual exercises: the discipline of assent, the discipline of desire, and the discipline of action. These three exercises or disciplines are the core of what I call the path of the prokopton. In episode 5, I covered the concepts of attention (prosoche). In episode 6, I covered what is and is not “up to us,” which is commonly called the dichotomy of control. As I noted in that episode, Pierre Hadot refers to these as the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude and the fundamental rule of life respectively. Together, they constitute what Hadot calls the Stoic moral attitude, which is the attitude a prokopton takes toward all the events that occur in life. The Stoic spiritual exercises are the practices that develop that moral attitude and lead us farther along the Stoic path toward an excellent character and well-being. Those who are familiar with the writing of the French philosopher Pierre Hadot will recognize the concept of spiritual exercises. It is a constant theme in his books. He did not invent it; however, he applied the term to ancient philosophical practices and thereby illuminated the meaning and significance of these exercises. Before Hadot, the idea of philosophy as a way of life had largely been lost. Modern academic philosophy deviated so far from the concept of philosophy as a way of life that a 2016 critique was able to highlight the “pathologies” of contemporary academic philosophy and point out its complete abandonment of the philosophical practices of Socrates. The authors of that critique write: Universally venerated by contemporary philosophers, the actual philosophic practice of Socrates is rejected or ignored. Socrates could never get a position today in a philosophy (or any other) department.[1] This divergence from the philosophical practices of Socrates is important to twenty-first-century practitioners of Stoicism for two reasons. First, Socrates in the grandfather of Stoicism, and his way of life served as a model for the Stoics. As I noted in episode 4, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to follow the philosophical way of life after reading about the life of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia. That portrait of Socrates inspired Zeno to ask, “Where can I find men such as these? ”Second, because the path of the Stoic prokopton is a spiritual practice—it relies on the transformational power of these spiritual exercises that are largely, if not wholly, ignored by modern academic philosophers. Even where Stoicism is taught in academic environments, it is unlikely that any attention will be paid to these practices. Modern academia has little if any tolerance for anything considered spiritual. That is why it was necessary for Pierre Hadot to reintroduce the modern world to the spiritual nature of the ancient philosophical way of life. Philosophy as a way of life is so radically different from the mind-numbing, logic-chopping positivism that turns many people away from philosophy, we can argue it belongs in a different category. As Michael Chase wrote in the introduction of a published set of essays honoring Hadot: Hadot’s work, written in a plain, clear style that lacks the rhetorical flourishes of a Derrida or a Foucault, represents a call for a radical democratization of philosophy. It talks about subjects that matter to people today from all walks of life, which is why it has appealed, arguably, less to professional philosophers than to ordinary working people, and to professionals working in disciplines other than philosophy.[2] If you doubt the difference between Hadot’s approach to the ancient Stoics and that of modern academia, here is an experiment. Read and compare two books, both published in English in 1998 and both dealing with the application of Stoicism in the life of practitioners. The first book,

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