Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The thinking at the end of the tunnel

In a previous post I suggested reading 'The Last Days of Socrates' by way of preparation for an intellectual holiday to ancient Greece.

To take the actual vacation, why not start off by reading Pierre Hadot's What is Ancient Philosophy?. This will give you a feel for the notion of philosophy as a way of life rather than a mode of theorising about it. The Greeks are particularly interesting to spend some time with because they are both very strange and very familiar - though given the widespread educational neglect of the classics, the 'strangeness' is liable to dominate your first perceptions of them.

You can set your own agenda and timetable. As you dig deeper, by reading works by particular philosophers from time to time (Hadot describes many of the most important ones), you may then sense some affinity. For most of us are emerging from an intellectual tunnel of ideas created by Christianity and only made longer by those great figures, like Marx and Freud, who appeared to be set on dismantling it.

In the writings of the Greeks, we can see a form of thinking about the fundamental problems of life that has not been bent out of shape by the forces within this tunnel. For that reason alone, such thinking can be useful to us - even though we cannot simply transplant it into our own historical situation.

What to pack for the mind-beach.

For a lighthearted general introduction: It's All Greek To Me, Charlotte Higgens

For something more serious that is designed to cater for political correctness and other aspects of modern theorising about identity: The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others, Paul Cartledge

As a small child, I found The Greeks by H.D.Kitto endlessly fascinating - though I presumptuously thought I could do better, and wrote to Penguin to tell them so. They replied with a charming hand-written letter saying that although they were sure my book would be very good, they were unable, for legal reasons to offer a contact to someone of such a tender age. I came across The Greeks in a second-hand book shop recently - it has not aged well, but precisely because it did not have to navigate through the mine fields of modern political preconceptions, it throws out some colourful ideas.

Key Works by the two most famous Greek Philosophers
Republic and/or Symposium and The Death of Socrates, Plato
Ethics, Aristotle (I prefer Roger Crisp's translation (Cambridge University Press))

Other books I have found use in this connection
Care of the Self, Michel Foucault
Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams
The Art of Living, Alexander Nehamas


  1. I loved Hadot's book when I first read it. It was extraordinarily accessible for a writer as erudite as he is.

    I also found that laying down Hadot's book alongside Nehamas' The Art of Living creates a nice harmony. Nehamas, before beginning his fascinating readings of Socrates and Plato, talks about the notion of philosophy as a theoretical discipline. What he focuses on, much as he did in his previous study of Nietzsche, is a particular form of philosophical life, one where form and content, style and theses, are, if not integrated, at least as important as the other. Pure theory is one way to do philosophy, but it certainly doesn't exhaust the type (nor, Nehamas adds in a Rortyan fashion, could any one type exhaust that peculiar thing we refer to as philosophy).

  2. Thanks Mark. The Nehamas book makes an excellent companion to Hadot's. Both provide an illuminating context for Foucault's Care of the Self (but perhaps render it somewhat redundant). Against the tradition that seems to say "Find truth, then everything else will take care of itself", a counter-tradtion seems to be emerging that put the emphasis, instead, on self-creation.

    Incidentally, Hadot's work is very clear and immediately accessible, as you say, but it is also deep. Every time I go back to it, I discover something new.