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Rightly pursued, philosophic practice deepens our presence to ourselves, to the world, and to one another. In particular, he excavates the meanings that shaped the more spacious horizons of philosophizing as it was practiced during the Hellenistic period.
We wander with him in the freer spaces in which the Pythagoreans, Neo-Platonists, Skeptics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics encountered themselves, one another, and their world. And he shows us that the key to philosophic meaning turns out not to lie in the systematic, theoretic, formal, conceptual content of these philosophies which, as the critics of these thinkers point out, was rather fragmentary, where present, as well as being fraught with contradictions compared to the more systematically-organized philosophies of the modern age.
Rather, what these thinkers teach us is that philosophic meaning is something that can only be fully specified through a personally-transformative engagement with the texts via spiritual exercises.
He shows how in the Hellenistic period, as well as in some of the most existentially transformative philosophies beyond of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Goethe, and Rousseau, among others , spiritual exercises served to supplement philosophical theorizing by grounding it in existential, experientially-transformative insight.
A spiritual exercise he defines as a method of focusing, drawing on, and transforming the total structure of the personality in order to reveal deeper resources for engaging with reality than we normally draw on in our blinkered, habitual, culturally pre-programmed perception of the world.
Hadot makes a sharp distinction between habitual perception and philosophic perception, the latter being the perception of the fully realized personality, which can only be uncovered on the other side of sustained practice. Spiritual exercises are the means to such perception. Usually, they are exercises of defamiliarization which remove the dead weight of superficial familiarity off of experienced things in order to show us the world as if we were seeing it for the first time: inexhaustibly poignant, and an ever-renewable source of meaning and value.
Their aim is the shedding and stripping of all inessentials, in the form of culturally-received opinions, which lays bare for the first time the essential values and meanings by which we can live lives of inner freedom and harmony. Rather than being optional extras to philosophizing, Hadot insists that such exercises supply the core content of philosophies. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it.
It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom. Philosophy, rightly conceived, is an ever -renewed act in the service of this transformation, taken up and practiced at each instant.
Such practice, over time, takes up the dim, scattered material of our experience and intensifies it, gathering it into a unified pattern. All the philosophic schools he discusses recognized that the end goal, wisdom, is never reached as a stable, persisting state of being. Rather, they each affirm philosophy as the ever-renewed commitment to practice aiming at attaining an ever deepening degree of realization within our lived, day-to-day experience which transforms the inner economy of desires, attitudes and tastes, value-estimates, and conduct in the world.
The goal of philosophic exchange thus is not the transference of ready-made, free-standing theoretical constructs that remain inert possessions in my mind. Hadot shows how philosophic understanding grows through this process of progressive integration of multiple perspective worlds, towards ever-greater approximation of the ideal of a universal perspective, in which the fullest concept of unity can be experientially realized.
Our usual academic methods of purely discursive, exegetic and theoretical philosophizing fall short of the philosophic insights we could glean by such personally-transformative methods. Unlike other animals, the human animal is a self-birthing animal. Philosophy is the consciously-regulated process of that self-birthing. We begin the life of consciousness in a state of fragmentation and seemingly irresolvable flux. The most powerful and perennially relevant spiritual exercises he describes concern this effort to integrate our psyche into a working unity, a perspective capable of unifying the flux, ambiguity, paradox, and fragmentation of our experience.
All the philosophic schools he describes urge us that in order to realize the inherent potentialities of our experience, we must place it in a universal perspective by relating it to general principles via sustained meditation.
The ultimate goal is the cognition of the unity of things through the fully realized unity of the self.
Philosophy can only attain this developmental goal if it is more than an abstract, academic exercise, but is grounded instead in the context of a sustained life-practice via spiritual exercises which teach us how to relate the most universal principles which differ slightly in emphasis with each school to the most concrete, intimate details of our lived experience.
All the philosophic schools he describes share one this one crucial exercise in common: the effort to take a reflective step back from our usual ego-centred selves in order to place our personal experience in the context of the most universal perspective attainable. The self thus becomes a genuine, fully-living unity only when it strives against its limitations to vividly conceive the unity of the whole. Above all, the effort to escape from the confines of ego-centered perspective by vividly imagining and meditating on the expanse of infinities within infinities is liberating.
It is empowering, by bringing the self back to a more accurate estimate of the values of things than is given us by our culture. In the end, this exercise leads to the realization that the most essential values cannot be derived from adherence to external conditions, but spring rather from the quality of our presence to ourselves and to the world. Most importantly, this spiritual exercise he describes as the basis for genuine theoretical insight and for truly moral action.
Each school he discusses agrees that two key components of this exercise are the confrontation with death and the insistence on the absolute value of the present moment. The meditation on our death throws us back on the present moment, which we recognize as the only absolute in our purview. We do not see the present moment rightly until it becomes for us both the first and the last moment of life — which it invariably is.
Only the present is our own. Yet it is an inexhaustible sufficiency, carrying within it the germ of perennially renewable creation. Just as each instant presupposes the immensity of time, so does our body presuppose the whole universe.
It is within ourselves that we can experience the coming-into-being of reality and the presence of being. By becoming conscious of one single instant of our lives, one single beat of our hearts, we can feel ourselves linked to the entire immensity of the cosmos We experience ourselves as a moment or instant of this movement; this immense event which reaches beyond us, is always there before us, and is always beyond us. We are born along with the world. Death emerges as the universal solvent which dissolves everything but the value of personally transformative insight the seed of which is in each moment of life.
That is, the encounter with death alone can make us true knowers. Philosophy is not just about education and psychological consummation. It is also about therapy. In this guise, philosophy seeks to answer to the needs of that part of our being that is scarcely nourished by most of our lives in society. It seeks the mode of its healing, and strives to lift it up from its gutter, dust it off, give it voice, and put its pieces back together in the way they were supposed to fit.
In contrast to this personally-engaged mode of reading philosophy, which supplies content to the conceptual husk of the text via spiritual exercises, we are rather used by habits derived from our Analytic tradition to expect philosophic texts to dish out for us pre-masticated, aseptic and therefore anemic content that we can survey from a remove, without engaging ourselves in any thoroughgoing way in the joint pursuit of insight that was once, in dialectic, the heart of philosophic practice.
Logic-chopping and conceptual analysis are the standard of rigour for us, even if our rigour comes at the expense of existential irrelevance. Life in the world goes on untouched by our formal philosophies.
This mode of philosophizing purchases formal rigour at the cost of missing the central content of philosophy, which is self-realization. This means that we must dialogue with ourselves, and hence we must do battle with ourselves. Moreover, the content of a philosophy is often to be discerned between the lines. It is a dialectic, a dialogue, between us readers and the writer. More specifically, the content of a philosophy is the differential between our mode and level of spiritual development and that of the writer.
So, a key spiritual exercise is to learn to dialogue, to snap out of our natural, self-sealed monologues in order to learn to genuinely attend to the presence of others. In doing so, we more fully bring into articulateness the meaning of the presence within us.
Only he who is capable of a genuine encounter with the other is capable of an authentic encounter within himself, and the converse is equally true. Dialogue can only be genuine within the framework of presence to others and to oneself.
From this perspective, every spiritual exercise is a dialogue, insofar as it is an exercise of authentic presence, to oneself and to others. In the end, what the ancients can teach us is that happiness lies in the return to the essential values of life, in living in accord with our true nature, and in achieving the fullest relation with being-as-it-is that we are capable of. Above all, it lies in transcending the ego-centred orientation to life in favour of a more universal perspective.
In this, each philosophy recognizes that self-realization involves self-transcendence. We are the most universal perspective that we are capable of attaining. Hadot insists that while the worldview of modern science, which tends to quantitative, impersonal representations of nature, is nonetheless compatible with the ancient spiritual exercises which reveal the self not merely as isolated individual, but as -part- of a whole. It is this feeling, realized at the end of sustained practice, that is our ultimate response to the fear of death.
Who we are is precisely the degree of our distance from this center of our lives, from our ultimate realization as the unique selves that we are, with their incomparable modes of inhabiting and revealing being that they have. He cannot be pegged as either a materialist or idealist. His thought grows instead from that experiential source that lies beyond all philosophical creeds, and he asks us to grow ours from the same inexhaustible ground.
In the end, he changes the way you read ALL philosophy. Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, he shows, can each be best understood as inheritors of ancient spiritual exercises.
Behind their explicit theories lies an implicit existential orientation to a certain model of human perfectibility. Their goal is not theoretical insight for its own sake. They attempt to show ways of relating to ourselves and to the world that draw on more of our capacity for knowing and for experiencing meaning than we usually do.
It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often they even appear to be banal. Yet for these truths to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced.
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