“Philosophy teaches us how to act, not how to talk” -Seneca the Younger
“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”. In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory- much less in the exegesis of texts- but rather in the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate life-style, which engages the whole of existence. The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. 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 (s)he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.” -Pierre Hadot
Today we are going to talk about AA and philosophy. To many of you, these two things are mysterious- you know of them, but little or nothing about them. Some of you might be familiar with the one but not the other. Hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll come to see that neither of them is all that foreign. To you.
Let me begin with a story: During my first year of college I decided to become a philosophy major because it was the only department that rather than detest my ceaseless questioning actually encouraged it. The fun thing about philosophy is that answering the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is itself a philosophical pursuit. You can imagine a college professor lecturing, “What is philosophy? The school pays me to teach you about philosophy. But does that make what I’m doing right now philosophy? Should I be fired?” And so on and so forth. This is the kind of thing that makes philosophy absurd. Absurd and brilliant. Because there is no other class you can take which is as radically reflexive as philosophy. You can’t make it far in physics if you constantly have to question whether or not physics is even true or real. At that you might say- And for good reason! Of course physics is real! Well, my only reply would be that physics, as well as history and biology and even mathematics were, at one time, pure speculation- philosophy! Only later did they become what they are.
Keep in mind that the definition of philosophy I just gave you- that’s right the paragraph you just finished reading- is itself one-sided, an experiment, an interpretation, and by no means a definition. But that’s not really my point. My point is I was telling you my story, of how I was attracted to philosophy by the promise of the freedom to ask questions.
Okay. During the same time that was going on, I also developed a penchant for (ab)using drugs and alcohol. Yada yada yada I’m part of this certain secret society for people who have the desire to stop drinking and drugging. For a long time, I thought AA was the exact opposite of philosophy, and had difficulty reconciling the two. Did I have to give up philosophy to be in AA? Would I need to give up AA for philosophy?
This might not make sense for those of you unfamiliar with AA, so before we proceed, let me paint a picture… 1. It is common knowledge in AA circles that thinking (yes, thinking) is not an asset but a liability- a deadly liability. 2. Part of AA is taking and following ‘suggestions’ from people who have more experience than you. These aren’t exactly orders, because no one will kick you out if you don’t follow them. But if you don’t follow them, in time you’ll kick yourself out. My point is that you have to be- get this- obedient. 3. Part of joining AA is resigning from “the debating society”. Yes, that is a common phrase. 4. Action, not contemplation, is the be-all and end-all. Let me reiterate: Action! As in leaving your den of theoretical isolation and interacting with complete strangers and making coffee before the meetings and afterward putting away all the chairs or throwing away cigarette butts as an act of service which is in a weird paradoxical way an honor that’s not so paradoxical once you DO it, not to mention completing ‘home work’ given to you by your sponsor that is anything but armchair philosophy. And 5. Faith. Not doubt. No questions. Faith.
This, I thought, is impossible! How can I incorporate my experience of philosophy with AA? Actually, due to some recent developments- okay, a recent development (discovering the work of French philosopher Pierre Hadot and his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault)- I’ve found this to be much easier than I thought.
Hadot’s definition of philosophy (I told you there were many) begins in ancient Greece and Rome. Back then there were these ‘schools’ that followed the teachings of great philosophers. The most famous one is probably Plato’s Academy, which was- in one form or another- up and running for 500 years. There were many schools: Peripatetic, Stoic, Epicurean, etc. The important thing here is that ‘schools’ were not like the schools we have now. They were, in Hadot’s words, “[where] the thought, life-style, and writings of a master were religiously preserved.” Life-style. Life-style!
How to live. What to do. Taking suggestions from people who have been in the school longer than you. Believing and living out the ideas set forth by the school’s founding fathers. Are you starting to see the connection? Committing yourself to a way of life- with other people!
The amazing thing I learned from Hadot’s research is that everyone who was a part of a philosophical school was considered a philosopher. Philosophers were not freakish intellects that fell into holes because their heads were in the sky. Okay, some were. But most philosophers were regular people. Following a way of life. Not necessarily intelligent. Intellect played a part, but not the part. What made you a philosopher was living like a philosopher. And that meant adopting certain behavior, taking action, completing exercises. Spiritual exercises.
Doesn’t that sound a lot better than mental masturbation? What most, pardon me, modern philosophy is precisely? Even this blog post about philosophy is not the real heart of the matter. It’s pointing to a process of activity that you do with your hands and breath and emotions and persistance and yes- doubt. Doubt plays a part. You mix it with faith and have dynamic faith.
OKAY. I promised you philosophy and AA would become less foreign to you. So far I’ve rambled on about cigarette butts and wayward undergraduate students and people that have been dead for thousands of years. Wasn’t this supposed to relate to me?- you might be asking. Yes, but to get there I need to take one last leap of abstraction.
If I had to boil down AA and philosophy (thus defined) it would be this: askesis: the ancient greek word for exercise or training. It’s also the root of the word ascetic. If you don’t know what an ascetic is think monk or olympic athlete. Anyone who does all sorts of crazy shit to achieve some questionable goal. Giving up- in some cases- candy, sex, or alcohol. In order to commune with God or run the mile faster than anyone else on Earth.
Now, most of us (myself included) are not taking it to that extreme but we all (of course not all humans, but I know you do, because here you are reading rather than watching television, and that requires a certain amount of effort- especially when plodding through the work of a mediocre writer who’s- did I forget to mention- very grateful that you are. Plodding along) in some way have our exercises. Maybe its running, abstaining from destructive habits, visiting people in a hospital, going to school, going back to school, improving our art, learning something new, waking up early to meditate, teaching others, caring for pets or loved ones, smelling the air, admitting when we were wrong, breathing deeply, paying good attention to whatever is present, travelling, reading Nietzsche, improving ourselves, learning how to live, learning how to die, taking time to cook a good dinner, surrendering, talking with a friend, orgasming, appreciating tea, making crafts, learning how to sew, praying, being nice to cats, sharing your experience, listening, maintaining your car or bicycle.
These exercises keep us fit: spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Not so mysterious at all.