Pierre Hadot, Voltaire, and the figure of the philosophe

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010).

Pierre Hadot is rightly known preeminently for his work on ancient philosophy, including dedicated studies (and translations) of Plotinus and Marcus Aurelius. In a series of celebrated studies after 1970, Hadot made the case that ancient philosophy needed to be understood as a specific ‘form of life’ in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sense. To be a philosopher was to make an existential choice to live in a certain manner. This way of life, whether Stoic, Epicurean, or Platonic, was based upon a specific theoretical understanding of self, world, and language, but not reducible to it. It involved regimens of what Hadot calls ‘spiritual exercises’ like meditation on theoretical truths, premeditation of evils, the memento mori, codified practices of questioning and answering, and measures to moderate or remove negative emotions.

It is less well known that Hadot came to this assessment of ancient philosophy by way of a hermeneutic concern. He was struck by the distance between modern academic philosophy and ancient philosophical texts, with their different literary and rhetorical dimensions, digressions and genres (like dialogues and poems). Hadot was also taken by the way particular formulae, like ‘nature loves to hide’, or the ‘view from above’ on mortal affairs (see below), were repeated and varied in different philosophers and philosophical schools. Hadot’s substantive vision of ancient philosophy emerged as an attempt to give an adequate explanation of what social, ethical, political and intellectual conditions could explain these textual features.

In principle as in fact, then, this approach can be applied to modern as well as ancient philosophical writings, wherever these significantly vary from the 6-12,000-word papers, commentaries, and treatises we presently credit. In one of his public presentations, in fact, Hadot mentions the Enlightenment philosophers, as well as movements in ‘popular philosophy’, as examples of the survival of the ancient idea of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ in modern times. Hadot’s comment is significant in all sorts of ways, not least since Hadot never widely pursues it, although his last work is a book on Voltaire’s great admirer, Goethe. We know that the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, led by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, are rarely taught today in philosophy departments as philosophers. We can well surmise that the premier reason for this is that their philosophical outputs each involved, by our standards, solely literary outputs – dialogues, dramas, epistolary novels, dramas, poetry – as well as texts aiming less at theoretical discovery or innovation than popular dissemination and application of ideas – encyclopedia and dictionary entries, pamphlets, even novellas and short stories dramatizing philosophical ideas and debates.

Reading Voltaire and the other philosophes’ works with Hadot’s metaphilosophical ideas in view asks us to bracket our assumptions as to what they ‘should’ have been doing, and focus on trying to identify just what ‘philosophy’ meant for them in the eighteenth century, and as such what it might still mean on an expanded view. We will also, using such a method, come to see how much closer the philosophes’ senses of what they were doing, and the different aims and types of philosophical writing, were to those of the ancient philosophers whom Hadot studied in great depth.

Many Enlightenment scholars won’t be surprised, in one way, at this last idea. Peter Gay’s two volume series on the Enlightenment is only one of many dedicated texts which have recognized the scale of the debts Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and other lumières owed to ‘the ancients’ they generally revered. The lumières were attracted, at the level of ideas, to the moral uprightness and sound ethico-political principles of the ancient philosophical schools, which did not depend on revealed religion. They saw in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, but also (in Voltaire’s case) ancient China, living examples of worlds in which religious sectarianism and fanaticism had not threatened civil peace, and in which the highest artistic and intellectual creations had been fostered.

Nevertheless, there is also a second dimension to the philosophes’ admiration of the ancient philosophers: one reflecting their continued recognition of the ancient idea of philosophy as a choice of life. Montesquieu and Voltaire revered Cicero in particular, as a philosopher as well as a man of action who served his nation unto death. Voltaire and Diderot continually entertained comparisons between the Socrates of The Apology and their own fates as exiles and prisoners for the sake of their pursuits of wisdom. Diderot compares himself also, at different moments, to both Diogenes the Cynic and Aristippus the hedonist, as in his Regrets for my old dressing gown (Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre). When Voltaire lists those figures who alone have the right to preach good morals in the entry ‘Dogmes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique, the list includes Socrates, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as well as the Chinese sage Confucius.

If we look at Du Marsais’s famous entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Encyclopédie, again, we find a clear primacy of social and ethical attributes such as Hadot might lead us to expect, over this philosophe’s adherence to any theoretical system. This philosopher is a man of the world whose only deity is civil society, and who wishes to live and enjoy his experiences of this world as fully as possible. Indeed, when the philosopher’s approach to ideas is examined, what comes up for praise is his ability to assess evidence and testimony clearly and carefully, withholding his assent to ideas that are not yet clearly established. But this is an epistemic virtue which reflects old Stoic ideas of ‘non-precipitancy’, and of course, the entire lineage of the ancient sceptical tradition. It is a kind of lived practice of thinking, or what Hadot calls ‘logic as a spiritual exercise’, rather than any specific dogmatic commitment.

Of course, this is not to say improbably that the philosophes wholly reembraced the ancient ideal and practices of philosophy, without change, and that as such, Hadot’s work on the ancients could likewise be ‘transplanted’ into eighteenth-century studies sans phrase. Nevertheless, if we focus in the remainder of this blog on Voltaire, we can say that Hadot’s approach allows us to understand aspects of Voltaire’s work that other philosophical methodologies might sideline, and indeed highlights particular features that other approaches can pass over as insignificant or ‘wholly literary’.

Take Voltaire’s opening description of the task of the philosopher, in his own entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

‘Philosophe, amateur de la sagesse, c’est-à-dire, de la vérité. Tous les philosophes ont eu ce double caractère, il n’en est aucun dans l’antiquité qui n’ait donné des exemples de vertu aux hommes, et des leçons de vérités morales.’ (Philosopher, ‘lover of wisdom’, that is, ‘of truth’. All philosophers have possessed this two-fold character; there is not one amongst the philosophers of antiquity who did not give examples of virtue to mankind, and lessons of moral truth.)

Here, the philosopher is someone who loves something, the truth, rather than necessarily knowing it. He is also someone who gives an example, by his own conduct and way of life, of ethical virtues to others. This surely sounds strange to us today, in a culture which hardly sees its philosophers as exemplars to be emulated by the young.

Elsewhere, like the Epicureans and Stoics in particular, Voltaire will also assign a therapeutic role to philosophy. Philosophical learning and reflection is a means to quell the passions that divide people, and which we see on such destructive display in all forms of fanaticism, theological or secular. No ancient philosopher, Voltaire argues, was ever a sectarian. And whilst several were exiled or killed for their stances, none urged or participated in lynchings, mobbings, or sundry persecutions of those with whom they disagreed. ‘Les sectes des philosophes étaient non seulement exemptes de cette peste [fanaticism]’ (The sects of [ancient] philosophers were not merely exempt from this plague), Voltaire writes, they were antidotes to it, which might cure the disease again today: ‘Car l’effet de la philosophie est de rendre l’âme tranquille, et le fanatisme est incompatible avec la tranquillité’ (for the effect of philosophy is to render the soul tranquil, and fanaticism and tranquility are totally incompatible).

Zadig and Astarte (1782), engraved by J. R. Smith (1751-1812).

Another ancient literary-philosophical trope that recurs in Voltaire is the ‘view from above’. Philosophical reasoning resituates our own egoistic perspectives into a different, larger frame. And once we do this, we can overcome many of the interpersonal and personal issues which, viewed unphilosophically, can potentially overwhelm us. The formula repeats, as a theme for philosophical meditation, across Platonic, Epicurean, Stoic, and even Cynical texts (if we count Lucian of Samosata a Cynic).

Yet Voltaire repeatedly has his characters, or his own narrative voice (as in the Traité sur la tolérance) step backwards or upwards, to describe humans as like ants, and our societies and battles like those of swarming insects. Hadot himself in his book on Goethe cites the moment when Zadig is separated from his beloved Astarte:

Zadig steer’d his Course by the Stars that shone over his Head. The Constellation of Orion, and the radiant Dog-star directed him towards the Pole of Canope. He reflected with Admiration on those immense Globes of Light, which appear’d to the naked Eye no more than little twinkling Lights; whereas the Earth he was then traversing, which, in Reality, is no more than an imperceptible Point in Nature, seem’d, according to the selfish Idea we generally entertain of it, something very immense, and very magnificent. He then reflected on the whole Race of Mankind, and look’d upon them, as they are in Fact, a Parcel of Insects, or Reptiles, devouring one another on a small Atom of Clay. This just Idea of them greatly alleviated his Misfortunes …’

Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.15 (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The rightly most famous example of this is the effect produced by having the 24,000 foot giant Micromégas visit our little ‘anthill’, and converse with some of us ‘infinitely small’ humans. Echoing the ancient philosopher-satirist Lucian, Voltaire’s hero soon condemns with disgust the folly of human tribes engaging in bloody warfare for pieces of land no bigger than his heel, at the behest of authorities most of those killed and killing will never so much have met.

Voltaire uses a variation of the same ‘view from above’ Hadot identified as a recurrent ancient philosophical trope at the end of the education of the hapless, defeated would-be sage Memnon. In Memnon, it is an angel from Micromegas’s home planet, Sirius, who delivers the philosophical message:

Your fate will soon change,’ said the animal of the star. ‘It is true, you will never recover your eye, but, except that, you may be sufficiently happy if you never again take it into your head to be a perfect philosopher.’ ‘Is it then impossible?’, asked Memnon. ‘As impossible as to be perfectly wise, perfectly strong, perfectly powerful, perfectly happy … There is a world indeed where all this is possible; but, in the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, everything goes on by degrees’.

Micromégas, engraving by G. Vidal, after Charles Monnet.

What we note here, however, is Voltaire’s specifically sceptical orientation, when it comes both to ancient philosophical thought, as well as to any too optimistic assessment of human perfectibility. Memnon in fact has begun by trying to make himself a sage exactly through practising Stoic spiritual exercises, like the disenchanting analysis of seductive appearances:

‘When I see a beautiful woman, I will say to myself: “These cheeks will one day grow wrinkled, these eyes be encircled with vermilion, that bosom become flabby and pendant, that head bald and palsied.” I have only to consider her at present in imagination, as she will afterwards appear; and certainly a fair face will never turn my head …’

It is this ambition towards self-perfection that provokes Voltairean fate, as episode by episode undermines his pretentions to complete virtue and wisdom. Another interesting episode in Voltaire of this kind is hence the short text Les Deux Consolés, in which ‘the great philosopher Citophile’ tries to comfort a bereaved women by regaling her with stories of other, more illustrious women who had suffered worse losses. Once more, the Voltairean furies (as it were) descend upon the philosopher-preacher:

‘Next day the philosopher lost his only son, and was entirely prostrated with grief. The lady caused a catalogue to be drawn up of all the kings who had lost their children, and carried it to the philosopher. He read it—found it very exact—and wept nevertheless. / Three months afterwards they chanced to renew their acquaintance, and were mutually surprised to find each other in such a gay and sprightly humor. To commemorate this event, they caused to be erected a beautiful statue to Time, with this inscription: “TO HIM WHO COMFORTS”.’

So, Voltaire was not simply an ‘ancient’, at least if we take ancient philosophy to have been universally committed to the possibility that a philosopher could ever become fully perfect or wise. He clearly worries that this aspiration looks too close to those which fire religious fanaticisms. Here as elsewhere, the ‘(non)sage’ of Cirey and Ferney is far closer to Michel de Montaigne – which also means, as we’ve indicated, to the ancient Sceptical heritage.

What reading Voltaire and other eighteenth-century philosophers with Hadot allows us to see, however, is how many of the questions and concerns of the ancient philosophers – including this concern with the possibility of anyone ever becoming a sage – are still amongst the philosophes. What will above all distinguish Voltaire or Diderot in particular from the ancients they emulated is the preeminence of specifically social and political concerns in their writings. Philosophers should aspire towards being ethical exemplars, and to use their writings to quell the passions which are the sources of avoidable human misery. But in doing so, they should recognize that many of these sources are sociopolitical in nature, and champion sociopolitical reforms. To write is therefore to act, for Voltaire – but not simply on oneself and one’s understandings. It is also to hope to enlighten the minds and sentiments of one’s contemporaries, with a view as if from above to future generations’ betterment.

– Matthew Sharpe

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