Of Many Things

C. S. Lewis wrote of “Hamlet” that it was best to read the play like a small child. Children never tire of hearing stories over and over again. They relish atmosphere, and they never forget details that seem insignificant to adults. One of the joys of growing older, I find, is hearing and reading beloved stories over again. This summer I began re-reading Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, a Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian trilogy, near the top of my all-time favorite list.

A handful of books have stirred up warm memories, not of childhood tales, but of books read in my early college years. They opened my mind in what Alfred North Whitehead called education’s “romance” stage, before graduate studies overwhelmed my grey cells with facts and theories. Last year it was Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. This year I came upon two books that have renewed my relish for philosophy.

Christopher Phillips’s Six Questions of Socrates examines the classic virtues with circles of questioners around the world. In What Is Ancient Philosophy? Pierre Hadot expounds his thesis that philosophy is a way of life nurtured by “spiritual exercises.” Both books represent a retrieval of philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom.

Phillips, the founder of the Socrates Café, a wandering symposium of philosophical inquiry ([email protected]), and author of the book of the same name, examines four virtues discussed in Plato’s Socratic dialogues (moderation, justice, courage and piety) together with the overarching moral ideas, virtue and goodness.

Phillips’s dialogues are completely fresh, however, because they take place in various countries (Mexico, Greece, Japan, South Korea, the United States) and across diverse cultures (Meso-American, Mediterranean, Asian, Islamic, Native American, American Catholic). The questions--and often the answers--are universal, but the context and texture of the responses are enriched by the interlocutors’ specific life-experience.

Mexicans reflect on justice in light of the Zapatista rebellion and the student massacre of 1968; Japanese school children explore the meaning of courage against the background of cartoon-version samurai; Native Americans and South Koreans explore moderation in light of the evolution of their historic cultural ideals.

Hadot restricts himself to ancient and late antique Christian philosophy; but he puts his topic in a whole new light by showing how essential spiritual disciplines were to the pursuit of wisdom. Students of Plato know how love and death, as well as dialectic, were propaedeutics to philosophic understanding, but they may not know how many spiritual exercises had their source in ancient philosophy: the examination of conscience, the particular examen to correct faults, the imagined deathbed scene as an aid to making significant decisions, and more.

As a Jesuit, schooled in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I was astonished to learn how many of Ignatius’ methods for spiritual growth derived from ancient philosophical schools. Even some of the major meditations and contemplations have philosophic precedents. “Indifference” as the first step on the road to spiritual progress is an obvious connection. Less obvious, but no less real, is the survey of the world and history in the Contemplation on the Incarnation as a way to find one’s place in the cosmos. What is different in the Ignatian exercises is the identification with Christ, poor and humiliated, his mission and God’s will.

With Phillips I share a temptation to cultural pessimism. Materialism appears to be dissolving our Western cultural heritage; American power is undermining the tradition of disciplined, virtuous freedom that is the soul of our nation. Phillips and Hadot give hope that we can recover the spiritual roots of Western civilization.

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