I’ve known Pat Geier almost 40 years. Not two months into the pandemic, we began Zooming on Fridays, then added Mondays, and before too long were immersed in reading and discussing the works of French philosopher Pierre Hadot who stated, “Ever since I started doing philosophy, I’ve always believed that philosophy was a concrete act, which changed our perception of the world, and our life: not the construction of a system. It is a life, not a discourse.” Through Hadot we learned from Socrates, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Epicurus, and Plotinus. Central to Hadot’s work are “Spiritual Exercises,” which “have been, and continue to be, practiced in every age, in the most widely diverse milieus, and in widely different latitudes: China, Japan, India; among the Christians, Muslims, and Jews.”
Pat and I also went on to read Sharon Lebell’s accessible The Art of Living by Epictetus. That title came back to me when rereading an anthology edited by one of Eknath Easwaran’s students, Tim Flinders. In Henry David Thoreau: Spiritual and Prophetic Writings, I marked the following passages that addressed this perennial theme.
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
The most practically important of all questions, it seems to me, is how shall I get my living, and yet I find little or nothing said to the purpose in any book…. One would think, from looking at literature, that this question had never disturbed a solitary individual’s musings…
Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.
No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.
Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.
We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, … and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.
For every generation makes the discovery that its divine vigor has been dissipated, and each sense and faculty misapplied and debauched. The ears were made, not for such trivial uses as men are wont to suppose, but to hear celestial sounds. The eyes were not made for such groveling uses as they are now put to and worn out by, but to behold beauty now invisible. May we not see God?
Tim Flinders, Henry David Thoreau: Spiritual and Prophetic Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters), Orbis Books, 2015
Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Blackwell-Wiley, 1995
Epictetus, Sharon Lebell, The Art of Living:The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, HarperOne, 2007