Pierre Hadot: The Philosophical Meaning of the ‘Gaze From Above’ Of The Ancient Philosophers
Jean Delville, ‘L’Ecole du Silence’, 1929.
Today’s sharing are excerpts from Pierre Hadot ‘s ‘N’oublie pas de vivre’ essay, subtitled: ’Goethe et la tradition des exercises spirituels ’. Albin Michel. 2008. Our working translation from the original French.
For the ancient philosophers, the glance from above is an exercise of the imagination through which we can represent what we see from a higher perspective, reached by elevating ourselves above the earth; most often through a flight of the mind in the cosmos. There is a copious ancient literature that is related to this flight of the mind metaphor. In the perspective that is presently ours, I will only call to mind the texts that have a link with a gaze directed towards Earth or towards the All, or directed towards the infinite. In fact, we can observe that imaginative movement of rising towards the heights is inspired by a desire to dive-in the totality, and even beyond totality, in the infinite. Exactly similar to what the author of the ‘Treatise on the Sublime’ (attributed to Longinus) says:
‘Not even the whole universe would be enough for the contemplation and thought matching man’s yearning; often, his thoughts outflank the world’s boundaries that surround him.’
The gaze from above corresponds then to a tearing away that frees from terrestrial attractions. But this does not exclude a critical vision upon the shortness and ridicule of what most men are passionate about. Making the portrait of the philosopher, Plato in his ‘Theaetetus’ (173e) writes:
‘It is his body alone that is located in the city-state and dwells there. His mind, having come to the conclusion that all these things are of little or no account, spurns them and pursue its winged way, as Pindar says, throughout the universe, ‘in the deeps beneath the earth’, and geometrizing its surface, ‘in the heights above the heaven’, astronomizing, and tracking down by every path the entire nature of each whole among the things that are, never condescending to what lies near at hand.’
And in the ‘Republic’ (VI, 486a), again about the philosopher, Plato writes:
‘Such a soul will not conceal any baseness or shortness of spirit, that are incompatible with her, as she must strive to ceaselessly embrace the whole and the universality of the divine and the human. But, the soul, to which belong the elevation of thought and contemplation of the totality of time and being, do you believe that it makes a big deal of human life? Such a man will obviously not look upon death as something to fear.’
We recognize well here the representation of a flight above terrestrial things, but we do not find in Plato’s work, any detailed description of a gaze from above spiritual exercise.
Such descriptions appear eventually in the later platonic tradition. Cicero (Republic, VI-9-29), in ‘Scipio’s dream’, presents this experience somehow like lived in a dream. But the writer and his reader no less make a spiritual exercise, the former by writing and the later by reading the story of the dream. This exercise consists to imagine the vision of the sky, the stars, of the earth, that we can see from the milky way afar. It is the entire universe that the gaze embraces then: The nine spheres-which the most exterior one is God himself, the stars, The planets, and earth finally with its mountains, rivers, oceans. In such an experience, the individual thrives to replace himself within the Whole; we could say it is living physics, interiorized. It helps the soul to understand the inconsistency of human things, the vanity of glory, the true meaning of man’s destiny, called to live, not only on earth but in the vastness of the cosmos.
Philo of Alexandria, close to the Christian era, shares his philosophical experience:
‘There was once a time when, devoting my leisure to philosophy and to the contemplation of the world and the things in it, I reaped the fruit of excellent, and desirable, and blessed intellectual feelings, being always living among the divine oracles and doctrines, on which I fed incessantly and insatiably, to my great delight, never entertaining any low or groveling thoughts, nor ever wallowing in the pursuit of glory or wealth, or the delights of the body, but I appeared to be raised on high and borne aloft by a certain inspiration of the soul, and to dwell in the regions of the sun and moon, and to associate with the whole heaven, and the whole universal world. At that time, therefore, looking down from above, from the air, and straining the eye of my mind as from a watch-tower, I surveyed the unspeakable contemplation of all the things on the earth, and looked upon myself as happy as having forcibly escaped from all the evil fates that can attack human life.’ (‘De Specialibus Legibus’, III,1-2.)
It is this time, through an infinite space and the multiplicity of the worlds that the flight of the spirit takes its rise with the Epicureans. The world that we see is for them only one of the worlds that stretch in the infinite space and time. For example, in Cicero’s work an Epicurean states:
‘The measureless and boundless extent of space that stretches in every direction, into which when the mind projects and propels itself, it journeys onward far and wide without ever sighting any margin or ultimate point where it can stop. (‘Of the nature of the Gods’, I-21,54)
Lucretius says of Epicurus: ‘And forward thus he fared afar, beyond the flaming walls of the world, until he wandered the unmeasurable All.’ (‘On the Nature of things’, I-72/74)
‘And about the quest of knowledge: ‘For my mind-of-man now seeks the nature of the vast Beyond there on the other side, that boundless sum which lies without the walls of the world, toward which the spirit longs to peer afar, toward which indeed the swift surge of thought flies unencumbered forth.’ (‘On the Nature of things’, II-1044/47)
Or here: ‘The walls of the world open out, and through the void entire I see the movements of the universe.’
Before recalling the infinity of all things and the insignificance of what surrounds us, the sky, the earth, when compared to that infinite, Lucretius warns his reader: ‘It is here that you need to use that gaze that reaches afar and sees from above, and that you must look afar and in all directions.’
For the Epicureans, it is all about the bliss to dive into the infinite, into what has no limit.
It is also in the infinite that stretches the flight of the mind and the gaze from above with the Stoics, as witnessed by Seneca: ‘How natural it is for Man to stretch his mind towards the infinite’, and Marcus Aurelius: ‘The soul extends itself into the infinity of time.’ But with the Stoics, there is only a limited universe, time being infinite, in which the same limited universe repeats itself infinitely.
We could say that this gaze from above, with the Platonists, the Epicureans and the Stoics, is a sort of practice, an exercise in physics insofar as, with the help of knowledge in physics, the individual locates himself as part of the Whole of the world or the infinite of the worlds. This vision provides the philosopher joy and peace of the soul. Epicurus states that we wouldn’t need the study of nature, if we would not be troubled by the fear of the gods and death.
‘The soul, says Seneca, owns in its completed and full form, the good that the human condition can achieve, when trampling underfoot all the evil, it rises towards the heights and reaches up to the most intimate bosom of nature. She likes to hover among the stars.’ (Natural Questions, I- prolog,7)
This effort to look at the earth from above allows us to contemplate the totality of the human reality, under its geographical and social aspects, like a kind of anonymous swarm, and to replace it with the cosmic vastness. Seen from this perspective of universal nature, the things that do not depend from us, the things the Stoics call ‘indifferent’-for instance health, glory, wealth, death-are brought back to their real proportions.