Today we conclude our two-part remembrance of the French philosopher Pierre Hadot, who died last week at age 88. Yesterday, Hadot's friend and former student Michael Chase gave an account of the various turns in Hadot's intellectual life; today, he shares some personal recollections of a figure whose plainspokenness and accessibility belied the extraordinary sophistication of his mind and work.
Those of you wondering where to look for a good entry point to Hadot's work might start with What Is Ancient Philosophy?, Chase's translation of Hadot's 1995 book Qu'est-ce que la philosophie antique?, in which Hadot articulated most fully his view on "philosophy as a way of life."
Pierre Hadot - Part II
By Michael Chase
Having won a grant from the Canadian government to pursue my doctoral studies in Neoplatonism anywhere in the world, I followed an old teacher's advice and contacted the author of the book on the subject that I most admired: Porphyre et Victorinus. I first met Pierre Hadot at a conference at Loches, France, in the summer of 1987, where he gave a memorable lecture on “The Sage and the World.”1 He was kind enough to read and comment on the M.A. thesis I had written on Porphyry, and while I could not officially enroll under his direction for my PhD, since the Collège de France was not a degree-granting institution, I did enroll under his successor at the École pratique des hautes études, Philippe Hoffmann. After attending his lectures at the Collège for a couple of years, I persuaded him to allow me to translate some of his works into English, and this marked the beginning of a close friendship between Pierre and Ilsetraut Hadot and my wife Isabel and myself. As I continued my studies, he continued help to me out with advice, books, and articles, and when times got rough, with a few hundred francs from his own pocket as well.
What I remember most about Pierre Hadot was his simplicity. Although he had reached the highest echelons of the hierarchical French academic scheme, he never let it go to his head: in his lectures he spoke clearly, without excess rhetorical flourish, and if he wrote on the blackboard he did so with complete grace and relaxation, and often with that self-deprecating laugh that was so characteristic of him. On one occasion, he invited Isabel and me to lunch, along with half a dozen others; we were to meet at his office at the Collège de France. We all showed up, and Hadot began to lead the whole bunch of us off to the restaurant. In the hallway, however, he came across a lost-looking young couple, obviously foreigners, and asked them if he could help them. They were looking for the cafeteria, they told him timidly, and Pierre Hadot, instead of merely giving them directions, insisted on accompanying this unknown couple all the way to the cafeteria, leaving his “invited” guests to twiddle their thumbs. Each individual, known or unknown, deserved respect and courtesy in the view of Pierre Hadot. Yet he also spent a good deal of his life as an administrator, particularly at the EPHE, where he showed himself to be a tough and uncompromising negotiator, especially when questions of principle were at stake.