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.
Over the years, my wife and I enjoyed the Hadots' hospitality on many occasions, often at their home in Limours, a suburb some twenty miles south of Paris, where he was very proud of his well-kept garden and loved to go for walks in the neighboring woods. When he was in Paris, we would often go for dinner to a Vietnamese restaurant on the Rue des Ecoles, no longer extant, to which Michel Foucault had introduced him. He always encouraged us to have the deep-fried banana for dessert, mainly because although he loved the dish, his delicate health and vigilant wife would not allow him to order it for himself, but he could always sneak a bite from someone else's plate. In every circumstance, he was the same: simple, unpretentious, with a mischievous gleam in his eye. Seldom has a man worn his erudition more lightly. Seldom, as well, has a man practiced so well what he preached. Although he won numerous awards and distinctions,2 he never discussed them in any tone other than that of self-deprecating humor. He liked to tell of how Jacqueline de Romilly once telephoned him to let him know he had been nominated for the prestigious Grand Prix de Philosophie by the Académie Française: “We didn't have anybody this year,” she allegedly told him, “and so we thought of you.” He also had great fun with the fact that two volumes of his articles were published by Les Belles Lettres in a collection entitled “l'âne d'or”—“The Golden Ass.”3 He claimed, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye, that he had posed for the fine portrait of the golden donkey that graced the cover of these books.
As a young philosophy student, I had often been disillusioned by finding that my philosophical heroes had feet of clay: although they wrote fine-sounding phrases in their books, they were often vain, disdainful, or otherwise unpleasant when one met them in person. Not so Pierre Hadot: like Plotinus, he was always available to himself, but above all to others. For his 80th birthday, Hadot reserved a restaurant near Limours for over a hundred guests, who were distributed at tables in groups of six to eight. As the meal progressed, Hadot made sure to come and sit for a while at each table, laughing and joking with everyone, making each guest feel as though he or she were truly special to him. Waiters and hostesses received, unfailingly, the same friendly, non-condescending treatment.
I last saw Pierre Hadot on April 12th of this year, when, despite his weakness, he came from Limours to Paris to attend a celebration devoted to him at the library of the École Normale Supérieure. At age 88, he was extremely fragile, and his eyesight and hearing were failing rapidly. Yet he held out for two hours, answering questions from the audience—something he always disliked, convinced that he was not sufficiently eloquent in unrehearsed repartee—and seeming to regain strength as the evening progressed. At the end, he thanked the organizers and participants, emphasizing that what was important was that the event had been organized and carried out in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect. Soon afterwards, he entered the hospital at Orsay and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died less than two weeks after his appearance at the ENS, accompanied, as he had been for 45 years, by his beloved Ilsetraut.
Needless to say, it is too soon to give a definitive evaluation of Hadot's thought, and only the future will verify, or fail to verify, Roger-Pol Droit's judgment on him: “ discrete, almost self-effacing, this singular thinker might well be, in a sense, one of the influential men of our epoch.”4 What is certain is that he has trained a generation of students and scholars who continue his work, and that his writings, translated into many languages, continued to inspire readers from throughout the world, many of whom wrote him to say, in a variety of formulations: “You have changed my life.” Pierre Hadot was a man almost destitute of personal vanity, but if there was one thing he was proud of, it was not the multiple honors he received throughout his career, but the effect he had on the average reader.
CNRS UPR 76 / Centre Jean Pépin
1 “La figure du Sage dans l'Antiquité Gréco-latine,” in G. Gadoffre, ed., Les Sagesses du Monde, Paris 1991, p. 9-26.
2 1969 : Prix Saintour décerné par l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres; 1969: Prix Desrousseaux décerné par l'Association pour l'encouragement des Études Grecques; 1972: Corresponding member of the Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur of Mainz; 1979: Silver medal, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique; 1985: Docteur honoris causa de l'Université de Neuchâtel; 1990: Prix Dagnan-Bouveret de l'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques; 1992: Prix d'Académie (Fondation Le Métais-Larivière Fils), Académie Française; 1999: Grand Prix de Philosophie de l'Académie Française; 2000: Corresponding member of the Akademie der Wissenschaften at Munich; 2002: Docteur honoris causa de l'Université de Laval (Québec).
3 Études de philosophie ancienne, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1998. (L'âne d'or; 8); Plotin. Porphyre. Études néoplatoniciennes, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1999. (L'âne d'or ; 10). These works contain some of Hadot's more technical works on the history of Greek and Latin philosophy, but also some of his early studies on the philosophy of nature. There is material for many more such volumes, among the 100 or so articles Hadot penned throughout his career.
4 “Pierre Hadot, 86 ans de sagesse,” Le Point. Débats, 17/04/2008, downloaded at https://www.lepoint.fr/actualites-chroniques/2008-04-18/pierre-hadot-86-ans-de-sagesse/989/0/238823.