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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Sophiology and the Life Questions

hand study, Leonardo da Vinci

For a while there, I regularly taught philosophy in a couple of Catholic liberal arts colleges. Most professors don’t teach philosophy to undergraduates the way I do, preferring instead to run a kind of survey of historical philosophic movements (Platonism, Scholasticism, Pragmatism, Utilitarianism, and so forth), which is okay, I suppose, but rather a scholarly or almost antiquarian approach. It’s also often impossibly dull (for students, anyway). It would also be dull for me. So I don’t do it that way.

In fact, every course I teach is essentially a philosophy course, even, for instance, the current course I am finishing up, Love & Romanticism. How can one teach Blake, or Coleridge, or Shelley, or even John Clare without asking some fundamental questions concerning society, ultimate values, the possibility of transcendence, or the existence of evil? It’s impossible.

When I have taught those official “philosophy” courses, I used many literary and ostensibly religious texts as well as more technically philosophic works. A short (and incomplete) list includes Sophocles’s Antigone, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Plato’s Symposium, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Tao te Ching, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as Simone Weil’s “Human Personality” and Georges Poulet’s “The Phenomenology of Reading.” These allowed the students to reflect upon their understandings of, for example, familial, religious, and political obligation (Antigone); the existence of evil (Blood Meridian); love (Symposium); the idea of living a moral life (Tao te Ching and Meditations); the (pre)existence of the soul (Tibetan Book of the Dead); self-examination (“Human Personality”); and the spiritual activity of reading (“Phenomenology of Reading”). All of these considerations are part of what we can call “the Life Questions.” If we live our lives without asking and attempting to answer them, are we living a life at all? As Socrates asked, “Is the unexamined life worth living?”

As Brad Gregory notes in his outstanding The Unintended Reformation (is it old enough to be considered a classic yet?), these questions are very simple:

Despite the pervasive influence of science in our world, very few people look to it for answers to questions about the most important concerns of human life, and for good reason. ‘What should I live for, and why?’ ‘What should I believe, and why should I believe it?’ ‘What is morality, and where does it come from?’ ‘What kind of person should I be?’ ‘What is a meaningful life, and what should I do in order to lead a fulfilling life?’ These questions and others like them are Life Questions: they are serious questions about life, with important implications for life.” [1]

These simple questions are essential to self-knowledge; and, from what I’ve seen among college students (and, let’s be honest, most of our culture) over the past twenty years, students have been increasingly less and less concerned with them. With humanities programs more and more marginalized (if not completely eradicated) in the higher education landscape, this should come as no surprise. Of course, humanities programs in philosophy, literature, and history have only themselves to blame, captured as they have been by the simplistic and adolescent politics of “social justice” (which is neither) and cancel culture. So, I am not entirely saddened to see higher education in its death throes.

One book I have often used in philosophy courses is Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. Philosophy, as I have alluded above, is typically taught in a scientific way, as if both professor and student are impartial observers of philosophy over time. Hadot’s tack is much simpler: philosophy as spiritual exercise. This approach has inspired, among others, John Vervaeke’s project concerning “the meaning crisis” (and it is a very real crisis), and when I had the honor to speak with John a couple of months ago we both expressed our admiration for Hadot. John criticized Martin Heidegger as being a bit cagey or stingy as regards to his practices, though I think Heidegger’s writings on poetry (I’m not sure if John is familiar with them) do offer some hints at philosophical praxis. But that is a minor disagreement since both John and I believe the spiritual practice of philosophy is central to living a life of meaning.

Hadot offers a simple recipe for this practice in a quote from George Friedman:

Take flight every day! At least for a moment, however, brief, as long as it is intense. Every day a ‘spiritual exercise,’ alone or in the company of a man who also wishes to better himself…. Leave ordinary time behind. Make an effort to rid yourself of your passions…. Become eternal by surpassing yourself, This inner effort is necessary, this ambition, just. Many are those who are entirely absorbed in militant politics, in preparation for the social revolution. Rare, very rare, are those who, in order to prepare for the revolution, wish to become worthy of it.” [2]

My own spiritual practice includes prayer and liturgy, but also includes farming, playing music, and writing poetry. Even scholarship can become a spiritual practice. All of these are ways by which I “take flight,” and are the means by which I have come to a sophiological understanding of the cosmos. As I write in The Submerged Reality, Sophiology is intimately related to phenomenology in the way by which its practices or dispositions allow phenomena to reveal themselves to us. This method of becoming intimate with the cosmos inculcates a method of self-knowledge which arises, oddly enough, by forgetting oneself in the contemplative movement which such practices nurture.

Become eternal by surpassing yourself.

Outstanding documentary on skillful practices that become spiritual practices--whether you know it or not.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here

1. Brad S, Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Belknap, 2012), 74.

2. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (Blackwell, 1995), 70.

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