“Philosophical spiritual exercises”: philosophy at the service of “better living”

Book. For at least a decade, shelves devoted to personal development have been flourishing in bookstores. There is nothing particularly original about this fashion, however, since it is in fact inspired by an ancient and much deeper tradition, that of spiritual exercises. In a rich anthology, the philosopher and professor at Essec Business School Xavier Pavie helps us to identify the contours of this practice which irrigates the entire history of philosophy without being confused with it.

Because, if most philosophers have sought to establish moral principles, they have not all provided a practical guide to this end, often preferring to limit themselves to theoretical elements. However, the particularity of the spiritual exercises lies in the fact that they are intended to be put to the test of reality. If, as Xavier Pavie points out, it was Ignatius of Loyola who popularized the expression in the 16e century with its spiritual exercises, “a set of prayers to be followed progressively over several weeks through meditation, contemplation and silent retreat”their origin is ancient.

The book retains three great Greek schools that have tried to provide lessons so that men lead their lives as best as possible. First, cynicism, founded by Antisthenes around 390 BC and made famous by Diogenes of Sinope. Xavier Pavie summarizes the cynical doctrine as follows: “To live better, to be better, to live as best as possible or as little harm as possible (…). The vagaries of fortune, the anxieties of possession, the quest for power are just as many elements that can harm living well, living without worry. »

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Next, Epicureanism, founded by Epicurus in 306 BC, which, contrary to widespread misinterpretation, “comes to the fact of being satisfied with little” and believes that “we achieve happiness, peace of mind when our needs are the simplest”. “Thus, the happy life is found by cutting off the greater part of the needs”summarizes Xavier Pavie.

Finally, Stoicism, founded in 301 BC by Zeno of Kition. It is Epictetus, son of a slave and major figure of Stoicism, who best expresses the heart of this doctrine: “There is what depends on us, there is what does not depend on us. » In other words: no need to worry about things that do not depend on our will.

Breath of fresh air

The practice of the spiritual exercises largely exceeds the Hellenistic period. It will inspire certain ascetic tendencies in Christianity and extend to the great humanist thinkers, such as Montaigne and his famous “to philosophize is to learn to die”which he probably owes to Plato.

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“Philosophical spiritual exercises”: philosophy at the service of “better living”

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