Ancient Philosophy: A Complete Guide to Life

Philosophy is a mode of life, an act of living, and a way of being. Modern philosophy has forgotten this tradition, and philosophical discourse has all but overtaken philosophy as a way of life. Philosophy is not just an intellectual discipline, which can get abstract and divorced from the real world, but is most importantly a way of life that teaches us how to best live our lives.

A carpenter does not come up to us and say, “Listen to me speak about the art of carpentry”, but makes a contract for a house and builds it. So must we, when confronted with life, put our knowledge into practice, and not be like those who devour books and can astonish others by their skill in argumentation, but who, when it comes to their own lives, contradict their own teachings.

Philosophy is a mode of existing in the world, which has to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which is to transform the whole of the individual’s life. Real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us “be” in a different way.

The goodness of our lives depends on our soul, in which we can make good use of other valuable things such as health, pleasure, happiness, tranquillity, and so on, which can make a real contribution towards a good life. By contrast, a bad soul will create bad desires, bad choices, and the misuse of potential goods, thus we spiral down a bad life, characterised by vice.

The condition of the soul is entirely a matter of developing and understanding fundamental truths about human nature, and as a consequence of those, about the nature of what is valuable for a human being. If we fulfil our nature by pursuing a virtuous life, our soul remains in a healthy state, enabling us to live a good and happy life – even if we experience suffering, pain, loss of goods, or failure. What concerns external and bodily goods do not diminish the quality of our lives at all, for these are ever-changing. Bad things will always happen to us, as if they constantly move in the outer rim of the circle of life, however, virtue puts us back in the strong foundation of the centre of the circle, where the soul resides. But people will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul.

Philosophy as a Way of Life

French philosopher Pierre Hadot’s works, Philosophy as a Way of Life and What is Ancient Philosophy? are an excellent introduction to ancient Greco-Roman philosophy.Hadot emphasises the importance of what he calls spiritual exercises, which go beyond simply exercises of thought or moral exercises, rather they correspond to a transformation of our vision of the world and to a metamorphosis of our personality. These exercises do not only have an ethical value, but also an existential one. The notion of spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy is meant to emphasise, first and foremost, that in the ancient schools of thought philosophy was a way of life. The lesson of ancient philosophy consisted in an invitation for each person to transform himself or herself. Philosophy is conversion, transformation of the way of being and the way of living, the quest for wisdom.

Wisdom is conceived as an ideal after one strives without the hope of ever attaining it. The only state accessible to man is philo-sophia, the love of, or progress toward, wisdom.

With spiritual exercises, philosophy becomes not a theoretical construct, but a method for training people to live and look at the world in a new way. It is an attempt to transform mankind. Exercise corresponds to the Greek term askesis, which must not be understood as asceticism, that is, complete abstinence or restriction in the use of food, drink, sleep, and continence in sexual matters.It is the practice of spiritual exercises, inner activities that allow not for self-denial, but for self-transcendence.

A spiritual experience depends not so much on the nature of the activity as on the way it is undertaken, with what attitude and method, and with a view to which goal. It requires a complete attention to and focus upon an activity, and implies immersing oneself so completely in the matter at hand that one forgets oneself, much like what is known as a “flow experience”.

“To take flight every day! At least for a moment, which may be brief, as long as it is intense. A “spiritual exercise” every day – either alone, or in the company of someone who also wishes to better himself. Spiritual exercises. Step out of duration… try to get rid of your own passions, vanities, and the itch for talk about your own name, which sometimes burns you like a chronic disease. Avoid backbiting. Get rid of pity and hatred. Love all free human beings. Become eternal by transcending yourself.”

Georges Friedmann, La Puissance et la Sagesse

The word spiritual reveals the true dimension of these exercises. By means of them, the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit, that is, “to become eternal by transcending yourself.”

The spiritual progress of philosophy towards wisdom brings about peace of mind, inner freedom, and cosmic consciousness. These three essential aspects of the philosophical way of life all require the practice of askesis in order to be attained.

Spiritual exercises, which are mostly present in the Hellenistic school of philosophy, are not to be confused with those of Spanish theologian Saint Ignatius of Loyola who wrote Exercitia spiritualia, consisting of a series of Christian meditations, contemplations, and prayers. Christianity also adopted spiritual exercises, in order to fortify, maintain, and renew life in the Spirit, the vita spiritualis or spiritual life.

Spiritual exercises are part of a lifestyle that engages the whole existence, it is the art of living. Hadot writes:

“The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

One difference between modern philosophy and ancient philosophy is that one did not just become a philosopher because one had developed a philosophical discourse. Rather, any person who dedicated his whole being to living a particular kind of philosophical life, without the need of writing nor teaching, was every bit as much of a philosopher as those who developed, researched or founded a philosophy.

“Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life


For Hadot, philosophy as an art of living can be traced as far back as Socrates, born in the 5th century BC, and considered as the founder of Western philosophy. Socrates started a new shift in philosophy as the pursuit and love of wisdom applied to daily life. Though the work of the natural philosophers or Presocratics were essential to the development of classical Greek philosophy, it was Socrates who taught us how we ought to live, and therefore that we need first and foremost to consider moral questions.

Socrates never wrote anything, and questioned everything ordinary people took for granted or left unquestioned. He would walk around the streets of Athens and ask others to explain seemingly simple concepts such as friendship, justice, piety and courage – only for the interlocutor to realise that he did not know how to explain them or would contradict himself. The Oracle of Delphi stated that Socrates was the wisest person in Athens, but Socrates believed he was wiser than others because he was the only person who recognised his own ignorance.

Unlike the sophists who would trade wisdom for money, and would speak for their own benefit, Socrates would never accept money, and would speak to the benefit of the interlocutor. He taught people to listen to their conscience, the inner voice that tells one what is truly right, and if one doesn’t know what to say, one should keep asking questions to oneself and others, until one finds out. An answer is worth nothing unless it comes from one’s own thinking. It is the process of philosophical thinking that counts at least as much as the answers, and the nature of the questioning is that one has to think for oneself.

Master of Dialogue: Know Thyself

The enigmatic figure of Socrates was a master of dialogue with others and of dialogue with himself. The Delphic maxim “know thyself” requires a relationship of the self to itself that constitutes the basis of all spiritual exercise. Every spiritual exercise is dialogical insofar as it is an exercise of authentic presence of the self to itself and of the self to others.

Our default view of the self as isolated, individualistic, and egocentric is one of the main sources of emptiness, loneliness and anxiety that increasingly characterise people today. However, this default self is not our real self. There is a higher, more authentic “Self”, which the ancient Greeks called daimon, a self which is constantly aware of its intimate connection with other human beings, with nature, and with the entire cosmos. When our inner daimon is in a state of good order, we experience eudaimonia, a state of good spirit and fulfilment.

As philosophers, we must learn how to dialogue. The dialectical exercise requires persuasion, and for that one must use psychagogy, the guidance of the soul.

“Dialogue is only possible if the interlocutor has a real desire to dialogue: that is, if he truly wants to discover the truth, desires the Good from the depths of his soul, and agrees to submit to the rational demands of the Logos.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

Rather than us carrying out rational argumentation, we have to obey the Logos and let the living word guide us where it will, that’s how we’ll find the truth, genuine dialogue links two souls together. To distinguish this from our common conception of dialogue, we may use the original Greek version, dialogos.

Logos designates rational and connect thought which exists in individuals as the faculty of reason, and in the cosmos as the rational principle that governs the organisation of the universe. Rationality and clear mindedness allows one to live in harmony with the logos. In dialogos, participants are transformed in such a way that it would’ve been impossible through mere introspection or monologue.

In his revolutionary work, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, Psychology and Cognitive Science professor John Vervaeke explains that the ancient Greek philosophers had a different conception of rationality than our modern one. To be rational does not just mean to engage in reasonable arguments, logic or propositional knowledge, but also to transform ourselves, others, and the world. It is an existential endeavour that changes our mode of being. This is a process of participatory knowing. Rationality is the capacity to reflectively realise our self-deception and illusion, and the need for self-correction. It is a deep contact with reality.

The dialogue intends to form more than to inform, to form the interlocutor or reader so as to lead him to a transformation of his way of life. What is important is not the solution to a particular problem, but the path traversed in arriving at this solution. We turn knowledge into wisdom.

This essential dimension prevents the dialogue from being theoretical and dogmatic and turns it into a concrete and practical exercise. It is not concerned with the exposition of a doctrine, but with guiding an interlocutor to a certain settled mental attitude. We should note that this is what takes place in every spiritual exercise; it is necessary to make oneself be changed, in our point of view, attitudes, and convictions. In other words, to struggle and battle with oneself.

Socrates was put on trial for charges of impiety and corrupting the young. He was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Though he was offered exile, he accepted his fate and became a martyr to free inquiry. Socrates preferred to die rather than renounce the demands of his conscience, thus preferring the Good above being, and the soul above the life of his body. At his trial, he stated:

“It is the greatest good for a person to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Plato, The Apology of Socrates

Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest of the sages – derived more profit from Socrates’ morals than from his words. The philosophers’ task consists in action. The Roman philosopher Cicero stated that Socrates had brought philosophy down from the heavens, and compelled it to ask questions about life and morality.


The death of Socrates was traumatic for many in Athens, and one of his followers, Plato, made it his task to immortalise the figure of Socrates as a philosopher – that is, as a man who sought, both by his word and by his way of life, to approach and to make others approach the way of being called wisdom. Plato kept alive the Socratic spirit in his greatest work, The Republic, and later departed from his master – for a true follower of Socrates is one who thinks for himself.

“From this perspective, the philosophy of Plato—and, following him, all the philosophies of antiquity, even those which were farthest away from Platonism—all shared the aim of establishing an intimate link between philosophical discourse and way of life.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

Platonism became the bedrock of Western philosophy and spirituality, influencing Christianity and later evolving into Neoplatonism.

“The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

Plato’s goal in founding the Academy, the first real university, was the creation of an intellectual and spiritual community whose job it would be to train new human beings. This would leave a definitive mark on philosophical life in antiquity. Philosophy could be carried out only by means of a community of life and dialogue between masters and disciples, within the framework of a school. It became a distributed cognition that allowed to increase the cognitive power over the world.

Following Socrates, Plato believed that virtue is knowledge, the knowledge which chooses and wants the good. Those who joined the Academy underwent the slow and difficult education of the character, as the harmonious development of the entire human person, and finally as a way of life, intended to ensure a good life and thereby the salvation of the soul. Plato writes the following on the philosophical way of life:

“That is where all the risk lies for man, and it is for this reason that each individual must leave aside all other studies and devote all his care to research, and cultivate this alone. Perhaps he will be able to discover and recognise the man who will impart to him the ability and the knowledge to discern what the good life is, and what the bad life is, and to choose the good life always and everywhere, as far as possible.”

Plato, The Republic

If we do not adopt this way of life, life is not worth living, and this is why we must decide to follow this path. We must live every day in such a way as to become masters of ourselves.

Idealism: Platonic Forms

Above all, we must seek the triad of values: justice, truth, and beauty. These are part of Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas, which reveal some essential quality of man and the world, and are beyond space, time and causality. When we ask ourselves about the meaning of these ideas, we are talking about the perfect forms of the soul.

The Platonic forms serve as the foundation of our judgments on things concerning human life, and are therefore, first and foremost, moral values. It is what gives value and meaning to this world. This is the essential knowledge of the soul which the soul possessed before we were born and resided in the realm of Ideas.

The perfect forms exist independently of and prior to all our conceptions of it. They are the archetypes or first imprints of which objects in the everyday world are imperfect copies. This is known as Idealism. The idea that we do not experience reality in the so-called real world, but only its dim shadow, has haunted philosophy ever since.

Parable of the Cave

Plato illustrates this in the parable of the cave, which is not just a story but a myth which represents the perennial patterns that concern the human condition, dealing with reality, knowledge, and the meaning of life.

A group of people have been chained to a wall inside a cave since childhood. They are unable to move and can only gaze at the wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and people walk around carrying objects and other living things, the sounds echo off the walls, and the prisoners believe they come from the shadows. They can only see the shadow forms of the objects and mistake them for reality. Little do they know that the shadows are merely appearances of the real forms, that is, appearances of reality. For them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of images.

When one of them is set free, he looks at the fire and at the real patterns, but they hurt his eyes and appear less clear than the shadows, so he goes back. He is unable to ever leave the cave.

If that prisoner is dragged by force up the rough ascent, he would protest angrily and be in pain, which would only worsen as the light of the sun becomes brighter. This is the slow and painful process of self-transformation. Outside the cave, the man’s eyes slowly adjust to the light until he can look at the people, animals, water, trees, stars, and eventually, the sun itself – the light source that is the life of all things, filling him with awe.

This man would immediately return to the cave to tell the others, but would stumble around and be blind to the darkness, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. When he goes to the prisoners and speaks of amazing and wondrous things outside the cave, they think he is a madman, and they would kill anyone who attempted to drag them out.

Few people will make it out of the illusory world, it is only the true philosopher who can escape the cave into the real world. This is an enlightenment myth of coming into the light through an ascent, which the Greeks call anagoge. It is a self-transformative process in which one comes into closer contact with reality, revealing what had hitherto remained concealed. For Plato, this is wisdom, the fullness of being.

Plato’s Cave in The Matrix

The Matrix movie released in 1999 represents this deeply embedded myth in the human condition. The parable of the cave is compared to the matrix, a false reality created by artificial intelligence through a computer program, in order to distract humans while using their bodies as an energy source, and people must wake up to the “real world”.  Morpheus presents the main character Neo with a blue pill to stay in his illusory world, or a red pill to see the truth of reality – just as the freed man goes back to tell the prisoners about the real world. When Neo leaves the Matrix, he states, “Why do my eyes hurt?”, to which Morpheus replies, “Because you’ve never used them before.”

Plato’s Tripartite Theory of the Soul

Plato can be considered as the first psychologist who presented a structure of the psyche or soul, which remains relevant to this day. It has three parts: reason, appetite and what the ancient Greeks called thumos (it has no English equivalent, but may be translated as courage, vitality, and spiritedness).

We all have inner conflict, which is the struggle between reason and appetite. Reason is represented by man, symbolising truth or falsity, and appetite (characterised by pain or pleasure) is a monster like the hydra, whose head when chopped off would regenerate more heads, making it an even more dangerous foe. We often use short-term pleasure for long-term suffering, falling into a vicious cycle that can be hard to get out of. The third part, thumos, is represented by the lion – reflecting honour and shared cultural meaning in society. It is the middle region between reason and appetite. This Platonic division of the psyche can be compared to Freud’s ego, super-ego and id, though they have considerable differences.

The task of Socratic self-knowledge to reduce inner conflict begins with the teaching of man (reason), who can train the lion (thumos), and together, tame the monster (appetite).

By seeking self-knowledge in order to lessen our inner conflict, we improve our skills, and are more in contact with reality. Self-transformation and contact with the world are interlinked. We change in order to see the world, and the world changes by disclosing itself in a new way.

Plato depicts thumos as the chariot ride to the soul, to the true, the good, and the beautiful. The charioteer represents the human soul pushed by two winged horses, a mortal dark horse that descends (appetite), and an immortal white horse that ascends (reason). It is only the gods who have two immortal horses. The charioteer must go through a turbulent journey of directing the two horses and stop them from pulling off in different directions, in order to reach the heavens, following the path of enlightenment.

This path allows us to obtain a clearer vision of reality and inner harmony of the fullness of being, allowing us to be more in touch with reality.

Philosophy as an Exercise of Death

The ancient Greco-Roman philosophers greatly emphasised learning to live, as well as learning to die. Plato alludes to the exercise for death in the Phaedo, whose theme is the death of Socrates and the immortality of the soul. One who has spent his life in philosophy does not fear death, since philosophy is nothing other than an exercise of death. The philosopher spends his time trying to align himself with his soul and separate himself from the body.

The soul to which elevation of thought and the contemplation of the totality of time and of being belong, does not consider human life as important. Such a person will therefore not look on death as something terrible.

In this spiritual exercise, we die to our individuality and unhealthy passions, in order to elevate ourselves to the objectivity of the universal perspective. A lucid anticipation of death shows the authenticity of existence, and it is up to each of us to choose between lucidity and diversion. For that,we must die every day. He who has learned how to die, has unlearned how to serve.

We have been placed on earth in order to contemplate divine creation, and we must not die before we have witnessed its marvels and lived in harmony with nature. Those who practice wisdom are excellent contemplators of nature. They examine the earth, the sea, the sky, the heavens, and all their inhabitants, they provide their souls with wings, so that they may walk on the ether and contemplate the powers that live there. The Platonist philosopher Plutarch writes:

“Does not a good man consider every day a festival? And a very splendid one, to be sure, if we are virtuous. For the world is the most sacred and divine of temples, and the most fitting for the gods. Man is introduced into it by birth to be a spectator: not of artificial, immobile statues, but of the perceptible images of intelligible essences… such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers whose water always flows afresh, and the earth, which sends forth food for plants and animals alike. A life which is a perfect revelation, and an initiation into these mysteries, should be filled with tranquillity and joy.”

Plutarch, On Tranquillity of Mind


Aristotle had studied in the Platonic Academy for twenty years, before founding the Peripatetic school in the temple of the Lyceum. While Plato pointed up to the realm of Ideas, Aristotle was a realist who brought the attention back to this world.

Socrates sought wisdom to overcome self-deception, Plato gave us a structural theory of the psyche to explain how we could reduce our inner conflict, Aristotle, on the other hand, provides us with an account of the growth and development of our character that is connected to our project of wisdom and meaning in life.

Aristotle brings in the notion of change, how we grow and develop, which makes our lives meaningful. Like a snake, we must shed our old skin and renew ourselves or die. Wisdom is the ability to cultivate virtues in order to be reasonable and capable of reflecting upon the things that truly matter to us. Aristotle uses the word akrasia, for the lack of command of ourselves, which is what prevents us from doing the right thing.

Wisdom is not just knowing the right thing to do, but also doing the right thing. To be ignorant is to not know the right to do, and to be foolish is to know the right thing, but still do the wrong thing. It is the battle between reason and appetite. To cultivate our character, realising wisdom, overcoming self-deception, and enhancing the structure of our psyche and our contact with reality, is what it means to be a fully realised, rational being.

The words “actual” and “potential” come from Aristotle. When we “live up to our potential” we are on the path towards a virtuous life, which Aristotle defined as a point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait, the point of the greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but a golden mean sometimes closer to one extreme than the other, such as confidence between self-deprecation and vanity. The ancient Greeks call it arete, the pursuit and cultivation of human excellence that allows one to live up to one’s full potential, in order to lead a good life. Virtue is the only real good and is necessary for eudaimonia.

Hellenistic Schools

The practice of askesis is best observed in the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, who defined wisdom as a state of perfect peace of mind. Hadot writes:

“From this viewpoint, philosophy appears as a remedy for human worries, anguish, and misery brought about, for the Cynics, by social constraints and conventions; for the Epicureans, by the quest for false pleasures; for the Stoics, by the pursuit of pleasure and egoistic self-interest; and for the Sceptics, by false opinions.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

The Hellenistic philosophers agreed with Socrates that human beings are plunged in misery, anguish, and evil because they exist in ignorance. Mankind’s principal cause of suffering are the passions, which have a different meaning than the modern sense of the term. It refers to unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic, intended to cure mankind’s anguish. Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them profoundly transform the individual’s mode of seeing and being. This choice is the choice of philosophy, and it is thanks to it that we may obtain inner tranquillity and peace of mind.


The philosophy of Cynicism was outlined by Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates, however Diogenes the Cynic was seen as its archetypal figure. The Cynic, which literally means, dog-like, denounced social conventions and urged a return to living a simple life in conformity with nature. The Cynic way of life was opposed not only to the life of non-philosophers but even to the lives of philosophers. They rejected what most people considered the elementary rules and indispensable conditions for life in society: cleanliness, pleasant appearance, and courtesy. They practiced deliberate shamelessness in public, were not afraid to beg, and despised popular opinion, money and luxury, preferring to live a simple life without possessions. They were without a city, without a home, without a country, miserable, wandering, living from day to day.

“Cynicism was generally considered a philosophy; but it was a philosophy in which philosophical discourse was reduced to a minimum. Take, for instance, the following symbolic anecdote: when someone declared that movement did not exist, Diogenes simply got up and began to walk.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

The Cynic believed that the state of nature was superior to the conventions of civilisation. Diogenes threw away his bowl and his cup when he saw children do without such utensils, and he drew comfort regarding his way of life when he saw a mouse eat a few crumbs in the dark.  The Cynic way of life consisted in training to endure hunger, thirst, harsh weather, so that the individual could acquire freedom, independence, inner strength, relief from worry, and a peace of mind which would be able to adapt itself to all circumstances. According to legend, when Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and granted him any wish, Diogenes replied: “Stand aside, you are blocking the sunlight.” Alexander declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” To which Diogenes replied, “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.”

Diogenes would walk around in the marketplace in full daylight with a lamp, when asked what he was doing, he would answer, “I am looking for a man”. For Diogenes, most people didn’t even qualify as men, they were all rascals and scoundrels. It was a way to expose the hypocrisy and sham of polite social conventions, being worthy of the category “human” demands virtue. A virtuous human, for the Cynics, acts exclusively in accord with nature and in accord with reason. The people who walk around worrying about money, power, and social conventions are the real “madmen”. Diogenes is the only reasonable human being in sight.

He criticised and sabotaged Plato’s lectures, sometimes distracting listeners by bringing food and eating during the discussions. When Plato gave his definition of man as a featherless biped, Diogenes rushed to the Academy with a plucked chicken saying, “Behold! I have brought you a man.” Plato is supposed to have said of Diogenes that he was a “Socrates gone mad.”

Like Socrates, Diogenes thought he had been entrusted with the mission of making people reflect, and of denouncing their vices and errors with his caustic attacks and his way of life.


Pyrrho, a contemporary of Diogenes, can also be considered a somewhat extravagant Socrates. He is considered as the first Greek sceptic philosopher. All of these figures did not write, but simply lived, thereby attracting disciples who imitated their way of life.

Pyrrhonism is a school of philosophical scepticism founded by Pyrrho in the 4th century BC. Pyrrho’s behaviour corresponds to a choice of life which can be perfectly summed up in one word: indifference. He felt no emotions or change in his dispositions under the influence of external things. He made no difference between what is usually considered dangerous and what is harmless; between tasks judged to be superior and those called inferior; between what is called suffering and what is called pleasure; between life and death. The philosophy is best known through the surviving works of Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus, who wrote:

“For the person who believes that something is by nature good or bad is constantly upset; when he does not possess the things that seem to be good, he thinks he is being tormented by things that are by nature bad, and he chases after the things he supposes to be good; then, when he gets these, he falls into still more torments because of irrational and immoderate exultation, and, fearing any change, he does absolutely everything in order not to lose the things that seem to him good. But the person who takes no position as to what is by nature good or bad neither avoids nor pursues intensely. As a result, he achieves ataraxia.”

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism

Ataraxia is a Greek term first used by Pyrrho and subsequently by Epicurus and the Stoics to describe a state of unperturbedness, and tranquillity. This is necessary for bringing about eudaimonia.

People’s unhappiness comes from the fact that they want to obtain what they think is good, or to escape what they think is bad. If we refuse to make this kind of distinction, and refrain from making value judgments about things – if we say to ourselves, “This is no better than that”, we will achieve peace and tranquillity. This is known as epoché, the suspension of judgment from all non-evident matters (dogma), which frees us from worry and anxiety.

“Epoché is a state of the intellect on account of which we neither deny nor affirm anything. Ataraxia is an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.”

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism

Thus, according to Pyrrho’s philosophy our goal should be to seek stability in a state of perfect equality with ourselves, in complete indifference, inner freedom, and impassiveness, a state he considered divine. This is no easy task, as it requires stripping off man completely or liberating oneself entirely from the human point of view.

The philosophy of Pyrrho – like that of Socrates, and the Cynics – was thus a lived philosophy, and an exercise of transforming one’s way of life.


Stoicism is a philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. For the Stoics, mankind’s woes derive from the fact that he seeks to acquire or to keep possessions that he may either lose or fail to obtain, and from the fact that he tries to avoid misfortunes which are often inevitable. The name Stoic comes from the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, where Zeno met his followers and taught.

The Stoics did not seek to eliminate their emotions, but rather to be in harmony with them. It is clear that we are not the masters of our own house, and that there are elements in our psyche beyond our control. Our ideas, thoughts, and emotions – which form part of the unconscious – precede our consciousness. The Stoics knew that we have automatic responses that are not under our control, that is why they focused on what is within our control.

In Stoicism, the goal of life is living virtuously in accordance with nature, which is good and rational, driven by Logos. Nothing natural is evil, and since we are all interconnected by Logos, when a man does wrong to another man, they are hurting themselves.

“What injures the hive injures the bee.”

 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The ideal stage of the Stoic sage is apatheia (literally, without pathos or passions),which is slightly different from ataraxia, though the Stoics use both terms. One way to see the relationship between the two is that apatheia, the freedom from the disturbance of wild emotional fluctuations, leads to ataraxia, a state of tranquillity. In other words, ataraxia is a by-product. Apatheia is not to be confused with the modern idea of apathy, but rather as a state of equanimity.

The Stoics divided philosophy in three parts: logic, physics, and ethics. Here we must distinguish between discourse about philosophy and philosophy itself. It is important to have a theory of these three parts when it comes to teaching philosophy, however, the philosophical way of life is no longer a theory divided into parts, but a unitary act, which consists in living logic, physics, and ethics. We no longer study logical theory, that is, the theory of speaking and thinking well – we simply think and speak well, perfectly aware not only of what we are doing, but also of what we are thinking. We no longer engage in theory about the physical world, but we contemplate our place within the cosmos. We no longer theorise about moral action, but we act in a correct and just way. As Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

For the Stoics, as for the rival school of Epicureanism, physics was not developed for its own sake but had an ethical finality: Stoic physics was indispensable for ethics because it showed people that there are some things which are not in their power but depend on causes external to them.

Everything that depends on us are moral good and evil. Everything else which does not depend on us refers to the necessary linkage of cause and effect, which is not subject to our freedom. We are to switch from our “human” vision of reality to a “natural” vision of things.

Prosochē is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude, it is the development of one’s ability to pay attention, it is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the soul. The Stoics would agree with G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:

“For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point and does not break.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thanks to his spiritual vigilance, the Stoic always has “at hand” the fundamental rule of life: the distinction between what depends on us and what does not. Also known as the dichotomy of control. We must focus on that which is within our control, and to be indifferent to that which is beyond our control. In other words, to be indifferent to indifferent things. Wisdom comes from focusing one’s attention on what truly matters. The Serenity Prayer echoes the same message:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

The Serenity Prayer

One may ask oneself, “Can I do something about this situation? If not, why am I worrying? Since it is outside my control, it is pointless to worry about. And nothing is worth doing pointlessly.” Attention to the present moment, is in a sense, the key to spiritual exercises. As such, the Stoics would engrave striking maxims in their memory, often written in an enchiridion (manual or handbook), which they would carry with them, and meditate on every day, so that, when the time comes, they could face their fear, sadness, anger and events beyond their control. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a clear example of this.

Premeditatio Malorum

In the Stoic exercise of premeditatio malorum or negative visualisation, we are to think of poverty, suffering, and death. We must not be afraid to think in advance about events which other people consider unfortunate, and embrace our fate, whatever happens, because it does not depend on us. The willing are led by fate, the reluctant are dragged. We should appreciate what we have, instead of wishing for things to be different. Epictetus writes:

“Do not seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion

Negative visualisation makes one better equipped to endure the inevitable suffering of life. This exercise is quite different from over-thinking, or rumination – which we do not control, but rather controls us – and is the result of being a slave to one’s passions.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Much of the time, we suffer not because of events happening to us, but what we think will happen to us. We suffer more in imagination than in reality. One can only conquer the darkness by going through it. By seeking to escape the darkness, we remain inescapably bound to it.

Memento Mori

Memento mori or meditating on your mortality is another spiritual exercise important to the Stoics. We take many things for granted in life, until some radical misfortune in our lives happens to us and awakens us from “life as sleep”, making us realise how little attention we paid to things that truly matter. We are all sleepwalkers in life until some inexplicable or life-threatening experience, which can activate our thinking about death, awakens us from our deep slumber. This combines both horror and awe at the same time. Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

We must accomplish each of life’s actions as if it were the last. These are not just thought exercises, but are supposed to transform our entire being and throw us back to what truly matters in life, making our crooked path straight.

Voluntary Discomfort

Another exercise is voluntary discomfort, which is more of a physical exercise, rather than a mental one. Though both can be just as transformative. Voluntary discomfort is like climbing a mountain, there are obstacles and difficulties ahead, one can even risk falling from the heights and injuring oneself. However, once you reach the top of the mountain, you’ll be able to see the most beautiful views imaginable.

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the philosopher William Irvine gives an example of voluntary discomfort:

“When I row competitively, it may look as though I am trying to beat the other rowers, but I am in fact engaged in a much more significant competition: the one against my other self. He didn’t want to learn to row. He didn’t want to do workouts, preferring instead to spend the predawn hours asleep in a warm bed… (“If you just quit rowing,” he would say in his most seductive voice, “all this pain would come to an end. Why not just quit? Think of how good it would feel!”). It is curious, but my competitors in a race are simultaneously my teammates in the much more important competition against my other self. By racing against each other, we are all simultaneously racing against ourselves, although not all of us are consciously aware of doing so. To race against each other, we must individually overcome ourselves – our fears, our laziness, our lack of self-discipline. And it is entirely possible for someone to lose the competition against the other rowers – indeed, to come in last – but in the process of doing so to have triumphed in the competition against his other self.”

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Our worst enemy is so close to us that we cannot see it, for we are our worst enemy. To conquer ourselves is the most difficult task, and is part of the lifelong task of self-knowledge.


Epicureanism is a philosophy founded in the 4th century BC by ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. For the Epicureans, people’s unhappiness come from the fact that they are afraid of things which are not to be feared, and desire things which it is not necessary to desire. Consequently, their life is consumed in worries over unjustified fears and unsatisfied desires. As a result, they are deprived of the only genuine pleasure there is: the pleasure of existing. It is the freedom from unjustified desire, pain and fear that leads to ataraxia.

In terms of fear, Epicurus believes that our main fears come from the gods and of death. The Stoic universe is characterised by providence: system, order and design; while the Epicurean universe is defined by atom: dispersal, chaos, chance. For Epicurus, the gods have nothing to do with the creation of the universe, and do not care about the conduct of the world or human beings; and on the other hand, death is nothing for us, for the soul is made up of atoms, like the body, it disintegrates at death and loses all sensory capacity. He writes:

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

The Epicureans would also practice memento mori, as it can awaken in our souls an immense gratitude for the marvellous gift of existence. We must persuade ourselves that each new day that dawns will be our last, then we will receive each unexpected hour with gratitude.

The method for achieving a stable pleasure consists in an askesis of desire based on a tripartite distinction: desires which are natural and necessary; desires which are natural and not necessary; and empty desires, which are neither natural nor necessary.

Natural and necessary desires are those whose satisfaction delivers people from pain, and which correspond to the elementary needs or vital necessities. Natural but not necessary are, for example, desires for sumptuous foods and for sexual gratification. Neither natural nor necessary, but produced by empty opinions, are the limitless desires for wealth, glory, and immortality. An Epicurean saying aptly sums up this division of desires: “Thanks be to blessed Nature, who has made necessary things easy to obtain, and who has made things difficult to obtain unnecessary.”

For the Epicureans, we must concern ourselves with the healing of our own lives. Healing consists in bringing one’s soul back from the worries of life to the simple joy of existing. As an Epicurean saying states: “Vain is the word of that philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man.” For just as there is no value in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no value in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.

The cries of the flesh are: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. For if one enjoys the possession of this, and the hope of continuing to possess it, he might rival even Zeus in happiness. Epicurus writes:

“We do what we do in order to avoid suffering and fear. When once we have succeeded in this, the tempest of the soul is entirely dissipated, for the living being now no longer needs to move toward anything as if he lacked it, or to seek something else by which the good of the soul and body might be achieved. For we have need of pleasure precisely when we are suffering from the absence of pleasure. When we are not suffering from this lack, we do not need pleasure.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Pleasure as the suppression of suffering is the absolute good. It cannot be increased, and no new pleasure can be added to it, just as a clear sky cannot get any brighter. This leads to becoming aware of something extraordinary, already present in us unconsciously, the pleasure of our own existence.

To cure the soul, it is not necessary, as the Stoics would have it, to train it to stretch itself tight, but rather to train it to relax. Instead of picturing misfortunes in advance, so as to be prepared to bear them, we must rather detach our thoughts from the vision of painful things, and fix our eyes on pleasurable ones. We are to relive memories of past pleasures, and enjoy the pleasures of the present, recognising how intense and agreeable these present pleasures are. Hadot writes:

“We have here a quite distinctive spiritual exercise, different from the constant vigilance of the Stoic, with his constant readiness to safeguard his moral liberty at each instant. Instead, Epicureanism preaches the deliberate, continually renewed choice of relaxation and serenity, combined with a profound gratitude toward nature and life, which constantly offer us joy and pleasure, if only we know how to find them.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

For the Epicureans, in the last analysis, pleasure is a spiritual exercise. Not pleasure in the form of mere sensual gratification, but the intellectual pleasure derived from contemplating nature, the thought of pleasures past and present, and lastly the pleasure of friendship. Friendship itself was, as it were, the spiritual exercise par excellence. Masters and disciples helped one another closely, in order to obtain a cure for their souls. The main goal was to be happy, and mutual affection and the confidence with which the Epicureans relied upon each other contributed more than anything to this happiness.

Epicurean philosophy can be summarised in the following fourfold remedy:

“The gods are not to be feared,

Death is not to be dreaded;

What is good is easy to acquire

What is bad is easy to bear.”

Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyri

The Epicureans would stay in the Garden of Epicurus, which became a symbol of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus died a slow and painful death from kidney stones at the age of 72. Despite being in immense pain, Epicurus is said to have remained cheerful and to have continued to teach until the very end. For him, to practice living well and to practice dying well are one and the same. He stayed true to his philosophy till the very end.

Similarities Epicureanism & Stoicism

Though the Epicureans and Stoics are different in their philosophies, they have many similarities: intense meditation on fundamental maxims, the ever-renewed awareness of the finitude of life, examination of one’s conscience, and, above all, a specific attitude toward time – to live in the present, letting ourselves be neither troubled by the past, nor worried by the uncertainty of the future. Each instant has an infinite value, wisdom is just as perfect and complete in one instant as it is throughout an eternity. Our happiness is urgent, for the future is uncertain and death is a constant threat. Any length of life is sufficient if lived wisely, and while we are waiting to live, life passes us by.


Plotinus is considered to be the founder of Neoplatonism, a philosophy that appeared in the 3rd century AD, as a grand synthesis of an intellectual heritage that was by then exceedingly rich and profound. They took inspiration from Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and religion. It is a sum-total of ideas produced over centuries of sustained inquiry into the human condition.

Behind the façade of the natural and visible world of matter, there are three levels of reality that describe levels of inner life, levels of the self: the soul, nous (intellect or mind), and the One or the Good. These are three hypostases, fundamental underlying substances that support all of reality. Everything eternally emanates from the One, however, there is no cause and effect, for it is not a being, but being itself.

The One creates the many, life depends on this highest divine unitary principle, for it is absolute reality. Nous is the highest activity of life, which turns back towards the One in order to understand the precondition of its own existence, it is ontologically prior to the physical realm typically taken for ultimate reality (mind over matter).

In the identity of thoughts with its objects, the ideal world of all forms and ideas came to be conceptualised. The soul falls out of the inner activity of nous, and lies at the heart of Neoplatonism, which is a philosophy of the soul or psychology. The soul becomes informed by the images of the eternal forms and gives birth to the entire universe and biosphere on earth. It is the general phenomenon of life capable of animating matter. The soul does not reside in the body, it is the corporeal and sensible world that rests in the soul. For all the other-worldliness of Neoplatonism, it needs to be emphasised that the material world they inhabited was for this reason an essentially good, divine, and beautiful place.

For the Neoplatonists, the purpose of life was to bring back the god in us to the divine in the All, as Plotinus pressed upon his followers on the very point of his death. The goal is not the mundane fulfilment of life within the bounds of what is humanly possible, but nothing less than eudaimonia in its most expansive sense, deification.

Plotinus describes spiritual exercise as not merely knowing the One, but becoming identical with it, in a complete annihilation of individuality. It is here where, in a fleeting blaze of light, there takes place the metamorphosis of the self.

“Then the seer no longer sees his object, for in that instant he no longer distinguishes himself from it; he no longer has the impression of two separate things, but he has, in a sense, become another. He is no longer himself, nor does he belong to himself, but he is one with the One, as the centre of one circle coincides with the centre of another.”

Plotinus, Enneads

For Hadot, the Neoplatonic metaphysics of the One is not purely theoretical or abstract, but used to express an inner experience, which is fundamental yet inexpressible. The human self is inextricably bound with the transcendent One. Plotinus experienced this mystical union of becoming One with the divine four times, after this experience he wrote:

“[H]ow is it possible that I should come down now, and how was it ever possible for my soul to come to be within my body.”

Plotinus, Enneads

Plotinus was not only a philosopher, but also a spiritual guide. The realisation of the One turns one’s attention away from vain preoccupations and exaggerated worries. The concept of theurgy (working with God) becomes an important concept for the Neoplatonists. It designates rituals capable of purifying the soul, and its immediate vehicle, the astral body, and thus allowing it to contemplate the gods. The only thing that can bring about our union with the gods is not theoretical philosophy, but rites which we do not understand. Hadot writes:

“For Neoplatonism and Christianity, the two spiritual movements which dominated the end of antiquity and opposed each other, man cannot save himself by his own strength but must wait for the divine to take the initiative.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

We must never stop sculpting our own statue, until the divine splendour of virtue shines in us. The soul’s immateriality is transformed into experience when one liberates and purifies oneself from the passions, which conceal the true reality of the soul. The quest for self-transformation is well symbolised by the image of sculpting one’s own nature. The statue pre-existed in the marble block, and it was enough to take away what was superfluous in order to cause it to appear. Let the soul practice virtue, and it will understand that it is immortal.

All ancient schools of philosophy agree that man, before his philosophical conversion, is in a state of unhappy disquiet. Consumed by worries, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself. However, he can attain a state of tranquillity, through a process of transformation. Happiness consists in independence, freedom, and autonomy. It is the return to the essential, that which is truly “ourselves”, and which depends on us. Hadot writes:

“This is obviously true in Platonism, where we find the famous image of Glaucos, the god who lives in the depths of the sea. Covered as he is with mud, seaweed, seashells, and pebbles, Glaucos is unrecognisable, and the same holds true for the soul: the body is a kind of thick, coarse crust, covering and completely disfiguring it, and the soul’s true nature would appear only if it rose up out of the sea, throwing off everything alien to it. The spiritual exercise of apprenticeship for death, which consists in separating oneself from the body, its passions, and its desires, purifies the soul from all these superfluous additions.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

Between the Stoic distinction of what depends on us and what doesn’t, we can reject all that is alien to us, and return to our true selves. The same holds true for Epicureanism, by ignoring unnatural and unnecessary desires, we can be free by satisfying natural and necessary desires. Thus, all spiritual exercises are, fundamentally, a return to the self, in which the self is liberated from the state of alienation into which it has been plunged by worries, passions, and desires.

Each philosophy depends on one’s individual personality type. No single philosophy fits everyone, and one should find which philosophy or philosophies best suits one’s own life. This self-knowledge is ultimately the search for oneself.

View from Above: Cosmic Consciousness

Many ancient philosophers practiced the spiritual exercise of the View from Above, in which one moves to a third-person point of view and steps back from one’s narrow view of things. This imaginative overflight is not to see human affairs as insignificant, but rather to enrich one’s life with cosmic significance. The ancient sage was conscious of living in the cosmos, and he placed himself in harmony with it. The totality of the cosmos is contained and implied in each instant.

This cosmic consciousness transcends the limits of individuality, expanding the ego into the infinity of universal nature, liberating oneself from the worries and pains produced by our passions, and rising to the universal demands of the Logos. That is to say, to see the world, and our place in it, not as we’d like it to be, but as it is. In this brief instant, we experience the world as “just this”, or “suchness”. It is the stunning realisation of coidentity with the world, an oceanic experience and elimination of the boundary between subject and object.

The All has no need to come in order to be present. If it is not present, it is because one has distanced oneself from it.

“Philosophy in antiquity was an exercise practiced at each instant. It invites us to concentrate on each instant of life, to become aware of the infinite value of each present moment, once we have replaced it within the perspective of the cosmos. The exercise of wisdom entails a cosmic dimension. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see the world qua world, but rather treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires, the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to mind. He thinks and acts within a cosmic perspective. He has the feeling of a whole which goes beyond the limits of his individuality.”

 Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

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Ancient Philosophy: A Complete Guide to Life

Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.

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The Psychology of The Wounded Healer

One must be wounded to become a healer. Many people, however, experience suffering and do not become healers; practically everyone could become a healer if it depended only on the experience of suffering. It is only by overcoming suffering and having been wounded that one may become a healer.

We have to follow the way of our psychological maturation to discover the reason for our suffering, because the reason is something unique in each individual. That is why in seeking the meaning of your suffering you seek the meaning of your life.

“[T]he wounded healer is the archetype of the Self – one of its most widespread features – and is at the bottom of all genuine healing procedures.”

Marie-Louise von Franz, Puer Aeternus

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is credited with coining the phrase wounded healer, but this term is never used by him in his works¸ instead he used “wounded physician”. Jung did not see himself as someone who had accomplished the healing of his patients. The healing is an individual affair which must emerge from the patient’s own psyche, in order for there to be a resolution to the problem, which is precisely what the term individuation implies. The cure ought to grow naturally out of the wounded individual, one must find the light that is hidden within the darkness.

As long as we feel victimised, bitter and resentful towards our wound, and seek to escape from suffering it, we remain inescapably bound to it. This is neurotic suffering, as opposed to the authentic suffering of the wounded healer which is purified. The wound can destroy you, or it can wake you up.

Chiron: The Wounded Healer

The Greek god Apollo is a sunlike healer who can cure all ills, but is also the bringer of disease and death with his arrows. He is the unwounded healer. Apollo raised Chiron, who is a centaur, half human, and half horse, but unlike the rest of centaurs who were wild and intoxicated, Chiron was wise, just, and also immortal. He became a skilled healer. One day, however, Chiron was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow. But despite being skilled in healing the wounds of others, he was unable to heal his own wound. He suffered excruciating pain for the rest of his life. It was because of his grievous wound that Chiron became known as a legendary healer in ancient Greece. The secret of healing is inside the wound, which contains the medicine. True health comes from acceptance of our wounds.  

Chiron’s nobility is further reflected in the story of his death. He exchanged his immortality for the life of Prometheus, who had been punished by the Gods for stealing fire and giving it to mankind, that is, gave us consciousness, freeing us from being unconscious puppets of the gods. Consciousness is deeply traumatic, but it is also the greatest gift we have been given.

Chiron suffered the punishment meant for Prometheus, and Zeus seeing this, pitied him. In his honour, Chiron was given a place in the stars, becoming the constellation Centaurus. Chiron represents our immortal wound that can never heal, and at the same time, he is the potential source of our greatest capacity to heal, particularly other people.

Christ is the biblical version of the same fundamental image. The difference is that Chiron had no choice in the matter because the wound happens to him and he cannot heal himself; Christ volunteered for the role, and could have escaped from his suffering, but did not. Both are healers, both are wounded, and both transcend to the heavens at the end. This image is to be distinguished from the healthy healer – Apollo, Chiron before the wound caused by the poisoned arrow, and Christ before his crucifixion. The wounded healer combines both the healthy and the suffering. This is what Saint Paul meant by the “thorn in his flesh”

Asclepius: The Greek God of Healing

Chiron was highly revered as a teacher and instructed Asclepius in the arts of medicine, who became the Greek god of healing. Asclepius was the son of a mortal woman named Coronis, whom Apollo had fallen in love with. However, while she was pregnant, she displayed infidelity by sleeping with a mortal man. She was killed for her betrayal, and Apollo was unable to bring her back to life. As she lay on her funeral pyre, Apollo rescued the child by cutting him from her womb, thus Asclepius is born – saved from death, so that he might grow up to heal others.

He holds the Rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff associated with healing, which remains a symbol of medicine to this day. This is not to be confused with the caduceus (a symbol of commerce) of the Greek deity Hermes, which is entwined by two snakes, and sometimes has wings too.

Our woundedness can put us into a miserable state of suffering and pain, or it can be a source of healing. The wounded healer refers to the capacity:

“[T]o be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery with which, as though by enchantment, to bring forth Asclepius, the sunlike healer.”

Karl Kerényi, Asclepius: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence

Asclepius became such a proficient healer that he was able to bring other mortal men back to life. This caused an abundance of human beings on earth, and Hades, the god of the underworld, complained to his brother Zeus about it. Zeus became angry at Asclepius for transgressing the boundary between humanity and the gods. Men are mortal, and only the gods are free from death. In punishment for his crime, he struck Asclepius with a thunderbolt and sent him to Hades. So that he, though a god, might himself experience the fate of mortals. Later, however, he was resurrected and given a place on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. Asclepius becomes the only god to experience death, making him one of the most admired, loved, and worshipped deities of the Greeks.

Asclepieia: Healing Temples

In ancient Greece, there were healing temples dedicated to Asclepius called asclepieia, known to cure people of all sorts of physical and spiritual illness. Among the most popular was the one located in Epidaurus, the most celebrated healing centre of the classical world. Many pilgrims would visit the temple and have a cleansing diet, as well as a bath thought to have a positive effect on the body and the soul. Health, cleanliness, and sanitation are all aspects of the goddess Hygieia, whose name is the source for the word “hygiene” and who is one of the daughters of Asclepius.

The Therapeutae of Asclepius would guide the patients. The term therapeute derives from ancient Greek, and refers to one who serves the gods, and later on, one who heals or helps a person to heal himself – which is precisely the task of a therapist. After a few days of preparation, the therapeute would lead the sick person to a small empty stone chamber with a platform in which he could lay down and sleep, left alone with his dreams and with the god.

This is theurgical work, that is, a practice consisting of working with God, rather than theology, or talking with God. The idea was to achieve theophany, a personal encounter with a deity. Many dreams describe Asclepius appearing in his human-like form and seen applying an ointment to the afflicted parts, or theriomorphically as a snake or as a dog, licking the wound and thus healing it.

In the dormitories of the temple, snakes slithered around freely on the floor. For the Greeks, snakes were not just chthonic beings, but also sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection. The snakes used were non-venomous, now known as the Aesculapian snakes, named in honour of the god of healing.

The snake was seen as emblematic of the mysterious relationship between death and rebirth. Dogs too were associated with underworld experience, like the three-headed Cerberus welcoming the dead to Hades.

After spending the night in the holiest place of the sanctuary, the patient’s dream would simply be recorded.  If Asclepius appeared in one’s dream, it was understood as the healing event itself. Unlike in Delphi, where the oracle who would give prophetic advice to the seekers through God, at Epidaurus it was the patient who had the healing vision. In the classical Greek period, the dream was the cure. At a later period, however, dreams and visions would be reported to a therapeute who would prescribe the appropriate healing process, including a visit to the baths, or gymnasium. One might say that it was the first psychotherapeutic centre.

The final rituals consisted of a paean, a song of praise to the god in gratitude for what he had given to the patient, and finally there would be a sacrifice of a rooster as a token that daylight has overcome the dark, health has overcome sickness. These methods were known to be highly effective as is evident by numerous written accounts by patients attesting to their healing and providing detailed accounts of their cure.

This ties in with Socrates’ enigmatic last words when he decided to take his own life by drinking hemlock: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” Socrates invokes the only god known to revive the dead, thanking him for healing him of the sickness of life by the cure of death. Socrates lives right into his death.

The healing of Asclepius provides a respite to those who are not yet ready for death. He gives time for us to attend to the health of our souls, and to prepare for the inevitability that lies ahead. Death is the great equaliser. Asclepius does not promise that there won’t be death, the point of healing is to give one time to prepare for death.

“There was a crown on the colossal head of Asclepius… A golden wreath always represents rays and symbolises the sunlike. Such an honour, even if legendary, bears witness to what in the living religion of Asclepius constituted the nature of the Asclepiad, the true physician. For the medical gift that the Asclepiads held they had inherited from their solar ancestor is a very special gift: it is neither a religious nor a philosophical knowledge… but is rather a familiarity, which can never be acquired, with sickness and the process of recovery. It is a spark of intuitive knowledge about the possibilities of rising from the depths, a spark which by observation, practice, and training can be fanned into a high art and science: into a true art of healing.”

Karl Kerényi, Asclepius: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence

Illness and healing are not opposites, but rather inseparable aspects of a deeper process that is being revealed through their interplay. The sunlike healer, symbolises that, just like the self-generating light of the sun, the ultimate source of our healing is to be found within ourselves.

The Importance of Death

For Friedrich Nietzsche, a natural death is not to be mourned, but celebrated. He writes:

“Many die too late, and some die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”… To be sure, how could the person who never lives at the right time ever die at the right time? Would that he were never born! – Thus I advise the superfluous… Everyone regards dying as important; but death is not yet a festival. As of yet people have not learned how to consecrate the most beautiful festivals. I show you the consummating death that becomes a goad and a promise to the living. The consummated one dies his death, victorious, surrounded by those who hope and promise. Thus one should learn to die; and there should be no festival where such a dying person does not swear oaths to the living!”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The Greeks believed that old age was not a life stage but a stage of transition between life and death. For Jung, it is part of the second half of life, and is psychologically as important as birth. The denial of death only leads to further neurosis, death is inevitable and to fight against it is to fight against life itself.

Just as a young person needs to learn to live, an old person has to come to terms with death, and for that, one must have a personal myth, which is created by observing our inner life through dreams, active imagination, intuitions, and synchronicities. Jung writes:

“Death is an important interest, especially to an aging person. A categorical question is being put to him, and he is under an obligation to answer it. To this end he ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending. Myth, however, can conjure up other images for him, helpful and enriching pictures of life in the land of the dead. If he believes in them, or greets them with some measure of credence, he is being just as right or just as wrong as someone who does not believe in them. But while the man who despairs marches toward nothingness, the one who has placed his faith in the archetype follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death. Both, to be sure, remain in uncertainty, but the one lives against his instincts, the other with them.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jung’s entire psychology is predicated on the existence of psychic oppositions in the human psyche. It is the tension of opposites that gives rise to our wholeness, the enantiodromic principle of the union of opposites carves a path to the Self.

There are two phases in life: the first phase in which we are oriented outwardly, and the second phase in which our focus shifts inward during midlife. Individuation is a reconciliation of both inner and outer life.

“The actual processes of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner centre (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a sort of “call,” although it is not often recognised as such.”

Man and His Symbols. Part III: The Process of Individuation – M.L. von Franz

We need to learn from our own experiences of being wounded, to release ourselves from what may be the most serious illness of all, the fantasy of a health without wounds, a life without death.

The Wound as Initiation: Hero’s Journey

Those with a healing career end up profoundly wounded or even die as is shown in the stories of Chiron, Asclepius and Christ. It is a given that if one enters into the role of healer, at some point one will be severely wounded.

To become individuated is no easy task, it is a very painful process, equivalent to bearing our own cross as Christ did on his way to being crucified. The wound is our initiation into our fragmented self, it is the call to adventure that begins the hero’s journey.

“The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

When the hero overcomes the monster, he finds the treasure, the princess, the elixir of life, etc., which are psychological metaphors for one’s true feelings and unique potential. Jung wrote:

“In myths the hero is the one who conquers the dragon, not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both have to deal with the same dragon. Also, he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure hard to attain.” He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself… He has acquired the right to believe that he will be able to overcome all future threats by the same means.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

The mythologist Joseph Campbell expanded on Jung’s ideas with his popular conception of the hero’s journey, which is not just a story but a deeply embedded myth that explains the human condition.

The call to adventure occurs when we are separated from our ordinary world of comfort and must tread into unknown and dangerous territory, and that causes anxiety. This often leads to refusal, which slowly deteriorates one’s life and relationships. There comes a point where the wounds become too much to bear, and one must tend to them.

Going through our wound is a genuine death experience, as our old self “dies” in the process, while a new, more expansive and empowered self is born.

The Sacred and The Profane

In his book, The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion, Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade describes the sacred and the profane as two existential situations assumed by mankind throughout history. From the perspective of religious thought, the manifestation of the sacred (hierophany) is what gives meaning, structure, and orientation to the world.

The sacred is akin to the Platonic world of forms, which exist beyond space and time. It is the home of the universal, the immortal, and the eternal. The profane, on the other hand, contains everything concrete, mortal, and temporal. Since it is a place of constant becoming, it is a place of decay and death.

Eliade uses the term archetype (not to be confused with Jung’s definition) to express the manifestations of the sacred, which we gain access to by repetition, imitation, and participation in the divine patterns. Religious behaviour does not only commemorate, but also participates in, sacred events. Our ancestors interacted with the sacred, because without it, man is nothing but dust and ashes. However, the sacred also produces a feeling of terror before its awe-inspiring mystery (mysterium tremendum), and religious fear before the fascinating mystery (mysterium fascinans) in which perfect fullness of being flowers. These are all numinous experiences, induced by the revelation of the divine.

“To whatever degree he may have desacralised the world, the man who has made his choice in favour of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with his religious behaviour.”

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane

Celebrations and rituals depict the idea of what Eliade calls the eternal return, that is, a reconnection with the mythical age. This behaviour is still emotionally present with us, in one form or another, ready to be reactualised in our deepest being.

Each year becomes a repetition of the mythical age, and we can step into the divine realm, transporting us back to the world of origins. Time is not a linear succession of events, but a circle. Linear time, and the lack of any inherent value on the march of historical events (the terror of history), is one of the reasons for modern man’s anxieties.

The Wound as Initiation: Shamanism

Eliade describes sicknesses, dreams, and ecstasies as a shamanic initiation, which is not resolved until one transforms the profane into the sacred. Eliade makes it clear that shamanism is not any kind of mental disease, but rather a temporal crisis that expresses the human condition.

In shamanic initiations the initiate often experiences an illness of some type which is not resolved until the individual practices shamanic exercises such as drumming and chanting until he is cured. He is then regarded as a shaman in the community and has the role of a healer.

“The primitive magician, the medicine man or shaman is not only a sick man, he is above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself.”

Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

Accounts of the shaman’s inner journey of turmoil and distress, expressed through the ecstatic action of trance, reveals the venerated images of the awakened psyche, living symbols that encompass the wider human experience. Through creative expression, the human condition is elevated, mythologised, and, at last, collectively understood.

The lifeway of the shaman is nearly as old as human consciousness itself, predating the earliest recorded civilisations by thousands of years. A common thread seems to connect all shamans across the planet. An awakening to other orders of reality, the experience of ecstasy, and an opening up of visionary realms. The entrance to the other world occurs through the action of total disruption, a crisis involving a psychological and spiritual death. There are many similarities between these archaic rituals and the experience people undergo in psychotherapy.

Compensatory function

Often people embark on a helping profession because they want to address their personal wounds: dysfunctional childhood, abuse, inferiority complex, etc., in order to heal themselves and help others with their own healing processes. Psychologically, we all have a compensatory function in our lives. A person who has a lack of self-worth, may appear outwardly to be very confident. A person who thinks he is not smart, may spend a long time reading books and acquiring a vast wealth of knowledge, and at every opportunity, expresses this knowledge to others. Our feelings of inferiority are part of the shadow, and the persona (our social mask which we present to others) is our compensation for what is lying in our shadow. An overcompensation can cause someone to act in complete opposition to what he feels emotionally, and thus he conceals his true self. His problems are repressed and never faced constructively, and the shadow grows larger and darker.

Repetition Compulsion

A traumatic and abusive childhood can cause what Freud calls repetition compulsion, an unconscious need to repeat traumatic events, which shows up in different situations, but has the same underlying archetypal pattern. This can extend to all sorts of relationships in one’s life: with one’s parents, friends, partner, children, etc. Every repetition, makes the problem worse and more complex. Our unconscious tries to heal us by reconstellating (re-activating) these situations as an opportunity to come into a new relationship with the underlying pattern, to convert the poison into healing.

Pharmakon: Poison and Cure

The contradictory opposites of poison and cure is expressed in the Greek word pharmakon, a drug can be both beneficial and harmful. The wounded healer is one who takes his wounds seriously, and transforms his poison into a gift to bestow upon others. This applies to the relationship between therapist and patient too. Jung wrote:

“We could say, without too much exaggeration, that a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient. It is no loss, either, if he feels that the patient is hitting him, or even scoring off him: it is his own hurt that gives the measure of his power to heal. This, and nothing else, is the meaning of the Greek myth of the wounded physician.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 16: The Practice of Psychotherapy

Therapist as Wounded Healer

Freud and Jung were modern wounded healers. Freud in the last sixteen years of his life, was tormented unceasingly by his cancer of the jaw, until it lead to his death. Jung was on the brink of taking his own life in his period of the confrontation with his unconscious. A month before his death, too frail for his daily walk, Jung was driven around some of his favourite roads, saying goodbye to the countryside. Despite their suffering, they continued to write and practise, transmuting their poison into a healing potion, like true alchemists.

However, it is not just the therapist alone who does the healing. It is common for the patient to project onto the analyst the image of the healer, and when there is no progress, the patient gets angry and perhaps leaves therapy, and eventually comes back again. This is known as transference and is a typical phenomenon in therapy. The patient can, for instance, unconsciously transfer his feelings about his abusive father onto the analyst, and the analyst must be careful not to engage in countertransference, in which the patient reminds the analyst of someone in his or her life.

The analyst has to be prepared to not project his wounds on the already wounded patient. They must develop a clear map of their wounds, in which they are able to describe their experiences of being wounded, how they felt during their vulnerable period, and how they dealt with it. Our wounds can become a wellspring of healing for another.

“The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

The analyst takes the suffering of the patient, shares it with him, and suffers with him. This has a healing effect, just as the suffering of Christ is mysteriously curative for others, “by his wounds we are healed.”

Jung learned through his practice that only the analyst who feels himself deeply affected by his patients could heal, and the analyst cannot take the patient to a place the analyst has never been. This is not only a matter of empathy but of knowledge (“gnosis”) of what soul work is and how it matters. At some point, the patient must also realise that the potential for healing resides within himself or herself. The analyst acts as a psychopomp or spiritual guide for the patient. It can be extremely helpful to have allies in order to defeat one’s dragon, which symbolises one’s fears, obstacles, hardships, or repressions. But, one must deal the final blow to the dragon oneself. Jung wrote:

“The crucial point is that I confront the patient as one human being to another. Analysis is a dialogue demanding two partners. Analyst and patient sit facing one another, eye to eye, the doctor has something to say, but so has the patient.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

While the analyst performs the role of a healer, his wounds live a shadowy existence, and can be reconstellated in particular situations, especially when working with someone whose wounds are similar. The shadow of the wounded patient, on the other hand, is his inner healer.

Therefore, the unconscious relationship between analyst and analysand is as important as what is consciously communicated, in terms of the healing process. It can be a transformative experience for both people.

Healing can take place only if the analyst has an ongoing relationship with the unconscious. Otherwise, he or she may identify with the healer archetype, a common form of inflation. This is known as an Asclepius complex, where the therapist takes healing too far, just as Asclepius brought back people from the dead. The therapist believes he has god-like powers of healing, and that there’s no need for a personal relationship.

Jung had a dream in which his patient was a giant and he was very small. Dreams are often compensatory in nature, therefore, Jung realised that he had been looking down at the patient. When he adjusted his attitude, the relationship and the healing of the patient went much better. Jung always told his students that they must at all times keep watch over themselves, over the way they are reacting to their patient, and to be aware of not projecting their wounds on the wounded patient. Depth psychology is a dangerous profession, since the analyst is forever prone to being infected by the other’s wounds – or having his or her wounds reopened.

Jung viewed psychological conflicts, or emotional wounding not necessarily as a disease, but as an initiation into a process that opens us up to the unconscious. The archetype of the wounded healer is constellated through our wounds. Just as a physical wound needs to be cleaned, bandaged, and given the necessary time to heal – so too do psychological wounds need to be cured by removing negative influences, creating and maintaining an environment in which the healing can take place, and having the necessary patience to allow the natural energy to accomplish the work of growth and healing.


The event of our wounding sends us on a journey in search of ourselves. It is a numinous event. Through our cracks is where the light comes in. Our fragmented self is the doorway into the transpersonal and archetypal realm, the master-pattern and ultimate guide in our lives, to the infinite wisdom of the Self.

It is an archetypal, universal idea that becoming broken, though on one hand seemingly obscuring our wholeness, is actually an expression of it. It is as if some form of destruction is a prerequisite for individuation and is necessary for the birth of the Self.

Suffering is collective, it can be taken as a sign that we are no longer suffering from ourselves, but rather from the spirit of the age. The microcosm and macrocosm are one and the same. Through transforming ourselves, we transform the world; through transforming the world, we transform ourselves. We are interdependent parts of a greater, all-embracing whole and holy being. To realise this is to have an expansion of consciousness.

The archetype of the wounded healer symbolises a type of consciousness that can hold the seemingly mutually exclusive and contradictory opposites of being consciously aware of both our woundedness and our wholeness at one and the same time.

“[T]he greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble… They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”

Carl Jung, Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower

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The Psychology of The Wounded Healer

The wounded healer refers to the capacity to be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery.

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Journey to Hell – The Path to Self-Knowledge

Mankind has speculated about the afterlife since the dawn of civilisation. In Duat, the Egyptian underworld, the hearts of the dead were weighed against a feather. The heart was considered as the most important of the internal organs, and the source of human wisdom, which could reveal the person’s true character. If the heart weighed more than the feather, it was immediately consumed and one would remain restless forever in the underworld. If the heart was found lighter or equal in weight, it symbolised that the deceased led a life of virtue and would go on to the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian paradise. Thus, aligning one’s actions to one’s heart was considered as the key to paradise.

For the ancient Greeks, the land of the dead was known as Hades, who was also the Greek god of the underworld. While there was a belief of the existence of the soul after death, it was seen as meaningless. The inhabitants of the underworld have no sense of purpose. Similarly, in the Old Testament, there is no mention of Hell nor Heaven. The dead, whether good or bad, went to the realm of the shades known as Sheol, a place of darkness and eternal sleep. Thus, they lacked a developed conception of the afterlife. It was only later in the New Testament, that Hell was thought of as a place of punishment.

Today, most of us think of Hell as a fiery place containing the souls of the damned who have committed heinous acts in life, and must endure eternal punishment and torture by demons. The Devil reigns over Hell, as the incarnation of the Platonic idea of evil (the perfect form of evil).

Hell is understood as the archetype of ultimate suffering. We often say, “I have been to hell and back” when we experience extreme suffering (whether physical or psychological). Thus, Hell is no imaginary place, but rather a state of consciousness that we all experience at some point in our lives, in different intensities.

Hell, however, is also an unavoidable journey in life. In ancient mysteries or rituals of passages, the hero must descend into a dark place in order to give birth to a new consciousness and gain access to a new stage of life. It is the most profound psychological death and rebirth of the self. We will be exploring the journey into hell as the path to self-knowledge.

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9.2: Aion

Hell is Other People

In his play No Exit, French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre depicts a psychological hell, leading to his famous declaration, “Hell is other people.” Rather than being misanthropic, it is a psychological exploration of his idea of the Look. Sartre depicts two women and a man locked in a mysterious room. They are unable to escape the “devouring” gaze of one another. One of the women accuses the man of stealing her face, because she feels automatically judged by his stare. The Look deprives the characters of their individuality, freedom, and responsibility, and locks them into a particular kind of being, as an object in the other people’s views. The experience of always being under the eyes of others causing them to lose their selves and become a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of them. At the end, the man finally realises what hell is:

“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So, this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!”

Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

The Therapist and The Journey into Hell

In his book The Cry for Myth, American existential psychologist Rollo May writes a short chapter on The Therapist and The Journey into Hell.

Therapy is the prologue to life rather than life itself. The therapist seeks to help the other person to the point of where he can move forwards in life, solve his problems and overcome the obstacles independently. The task of the therapist is not to cure, but to be a guide, friend, and interpreter to people on their journey through their private hell. Each one of us has or will have private hells crying to be confronted, and we often find ourselves powerless to make progress unaided against these obstacles, which is why the presence of a guide is central and has a powerful effect upon the patient.

We are all in limbo; we are all struggling alone in the human condition. The issue is not to have problems but to fail to be aware of them and fail to confront them.

Human beings can reach heaven only through hell. The journey through hell cannot be omitted. Hell provides a vital wisdom, without suffering, one cannot get to heaven. The agony, the horror, the sadness, are a necessary prelude to self-realisation, and a purity of heart.

Paradise Lost

“No light; but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all, but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

This is how Hell is portrayed by the English poet John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost entirely through dictation, after having gone blind. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. He describes a rebellion in Heaven prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, and the expulsion of Lucifer and the fallen angels to Hell. Milton paints Lucifer as an ambivalent character, who declares:

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Divine Comedy: Introduction

Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy was completed in 1320, a year before his death.  The main character is Dante himself, who travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. These three stages are simultaneous, and coexisting aspects of all human experience. The work is described as a comedy because it starts up bad and ends up good, as opposed to a tragedy. The book opens with one of the most iconic lines in literature:

“Midway in the journey of our life, I awoke to find myself alone and lost in a dark wood, having wandered from the straight path.”

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Dante the poet says that it is “journey of our life”. That is to say, it is not just about his journey, but rather about everyone’s story on the path to self-knowledge and spiritual awakening, which begins by descending into Hell. Dante wrote this when he was 35, which was considered as midlife. This book is the ultimate expression of a midlife crisis, a critical phase of existential transformation which the ancient Greeks called metanoia (mental transformation). Dante makes you think seriously about your own life, and to make the best of it when your life is dramatically thrown off course.

This is what Dante faced when he was accused of corruption and to be burned alive at the stake. He remained in perpetual exile from his home in Florence the remaining 20 years of his life. He dropped into the depths of his inner world. From this time comes The Divine Comedy, an example of the interplay between the human and the divine. This is what the Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich calls the method of correlation. The human questions of anxiety, meaninglessness, estrangement, etc., are correlated with religious answers. There is a mutual dependence between theology and existentialism, philosophy, and psychology; which is what allows us to get to the depths of reality.

Dante the pilgrim finds himself within a horrible dark forest, for the straightforward path in life had been lost. He says, “I don’t know how I got here.” Very often, we find ourselves in this situation. There are times when we don’t recognise how we got where we are. We start out with certain goals we want to achieve, but as time passes, we make small choices and without realising it, end up somewhere completely different. As the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard would say, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This is what Dante experienced, he is not who he set out to be, and he does not know why that is.

Since he does not understand himself nor the purpose of his life, he requires some high ground, some way to orient himself. He sees high above him the sun shining over a hill, but his way is blocked by three beasts, and he is unable to pass through. There’s no shortcut to self-realisation.

In his despair, a figure appears before Dante the pilgrim. It is the ancient Roman poet Virgil. He is a spiritual guide who will be Dante’s companion through the various circles of hell, that are divided according to the nature of the sins committed by those condemned there.

Dante is led to the Gate of Hell. Above it reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” He is terrified and is not so sure he wants to enter, he also sees himself unworthy of such a journey. Virgil explains to him that Beatrice is waiting for him in Paradise, the great love of Dante’s life, whom he had fallen in love with when he was nine years old, however, marriage between them was impossible. When Beatrice died at the age of 25, Dante was inconsolable. Her death inspired his early poems, and she appears as a personal myth of Dante’s, a reality in his own mind and heart, a figure that has become eternalised in his works.

Dante agrees to enter the Gate of Hell, and thus begins his extraordinary journey to self-knowledge.

Divine Comedy: Hell

Hell is depicted as nine concentric circles of torment located within the Earth. One might say that it is the journey of climbing down to the depth of the unconscious. It is not just some sadistic observation of the eternal suffering of the damned, but an invitation to recognise one’s own dysfunctions, and see the consequences through myriads of punishments in Hell.

Before descending into the first circle of Hell, Dante and his guide pass through the Vestibule of Hell, where they hear the cries of anguish from the opportunists. These are the souls who were indifferent. They are guilty of the sin of fence-sitting. Since they took no sides, they are given no place.

After this they enter the first circle of Hell known as Limbo, which contains the unbaptised and virtuous pagans who were not sinful but where ignorant of Christ. Many of the great philosophers and poets reside here. In fact, this is also the home of Virgil, before he became Dante’s guide. They are not punished, but spend eternity without being able to see God.

After leaving Limbo, the real suffering begins. The next circles contain lust, gluttony, greed and wrath, symbolising the self-indulgent. It is part of the Upper Hell. As one gets deeper into the circles of Hell, the punishments get more harsh and painful.

Dante makes all kinds of mistakes when he enters Hell. Eventually, he learns that sin is not to be pitied; however, this lesson takes him many circles of Hell to learn. When Dante faints upon witnessing the suffering, he is quickly awakened by Virgil, for it is a journey of vision.

The next circles contain the Lower Hell. Circle 6 is home to the heretics. Here we find the Epicureans who are trapped in tombs burning with fire. The Epicureans believed that the soul died with the body, and stated that pleasure was the chief good in life. The goal is to reach a state of tranquillity, without overindulgence, and minimise suffering – which makes their punishment quite ironic.

The next circles all have more concentric circles within themselves. The seventh circle is home to the violent, including violence to others (murder), violence to oneself (suicide), and violence against nature and God. Dante depicts the worst of the sins in circle 8 and 9, representing fraud and treachery, respectively.

When they finally reach the very centre of Hell, they meet Lucifer, the fallen angel, who is condemned for committing the ultimate sin (personal treachery against God). He is stuck in a frozen lake, and the icy wind that come from the beating of his wings ensures his own imprisonment. Around him, traitors are trapped in various depths according to the severity of their sin.

The devil is three-headed, which is a perversion of the Trinity. He is God’s antithesis. Each head chews eternally on a prominent traitor, on the left and right appear Marcus and Gaius, who were involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar, and on the centre is Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ.

Virgil and Dante climb down Lucifer’s body. However, Virgil suddenly turns around and begins climbing back up Lucifer’s legs. This scares Dante who believes they are going back to Hell. Virgil reassures him that they are not – things appear to be upside-down because they have passed the opposite side of the world.

This begins the second part of the book: Purgatory, the only land mass in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere, formed by the impact of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven.

Faculty of Knowing and Faculty of Choosing

Before we begin with Purgatory, there are two important distinctions to be made. Humans have intellect (the faculty of knowing) and will (the faculty of choosing). The problem arises when one lacks knowledge, and thus cannot make the right choices. However, even if one knows the right thing, one doesn’t always make the right choices. Dante the pilgrim echoes this when he writes:

“To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, quoting Romans 7:18-19

The first step for Dante is to get his faculty of knowing expanded. But, why exactly do people sin? A person might choose to do something bad because he thinks it is good for him. It is often the case that what appears to be good, is in fact bad. There must be a distinction between appearance and reality. If one asks a murderer, “when you were committing your crime, did you know it was bad?” It is likely that he will respond in the affirmative. In other words, the problem isn’t the faculty of knowing, but the faculty of choosing. Dante was influenced by Aristotelian ethics in which the lack of self-mastery is less condemnable than intentional pain and malice. That is why those who abuse the faculty of reason through violence, fraud, and treachery are in the deeper levels of Hell, while the punishment of the self-indulgent is less severe.

Hell is an eternal reminder of what we have done. God doesn’t send us to Hell, we send ourselves to Hell.

“[T]he doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

When we refuse the divine love, it lights up fires of suffering within us, that is Hell.

In the Inferno, Dante develops his faculty of knowing, however when he reaches Purgatory, it is not enough. He must learn how to use the intellect as a basis for making good choices. It is a discipline of the will.

Divine Comedy: Purgatory

Purgatory is the place of catharsis and cleansing of the soul, where imperfections are burned away. Unlike Hell and Heaven, it is temporary. Every soul in Purgatory will ultimately go to Heaven.

It is depicted as a seven storey mountain  associated with the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. In the first and most serious of the seven levels is pride. This is the fundamental human sin. “Eat this,” the serpent says to Eve, “and you will be like God.” It is the desire to be God that lead to the first sin in the Garden of Eden.

While those in Hell are people who tried to justify their sins and are unrepentant, people in Purgatory sinned but prayed for forgiveness before their deaths, and must labour to become free of their sins.

The work in Purgatory is what Dante calls contrapasso, where one is forced to suffer the sin, work through it, and build a virtue. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung calls it enantiodromia, the emergence of the unconscious opposite in one’s psyche. The prideful who elevated themselves are pressed down by great boulders. They carry their oppressive false persona until they can willingly let go of it, when they are able to do so, they stand tall, humbly, and free from what they mistakenly thought to be their true selves. Dante joins the prideful to carry boulders, because he realises that it is also a serious flaw of his own. After seeing all the sins in Hell, one has work of purification to do in Purgatory.

The envious who looked with hatred upon other people and wanted to deprive them of their happiness out of resentment have their eyelids sewn shut. The wrathful walk around in blinding black smoke, which symbolises the blinding effect of anger. The slothful have to run, the greedy lie face-down on the ground and pray, the gluttonous are starved in the presence of trees whose fruit is forever out of reach, and the lustful have to go through a wall of fire as a means of purification.

Purgatory is like our real world, it is a place of transition. Heaven is above us, and hell is below us. We all have inner work to do. We must rather strive to lead as virtuous a life as we can. The goal is not perfection, but wholeness.

Divine Comedy: Heaven

When Dante reaches the top of Mount Purgatory, he’s ready to fly to Heaven, and is joined by Beatrice, who is his new spiritual guide. She leads him on a flight through the various levels of Heaven. When we turn away from our self-centred ego, it is like a weight is off our shoulders, as if we could fly. G.K. Chesterton wrote:

“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Dante reaches the Empyrean, the highest point in Heaven. He earns the rare privilege to be in the presence of God while he is still living. He explains that he cannot describe what he saw because language is inadequate to do so. Knowing where intellect cannot take us is important, as well as what our human limitations are. God knows only Himself because God is the entire universe, and everything in the universe is His reflection. Dante understands that he must be able to see himself in God. As soon as he realises this, his vision becomes flooded with a light so bright that he can’t see anything. As Dante wrote, “this is the result of perfect vision.” For the brief period that he is in God’s presence, he is at one with the universe. He has achieved union with God.

Salvation as Individuation

“To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity.”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Throughout The Divine Comedy, we see the constant interplay between the positive and the negative, the hopeful and the horrific. Salvation as described by Dante, holds a striking parallel with the process of individuation defined by Carl Jung. The problem of individuation is that the psyche consists of two incongruous halves which should together form a whole. To become individuated is to reconcile the dualities of the inner world and outer world, consciousness and the unconscious, and according to Jung, this is the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence. To reconcile these dualities, the knowledge of symbols (the language of the unconscious) is indispensable, for it is in them that the union of conscious and unconscious is realised, creating our personal myth in life. In the beginning of the poem, Dante the pilgrim has recognised this split in his personality, and that he must embark on a journey to become whole.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14

Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The English poet and visionary artist William Blake wrote a book titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Milton and Dante, Blake describes Hell not as a place of punishment, but as a place of energy.  He writes:

“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human experience. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys reason. Evil is the active springing from energy. Good is heaven. Evil is hell.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake accepts the terminology of standard Christian morality, but he reverses its values. Conventional Evil belongs to the devils, wrongdoers who suffer in Hell. It is associated with the body, desires, and consists essentially of energy, abundance, actions, and freedom. Conventional Good, which is manifested by angels, who are in Heaven, is associated with the soul (regarded as entirely separate from the body), and consists of reason, restraint, passivity and prohibition. Blake rejects the dualism of body and soul, and both Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell are necessary to life.

He anticipated Freud’s psychoanalysis with the conclusion that Energy or libido (called “evil”) arises from the unconscious (“hell”) and is restricted by Reason (called “good”), the product of the superego (“heaven”).  

Blake imagines himself walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius (the devils being the original thinkers and revolutionists), which to the angels (who are conventional and complacent) looks like torment and insanity. Blake states that Hell is full of Energy, and “Energy is Eternal Delight.” Fire is identified with the forces of the unconscious, the flames of inspiration, and possibly as the means of salvation. Blake’s technique of revelation by “the infernal method” of “melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid”, reveals the Proverbs of Hell – which show a wisdom different from the Biblical Book of Proverbs, some of these include:

“The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

“He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

“Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps.”

Though Blake was a devout Christian, this work can be seen as a satire, parody, and criticism of orthodox values, as well as the so-called books of wisdom that were often published in condensed forms and consisting of collections of biblical verses to be taught in a rigid manner.

Blake’s proverbs are designed to put the individual’s heart first, rather than laws. They are designed to energise imagination and human emotional response.

“Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.”

“The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.”

Blake firmly believed that individuals must be able to freely exercise their imagination in order to construct a reality for themselves, this is what he calls the Poetic Genius, if there is one true religion for Blake, it is the divine spark of the imagination.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Like dreaming or visioning, mythologising is a process that takes our whole being to the borderlands of existence, a place beyond which our eyes can barely make out the vastness of a terra incognita. Yet those who decide to venture that far, receive a gift to take back with them to the inhabited lands we are familiar with. What appears to be a journey of exile into the unknown is, in fact, a journey of returning home to the depth of the soul.

The Red Book: Descent into Hell

“There is only one way and that is your way; there is only one salvation and that is your salvation. Why are you looking around for help? Do you believe that help will come from outside? What is to come will be created in you and from you. Hence look into yourself. Do not compare, do not measure. No other way is like yours. All other ways deceive and tempt you. You must fulfil the way that is in you.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Just like Dante had Virgil as a guide, Jung’s personal guide was Philemon, a magician and wise old man that represented superior insight, whose words of wisdom was “full of the sounds of life.” On the other hand, Nietzsche’s guide was the prophet Zarathustra, who grows weary of his wisdom after spending ten years in solitude in the mountains, and speaks thus to the sun:

“I must descend into the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you overrich star. Like you I must go under – go down, as is said by man, to whom I want to descend… What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

In one of his lectures, Jung stated that:

“A point exists at about the thirty-fifth year when things begin to change, it is the first moment of the shadow side of life, of the going down to death. It is clear that Dante found this point and those who have read Zarathustra will know that Nietzsche also discovered it. When this turning point comes people meet it in several ways: some turn away from it; others plunge into it; and something important happens to yet others from the outside. If we do not see a thing, Fate does it to us”

Carl Jung, ETH lectures (June 14, 1935)

In his late 30s, Jung experienced this midlife existential catastrophe, and was overwhelmed with visions. In his hypnagogic state, he plunged into unknown depths, which he later called his “confrontation with the unconscious”, lasting from 1913 to 1916.  Fearing psychosis, Jung kept a loaded revolver in the drawer of his night table, in case the visions became unbearable. In The Red Book, Jung speaks of his descent into Hell, which should not be understood as an afterlife abode of condemnation, but rather as a present living condition of utter bewilderment, encompassing a momentous existential change.

“What do you think of the essence of Hell? Hell is when the depths come to you with all that you no longer are or are not yet capable of. Hell is when you can no longer attain what you could attain. Hell is when you think and feel and do everything that you know you do not want. Hell is when you know that your having to is also a wanting to, and that you yourself are responsible for it. Hell is when you know that everything serious that you have planned with yourself is also laughable, that everything fine is also brutal, that everything good is also bad, that everything high is also low, and that everything pleasant is also shameful.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

The roots of the tree of life reach into Hell and the top touches Heaven. Through uniting with the self we reach the God, which unites Heaven and Hell in itself. The self functions as a union of opposites, and thus constitutes the most immediate experience of the divine which is at all psychologically comprehensible.

Jung found himself standing on the highest tower of a castle. He sees a figure in the distance, who slowly makes his way to him. He hears footsteps in the stairway, and a strange fear comes over him. It is the devil, or as he calls him, The Red One. Jung has a conversation with him through active imagination.

The Red One: I greet you, man on the high tower. I saw you from afar, looking and waiting. Your waiting has called me.

Jung: Who are you?

The Red One: Who am I? You think I am the devil. Do not pass judgment. Perhaps you can also talk to me without knowing who I am. What sort of a superstitious fellow are you, that immediately you think of the devil?

Jung: If you have no supernatural ability, how could you feel that I stood on my tower, looking out for the unknown and the new? My life in the castle is poor, since I always sit here and no one climbs up to me.

The Red One: So what are you waiting for?

Jung: I await all kinds of things, and especially I’m waiting for some of the world’s wealth, which we don’t see here, to come to me.

The Red One: So, I have come to absolutely the right place. I have wandered a long time through the world, seeking those like you who sit upon a high tower on the lookout for things unseen.

Jung: You make me curious. You seem to be a rare breed. Your appearance is not ordinary, and then too – forgive me – it seems to me that you bring with you a strange air, something worldly, something impudent, or exuberant, or – in fact – something pagan.

Carl Jung, The Red Book

As Jung continues his conversation, The Red One is amused by his ponderous speech and seriousness. He tells Jung that life doesn’t require any seriousness. On the contrary, it’s better to dance through life. Jung tells him that he knows how to dance, and the devil is surprised, for he considers dancing to be of his own province. Thus, they reach common ground. The peculiarity of the devil is that he fails to take seriously anything that only concerns others. The devil is convinced that dancing is neither lust nor madness, but an expression of joy. In this, Jung agreed with the devil, echoing what Nietzsche wrote:

“You Higher Men, the worst thing about you is: none of you has learned to dance as a man ought to dance – to dance beyond yourselves.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Jung ends his conversation with The Red One as follows:

Jung: Perhaps too there is a joy before God that one can call dancing. But I haven’t found this joy. I look out for things that are yet to come. Things came, but joy was not among them.

The Red One: Don’t you recognise me, brother, I am joy!

Jung: Could you be joy? I see you as through a cloud. Your image fades. Let me take your hand, beloved, who are you, who are you? Joy? Was he joy?

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Jung earnestly confronted his devil and behaved with him as with a real person. He learned to take seriously every unknown wanderer who personally inhabits his inner world. He was his joy, the joy of the serious person. Whoever tastes this joy forgets himself. And there is nothing sweeter than forgetting oneself.

Jung writes:

“If you ever have the rare opportunity to speak with the devil, then do not forget to confront him in all seriousness. He is your devil after all. The devil as the adversary is your own other standpoint; he tempts you and sets a stone in your path where you least want it. Taking the devil seriously does not mean going over to his side, or else one becomes the devil. Rather it means coming to an understanding. Thereby you accept your other standpoint. With that the devil fundamentally loses ground, and so do you. And that may be well and good.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

When Jung realised that the devil is joy, he wanted to make a pact with him. But, he couldn’t make a pact with joy, because it immediately disappears. The essence of the devil is that he cannot be captured. The devil seeks to saw off the branch on which you sit. That is useful and protects one from falling asleep and from the vices that go along with it.

“The devil is an evil element. But joy? If you run after it, you see that joy also has evil in it, since then you arrive at pleasure and from pleasure go straight to Hell, your own particular Hell, which turns out differently for everyone.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Unlike Faust, who in his depression and dissatisfaction with life sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for power, knowledge, and material gain – Jung avoids this danger by reaching a mutual agreement. He achieved some joy, and the devil accepted some of Jung’s seriousness. It is always a risky thing to accept joy, it cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

What Jung initially perceived as a deeply critical period leading him to the brink of madness eventually came to represent the source of the most creative and significant period of his life, “the stuff and material for more than one life”, as he put it.

For Jung, purifying one’s vision while travelling through Hell involves, first and foremost, the acknowledgment and integration of an evil counterpart through what he calls the shadow. However, while it is within the bounds of possibility for us to recognise the relative evil of our nature, it is a rare and shattering experience to gaze into the face of absolute evil.

“Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become one himself. And when you stare for a long time into an abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


The descent into hell is a cathartic journey which leads to self-knowledge, self-transformation, and ultimately, self-transcendence. It is easy to get into but very difficult to exit. It epitomises a process of self-transformation similar to what the alchemists intended with the nigredo phase of spiritual mortification and putrefaction, a dangerous, yet healing, descent into one’s inner underworld. Only in the region of danger can one find the treasure hard to attain.

Everything in the human mind belongs to the natural play of opposites, which regulates life. Real self-transformation shall never be complete without man’s reconciliation of heaven and hell.

“He who journeys to Hell also becomes Hell; therefore do not forget from whence you come. The depths are stronger than us; so do not be heroes, be clever and drop the heroics, since nothing is more dangerous than to play the hero.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

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Journey to Hell – The Path to Self-Knowledge

Hell is understood as the archetype of ultimate suffering. It is no imaginary place, but rather a state of consciousness that we all experience at some point in our lives.

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