Ancient Roots of Spiritual Exercises

bust of Marcus AureliusThe French philosopher Pierre Hadot has studied the origins of spiritual exercises among Greek philosophers. There seems to be a straight line from Hellenistic philosophy and its influence on Church fathers like Ambrose and Augustine, to the early monastic tradition, to the medieval monks who influenced Ignatius Loyola. (At one point Ignatius wanted to be a Carthusian and even permitted members of his order to transfer into that order and return later.) Ignatius borrowed from a very long tradition of spiritual exercises, of which Hadot writes the following.

What’s interesting about the idea of spiritual exercises is precisely that it is not a matter of a purely rational consideration, but the putting in action of all kinds of means, intended to act upon one’s self. Imagination and affectivity play a capital role here: we must represent to ourselves in vivid colors the dangers of such-and-such a passion, and use striking formulations of ideas in order to exhort ourselves. We must also create habits, and fortify ourselves by preparing ourselves against hardships in advance.  (Philosophy as a Way of Life, Blackwell 1995, p. 284.)

What the ancients understood, and what Ignatius recaptured, is that people are not really governed by reason. We are governed by passions, and we can learn to master them or be mastered by them. Spiritual exercises are about choosing to act only on those passions which originate in God and lead us back to God.

Image: Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, from the Glyptothek, Munich, courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol.

Previous articleAsking for What We Want
Next articleLiving Out the Beatitudes, Part One
Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon is the author of a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout and Living Against the Grain, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.


  1. One of the cliches from the 12-step programs is “Fake it ’til you make it.” I always felt that there was some flaw to this concept but could never put my finger on it. The cliche that Tom mentions, supra, is another illustration of this. I need some help here. Pax vobiscum.

  2. Thanks for sharing these insights from Pierre Hadot. I’ve heard the advice, “It’s more effective to act your way into right thinking than to think your way into right action.” I’ve found that true, especially once you tap into a tradition (such as Ignatian Spirituality) which has time-tested which right actions are most effective in pulling the veil of delusion that keeps us from really identifying those passions which keep us going astray. So much wisdom available, yet so much ability to self-destruct.

  3. Thank you, very interesting the Ancient Roots of Spiritual Exercises. What you say that passions governed us not reason is something to really think about.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here