In his confessional essay, “How I Became a Philosopher,” Bernard Stiegler exhibits a philosophical fidelity to his past by revealing that his philosophical vocation began in prison. He describes his time in prison as an “interruption” and “suspension” of action (“How I Became a Philosopher (HBP), in Acting Out, p. 12). Prison was like an extended Sabbath or Lent, of sorts – “an asceticism without end (HBP, p. 19).” During his five years in a French prison, Stiegler developed an “ensemble of disciplines” that he called his melete (HBP, p. 20). Pierre Hadot has discussed the Greek understanding of a melete as a “spiritual exercise” in which the practitioner makes “an effort to assimilate an idea, notion, or principle, and make them come alive in the soul (Hadot, Pierre, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 85, and n.38, p. 112).” Michel Foucault has also discussed these practices as “technologies of the self” (Foucault, Michel, “Technologies of the Self” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, pp.223-251).”
Stiegler’s prison melete was an instrument of self-transformation. He describes the process of assimilating ideas as anamnesis – cognition as remembrance—and the practice of making these ideas “come alive in the soul,” as hypomnesis – forgetting through supplementarity (HBP, 20). This process involved the back-and-forth of remembering and forgetting through psychotechnics like reading and writing, which formed a melete that turned the social tomb of prison into a philosophical womb for Stiegler. By engaging in the intentional suspension of action for the purpose of individuation, Stiegler recreated himself from the inside out.
Stiegler’s prison melete is worth considering for anyone seeking self-transformation, inside or outside prison. His melete was as follows:
- Read and reread a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, or a prose text for 30 minutes every morning, in order to understand it completely.
- Responsive writing exercises in various modes that became hypmnemonic linkages with texts.
- Read novels in the evening.
- Spoke rarely, and lived in written language.
- Listened and took notes on everything heard or read.
- Fought against the “bad soliliquy” (negative self-talk) through experimenting with an inner dialectic with oneself.