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This book made me think more and harder than any other recent book I've read (not counting old works I re-read that make me think equally as hard). And it wasn't so much that this book made me think hard about Seneca or Montaigne or Nietzsche (which, of course, it did); it made me think harder about myself. And I think that might have been the great goal.
When I was a younger and cockier professor, I used to exhort my students with Socrates' (purported) dictum, "The unexamined life is not worth living." I dimly understood but consciously suppressed the notions that (a) in the way that I and most others used it, the dictum is ripped hideously out of context, and (b) in some important ways, the examined life didn't work out all that well for Socrates. Reflecting on this further, I realized that it didn't work out well for other characters in literary works I was teaching, like Oedipus and Hamlet.
So this book, by examining the ways a dozen different philosophers engaged in the "examined life," helped me to think more deeply and I hope more clearly about that approach to living. Each chapter reminds one that there is a serious cost to living an examined life, and one who undertakes it must be willing to pay it.
James Miller's work also made me think hard about the relationship between philosophy and biography. At some point in my undergraduate and graduate education, I internalized what New Critics called "The Intentional Fallacy," the notion that a work should not be judged based on its author's life or purported intentions, but rather the "objective" validity of his argument (as if that could be determined). That is, we were to determine the truth of the philosopher's claims and system without regard to his favorite breakfast cereal or brand of Scotch -- we were to consider his claims and reasoning without considering the larger context. While I wrestled with that notion, I bought into it. Biographical criticism was in low esteem at that time, and postmodernists like Barthes piled on with "the death of the author" and "decentered" readings. Miller's work is a useful corrective to all of that. In fact, it made me sort of wake up, rub my eyes, and wonder, "what were we thinking back then?" As indeed, one of the great pleasures of this book was to see how great thinkers' philosophies and their lives as lived seem inextricably connected. I often teach Intro to Philosophy (among other college courses), and this book is making me wonder how I'll approach that matter the next time through.
Another great pleasure of this book is Miller's writing. While I got a little tired of his formulaic opening of each chapter with a vignette pointing to some grave crisis in the subject's life, overall he does a masterful job of weaving together both complicated life stories and complicated thought, and presenting both in a manner understandable to educated adults. You don't have to be a philosophy major to enjoy this book (but I will commend it to our philosophy majors).
Miller points out -- and I think should have made more of -- the fact that prior to Augustine, the lives of philosophers are essentially hagiographic, sometimes in the worst ways (and arguably, Augustine was engaged in self-hagiography, and events in his life after De Confessione are largely from hagiography). So his first few chapters (Socrates through Seneca) are necessarily, I think, less on point than the rest of the book. But I would not have parted with them.
The inclusion of Emerson was a very pleasant surprise. One would wish for chapters on Pascal and Kierkegaard (perhaps in a new edition). As always, it was unpleasant to see the flaws and foibles of one's intellectual heroes. But those aren't bad to learn, either.
Most important, this book has prompted me to once again think about what it means to live an examined life, why it might be valuable, and why it will certainly be dangerous. I look forward to re-reading and further reflection.