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Examined Lives: From Socrates to Neitzsche Hardcover – Jan 4 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Jan. 7 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374150850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374150853
  • Product Dimensions: 16.4 x 3.5 x 23.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 658 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #456,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


Praise for Examined Lives

"Fascinating. . . Miller does not rest with digging out petty failings or moments of hypocrisy. He shows us philosophers becoming ever more inclined to reflect on these failings, and suggests that this makes their lives more rather than less worth studying." -- Sarah Bakewell, The New York Times Review of Books
"Reading Jim Miller's Examined Lives is like watching Roger Federer play tennis. The graceful movement of his mind is a joy to behold." -- Lewis H. Lapham
"This book proves, once and for all, that philosophy isn't simply a body of knowledge, but a practice that requires a body -- a living, breathing person in relentless pursuit of ever-elusive wisdom. May the Socratic passion that infuses its pages infect all who read them!" -- Astra Taylor, director of Examined Life and Zizek!
"James Miller has achieved an unlikely feat: he's written a page-turner about the history of philosophy. Examined Lives does for the great philosophers what Dr. Johnson did for the English poets in Brief Lives -- given us biographies in miniature, portraits of the life behind the work. He makes even the toughest cases -- Kant, Descartes, Nietzsche -- come alive. It's a great story, and Miller is a superb story-teller." -- James Atlas, author of Bellow: A Biography

"All too often, philosophers' ideas are presented acontextually. James Miller artfully shows how philosophers' ideas reflect their lives and often, in turn, impact those lives." -- Howard Gardner, The John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard University

"James Miller's Examined Lives is a wise and courageous book that reminds us of the sheer delight of the love of wisdom and the unsettling effect of the philosophic life. Our age is in many ways a battle between the hard-earned serenity of Montaigne and the inescapable torment of Nietzsche. Miller gives us armor in this battle!" -- Cornel West, Princeton University

"James Miller's Examined Lives is a tour de force of biography, history, and philosophy. Rarely have great lives and great ideas of the past been presented so accessibly or with such relevance for the present." -- James Carroll, author of Constantine's Sword

About the Author

James Miller is a professor of politics and the chair of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of The Passion of Michel Foucault and Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock & Roll, 1947-1977, among other books. He lives in Manhattan.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0xa35fd2d0) out of 5 stars 29 reviews
87 of 96 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa36a34e0) out of 5 stars A Wonderful Read Jan. 12 2011
By Richard N. Flynn - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
It's easy to forget that philosophy has any relation to the concerns of real life. This collection of short biographies reminds us that, for some of history's most eminent philosophers, real life and philosophy aren't truly distinguishable from one another. In each biography, Miller also deftly outlines the subject's philosophical ideas, throwing into relief how each man's life shaped his philosophy, and, more importantly, how each figure attempted (often unsuccessfully) to embody his philosophy through his way of life. What to make of this is up to the reader. Miller avoids polemics, but leaves us with some suggestive thoughts about the rewards and perils of a life dedicated to the search for truth. "Examined Lives" is impressively erudite, thought-provoking, and a lively read...satisfying on every level.
203 of 247 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa35f4b4c) out of 5 stars A Work Not Worthy Of The Subject Jan. 19 2011
By Daniel M. Conley - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
James Miller has some writing talent -- he turns the lives of eight philosophers into a fairly entertaining scan. Along the way, he doesn't get much of the philosophy right, a few hours in a library with the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 Volume Set) would have been time well spent for him (and if you care about the philosophy, probably for you as well.) He also paints a fairly cartoonish picture of all of his subjects. Having just read Sarah Bakewell's outstanding How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, I found Miller's treatment of the 16th century French sage embarrassing.

All of this could have been forgiven if Miller had, either within the text or in an afterward, tied the mini-biographies together with some valuable insights about philosophy. Richard Ben Cramer's classic 1988 Presidential campaign opus What It Takes: The Way to the White House might have been a valuable template for such an effort. Unfortunately, Warren presents the stories in a linear fashion and makes no effort to draw connections between the philosophers in the main text, leaving the impression that he's going to get to the point of it all in his afterward.

But his afterward is repugnant -- giving right-wing preacher Rick Warren basically the last word on the utility of philosophy. Miller keeps reminding his readers that he is a historian, but his approach is deeply ahistorical -- detached from his subjects, observing them purely from a contemporary perspective with little appreciation for the way these men of thought were products of their times. And while Miller seems to agree with Rick Warren that philosophy is a complete waste of time, one has to wonder why read this book at all, unless one wants to gain a highly cursory knowledge of philosophy and license to never read or discuss it again.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa38ea39c) out of 5 stars Life of the Mind Feb. 7 2011
By Lance Kirby - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
In his new book, Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, James Miller reexamines one of philosophy's original prerogatives: to teach by example. The Greeks, and later the Romans, saw the conduct of a thinker as every bit as important as their thought. For this reason we find biographical compilations, such as Diogenes Laertius or Plutarch from antiquity, praising or faulting those who should be the exemplars of wisdom.

This idea, that the validity of a philosophy should be judged by the life of the philosopher, is out of fashion in current academic talk. In fact, as the author notes in regards to the final subject of the book, Friedrich Nietzsche:

"...it is one consequence of Nietzsche's own criticism of Christian morality that anyone who takes it seriously find it hard, if not impossible, to credit any one code of conduct as good for everyone, and therefore worth emulating."

Nevertheless, if a philosophy should not be judged by its philosopher, the life is not necessarily of no value. Hero worship is likewise considered old hat these days, but surely something can be salvaged in the example of those who came before us. Miller seems to think so:

"...each of these men prized the pursuit of wisdom. Each one struggled to live his life according to a deliberately chosen set of precepts and beliefs, discerned in part through a practice of self-examination...The life of each one can therefore teach us something about the quest for self-knowledge and its limits."

I have often thought of philosophy as a substitute for religion, and have found in the examples of mortal men greater hope than the deeds of gods or the promises of heaven. Life is a constant striving but, it is in what we strive for that makes the difference. If we seek truth, our reach may often exceed our grasp, but in the reaching we may just find our better selves.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa389b8c4) out of 5 stars My most thought-provoking read all summer Aug. 8 2011
By J. Marlin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa36f75a0) out of 5 stars Interesting Lives. Uneven Presentation. May 26 2012
By Loves the View - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The lives of these philosophers show very little to recommend examining one's life. From the trial of Socrates to the lonely madness of Nietzsche, the price of examining one's life appears to be too high for the purported rewards of visions and "star showers".

The first four profiles are Greek ancients, showing the different backgrounds, "careers" and social positions of Socrates, Plato, Diogenes and Aristotle. Beginning with Augustine you see the heavy influence of religion and with Kant, you see the emphasis waning.

The treatment is uneven. For instance, with Augustine, his writings dominate; with Seneca, it's his life. While the book is on the lives of the philosophers, for some, a bit more clarification on their work would have helped. For instance, with the emphasis on Diogenes' life style, I found it hard to understand his importance. I went to Wikipedia to get the substance Diogenes and Montaigne and to understand the many thoughts in the Nietzsche segment.

The "Epilogue" was disappoining. I was hoping for a synthesis, maybe something on the directions taken by modern philosophers, and/or maybe something about how the study of psychology may have emerged from this (which seemed to be hinted at in three of the last four profiles), and/or a short compare/contrast to/with eastern philosophy. Instead, the "Epilogue" rehashes what is apparent to any reader of the profiles, and generally rambles quoting from the profile subjects, Karl Jaspers and Rick Warren.

The value of this book, for the layman, is the synopsis of the lives behind these familiar names told in an entertaining way.