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