“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.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Socrates in profile, a graphite drawing, c. 1820, by the British poet, printmaker, and mystagogue William Blake (1757–1827). “I was Socrates,” Blake remarked near the end of his life. “I must have had conversations with him. So I had with Jesus Christ. I have an obscure recollection of having been with both of them.” (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA/The Bridgeman Art Library International)
In the middle of the fifth century B.C., the city-state of Athens was at the zenith of its power and influence. After leading an alliance of Greek city-states to victory over the Persian Empire in battles at Marathon (490 B.C.), Salamis (480), and Plataea (479), the city consolidated a democratic regime. It peacefully extended political power to all citizens—native-born male residents—and created a model of the enlightened rule of law. At the same time, it established a far-flung hegemony over a variety of maritime colonies and vassal Greek city-states. Prospering from the trade and tribute provided by its empire, the city amassed the eastern Mediterranean’s most feared military machine, a lavishly equipped navy, backed up by cavalry and infantry. The de facto leader of the Greek-speaking world, Athens led the Hellenes in education as well, attracting teachers from throughout the region.
Its people “believed themselves to be a priestly nation to whom, at a time of universal famine, Apollo had entrusted the mission of taking vows on behalf of all the Greeks and barbarians,” wrote Jacob Burckhardt, the great Swiss historian. “Attica was traditionally credited with the inventions of civilization to an extent positively insulting to all other nations and the rest of the Greeks. According to this tradition, it was the Athenians who first taught the human race how to sow crops and use spring water; not only were they first to grow olives and figs, but they invented law and justice.”
And they in fact invented “philosophy.”
Socrates, the first man to be renowned as a philosopher, was born in Athens around 469 B.C. Although he grew up in a golden age in a great city, the ancient sources agree that there was nothing glittering about his pedigree or upbringing. He was the son of Sophroniscus, a stonemason, and of Phaenarete, a midwife. A citizen of Athens by birth, he belonged to the district of Alopece. The externals of his life were nondescript—his family, they say, was neither rich nor poor.
But his inner experience was extraordinary. Socrates heard a voice inaudible to anyone else. In some situations, the voice ordered him to halt what he was doing and to change his course of conduct. According to Plato, our primary source for almost everything we think we know about the first philosopher, Socrates considered the voice to be uniquely his own, as if it were directed to him alone from a supernatural sort of tutelary spirit. A source of wonder and disquiet, the voice set Socrates apart. From the time he was a child, he felt isolated and different—an individual in a collective that prized its sense of community, vividly expressed in its web of customary rituals and traditional religious beliefs, and crowned by a set of political institutions that embodied the novel ideal of democracy, a new form of collective self-rule.
Every Athenian citizen was expected to fight for the fatherland. The waging of war was an almost constant concern in these years, as Athens struggled to maintain its regional supremacy over its only real rival in the Greek world, the fortified land power of Sparta. Though never rich, Socrates had sufficient wealth to outfit himself with armor and serve as a foot soldier, or hoplite, in the city’s citizen army. In 432, Socrates participated in the siege of Potidaea, where he demonstrated an almost superhuman stamina—one of the few salient traits recorded in virtually every ancient story told about him.
In these years, Athens was politically divided. On the one side stood proponents of extending political rights and obligations to every citizen, no matter how poor. This party of avowed democrats was headed by Pericles (c. 495–429), the city’s elected commander in chief, who was the unchallenged leader of Athens in the 440s and 430s, and an orator who used his formidable gifts to frame a rationale for the self-government of the city by its ordinary citizens. In response, some wealthier Athenians fought, as the rich often do, to exercise unconstrained power; they denigrated the intelligence of the Athenian common man, and in some cases they commended the authoritarian institutions characteristic of other Greek city-states, such as Sparta.
Where Socrates stood in these epochal debates over democracy is not known—an odd fact, given that Athens expected its citizens to participate actively in the political life of the polis. As a young man, some say, he frequented the circles around Pericles, who was no friend of tyranny. There is sketchy evidence that his wife, Xanthippe, whom he married around 420, may have been an aristocrat. There are also stories, all of them unreliable, about a younger half brother who may have been one of the archons, or rulers, of Athens in the period after the fall of the Thirty Tyrants in 403 B.C.
According to Diogenes Laertius, “he was so orderly in his way of life that on several occasions when pestilence broke out in Athens [in 430, at the start of the Peloponnesian War] he was the only man to escape infection”—an exaggeration, obviously, though a vast number of citizens did perish, and it was the plague that cost Pericles his life. In any case, Socrates prided himself on living plainly and “used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink; and that he was nearest to the gods when he had the fewest wants.”
Sometime after assuming the duties of adult citizenship, Socrates began to behave strangely. Ignoring custom, he refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as a stonemason. Instead of learning how to earn a living by carving rock, Socrates became preoccupied with learning how to live the best life conceivable. He expressed astonishment that “the sculptors of marble statues should take pains to make the block of marble into a perfect likeness of man, and should take no pains about themselves lest they turn out mere blocks, not men.”
The ancient authorities do not agree on precisely why or when Socrates took up his strange new calling. The association of the word philosophy with Socrates and his way of life was largely the work of one man, Plato, who was the most famous of his followers. A conjunction of the Greek word philo (“lover”) and sophos (“wisdom”), philosophos, or philosopher, as Plato defined the term, described a man who yearned for wisdom, a seeker of truth—a man like Socrates, whom Plato sharply distinguished from other sages, or Sophists. (According to Plato, who was not impartial, Sophists were neither truly wise nor were they sincere seekers of truth—they were charlatans, skilled mainly in devious forms of debate. Before Plato, by contrast, Sophists were widely admired as experts and wise men—the legendary Attic lawgiver Solon was a Sophist, in this original honorific sense, and so was Thales of Miletus, another one of the so-called Seven Sages.)
When Socrates was coming of age, Athens was teeming with teachers from throughout the Greek-speaking world. The city’s most influential democratic leader, Pericles, championed the new learning and is said to have consorted with some of the era’s most prominent professors of wisdom, including Anaxagoras. A theorist of nature, Anaxagoras discoursed for a fee, specializing in presenting theories about the organizing principles of the cosmos. He shocked some Athenians by his bold claim that the sun was a large, incandescent stone. Other teachers, like the orator Gorgias (c. 485–380 B.C.), made money by showing students how to shape the opinion of the citizenry through artful speech when the demos met each month in the open-air assembly that was the hallmark of the Athenian democracy.
According to Plato, it was Socrates’ dissatisfaction with teachers like Anaxagoras and Gorgias that led him to go his own way and to raise questions independently about the best way to live. But Aristotle claimed that Socrates was primarily inspired by the motto inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself.”
Perhaps the most famous of the maxims associated with the temple at Delphi (“Nothing too much” is another), the injunction to “Know thyself” first appears in Greek literature in the fifth century, most notably in Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound. In defiance of the wishes of Zeus, Prometheus has stolen fire from the gods and given it to mankind; though he is punished for this presumptuous act, Prometheus remains stubbornly defiant, which provokes the god of the sea, Oceanus, to admonish him to “know yourself, and make compliant your youthful ways”—by obeying the will of Zeus. In other words, know your limits.
Whatever motivated Socrates—and however he may have interpreted the Delphic maxim to “Know thyself”—he evidently began to elaborate in practice a new mode of inquiry. It was remarkable for its public, and implicitly egalitarian, style. Spurning the more formal settings preferred by other professors of wisdom, who generally held court in households wealthy enough to host a lecture, Socrates strolled through the city. He visited the marketplace when it was crowded with shoppers, talking with anyone who was interested, young or old, rich or poor. When bystanders gathered, they were invited to join in the ongoing argument he was holding, with himself and with others, over the best conceivable way to live....