Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche
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Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche

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by James Miller

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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011

We all want to know how to live. But before the good life was reduced to ten easy steps or a prescription from the doctor, philosophers offered arresting answers to the most fundamental questions about who we are and what makes for a life worth living.

In Examined Lives, James Miller returns to this vibrant


A New York Times Notable Book for 2011

We all want to know how to live. But before the good life was reduced to ten easy steps or a prescription from the doctor, philosophers offered arresting answers to the most fundamental questions about who we are and what makes for a life worth living.

In Examined Lives, James Miller returns to this vibrant tradition with short, lively biographies of twelve famous philosophers. Socrates spent his life examining himself and the assumptions of others. His most famous student, Plato, risked his reputation to tutor a tyrant. Diogenes carried a bright lamp in broad daylight and announced he was “looking for a man.” Aristotle’s alliance with Alexander the Great presaged Seneca’s complex role in the court of the Roman Emperor Nero. Augustine discovered God within himself. Montaigne and Descartes struggled to explore their deepest convictions in eras of murderous religious warfare. Rousseau aspired to a life of perfect virtue. Kant elaborated a new ideal of autonomy. Emerson successfully preached a gospel of self-reliance for the new American nation. And Nietzsche tried “to compose into one and bring together what is fragment and riddle and dreadful chance in man,” before he lapsed into catatonic madness.

With a flair for paradox and rich anecdote, Examined Lives is a book that confirms the continuing relevance of philosophy today—and explores the most urgent questions about what it means to live a good life.

Editorial Reviews

From A.C. Grayling's "THINKING READ" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

Plato has Socrates say, in the Apology, that the unexamined life is not worth living. Many of Socrates's successors took this saying to heart, regarding the examination of life as definitive of their calling. With Examined Lives, a set of beautifully written and richly informative mini-biographies of a dozen philosophers, James Miller explores what this meant to each of them. His conclusion is a negative one: the combination of wisdom, self-understanding, and self-possession that Socrates's successors took to be the gold standard for the philosophical life proved impossible for most of them to attain, and, in some cases, what they preached and what they practised fell widely apart.

The implication is that where they failed, we cannot expect to succeed; the Socratic ambition, Miller says, represents "an unending quest, with no firm goal and no certain reward, apart from experiencing, however briefly, a yearning for wisdom and a desire to live a life in harmony with that yearning -- come what may."

There are two reasons for disagreeing with this conclusion. One might point out that a demand to seek self-understanding (in obedience to the Delphic oracle's "Know Thyself") and to reflect on one's choices and values, is not quite the same thing as a demand to succeed in living accordingly. As the cliché has it -- no less truly for being a cliché -- it is the journey not the arrival that matters. Socrates put his point in the negative ("the unconsidered life is not worth living") for a reason: giving no thought to how one should live is by default to let chance or others decide one's fate. So life can be worth living if we reflect and try to choose, even if we do not always succeed in acting as we should. Frailty or ill-luck (both of them common barriers, as Aristotle saw, to moral achievement) might get in the way; yet we honour people as much, if not more, for what they sincerely endeavour to do and be, as for what they achieve; and this is often more than enough.

Miller therefore need not have deduced so negative a conclusion from his twelve life studies, for one thing his subjects show is that they had the desire for, and an understanding of, the good and well-lived life, even if most of them failed to live fully up to their ambition for it. At least they strove to know, which is more than many so much as attempt; as Bertrand Russell said, "Most people would rather die than think, and most people do."

The second reason is that Miller's conclusion might have been different if he had chosen a different set of philosophers. The twelve he writes about (and Miller expresses the regretful inevitability that they are all men) are Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche. Nearly half of them do not figure in the canon of philosophy as studied in contemporary universities, these being Diogenes, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, and Emerson. Socrates is not studied at all, being taken as the mouthpiece of Plato in the latter's dialogues (no doubt the method, and some of the doctrines, are genuinely Socratic, but it is impossible to peel the master and pupil apart). The closest Rousseau gets to philosophy is political science, cultural history, and literature. Nietzsche is certainly studied in philosophy departments, but as something sui generis; unlike the remaining four fully paid-up members of the standard curriculum, he does not fit into the orthodox mould on epistemology or metaphysics, logic or ethics.

Now, Miller has a good point to make with this choice, which is that the selective nature of the philosophy curriculum in contemporary universities is not representative of the philosophical tradition itself. In classical and post-classical antiquity, a philosopher was someone who sought to live a reason-guided, ethically consistent life based on self-knowledge and a clear understanding of the world's false blandishments. There was a compelling reason for this: the brevity and insecurity of life required counsels of fortitude, designed to help the ancient philosophers achieve "ataraxia" -- peace of mind -- in the midst of the chances, changes, and dangers of an uncertain world. Cicero summed up the quest by saying that to learn to philosophise is to learn how to die, for when one has lost one's fear of death, one has truly liberated oneself to live well.

One can and should accept Miller's point here, therefore; as philosophy was in its Socratic origins a quest to know how to live, this emphasis is worth re-emphasising. But also one can and should point out that a different choice of figures would have led Miller to a different conclusion. Examples of philosophers who succeeded in living the Stoic or ataraxic life, philosophers who were martyred for their principles, philosophers who lived and died courageously, philosophers who stuck by their principles, can be found to illustrate the thesis that the power of reflection gives what the Socratic injunction asks for. So Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, Giordano Bruno and Spinoza, Hume and Hazlitt, could have been among Miller's partly-off-beat choices, and they would all have been models of consistency and principle -- unlike Seneca and Rousseau, who easily represent the great gulf between principle and practice that gives the lie to the Socratic ideal. Though to be fair to Seneca, he certainly died like a philosopher. Rousseau, who abandoned a series of his bastard newborns on the doorstep of a foundling hospital, never even began to live like one.

On the other hand, Miller could have made his portrait of philosophy's failure to achieve the Socratic ideal even more dramatic: to the madness of Nietzsche he could have added Althusser's strangling his wife, Russell's philandering, Heidegger's Nazism and Sartre's Communism, Wittgenstein's gratitude for war, and, if the definition of philosopher is extended further, a lot worse besides.

None of this matters. True, Miller presents his twelve mini-biographies as responses to Foucault's remarks about "the problem of the philosophical life," namely, the question of the relevance of philosophy to the questions of what one can know, and do, and hope for, given the conquests of science and the fragmented and competing voices of religions. But one need not take the essays as endeavours to see if philosophy still has a role in helping us identify the meanings of life. Each of them is a little gem in its own right as the portrait of an independently interesting individual and his thought. Miller is careful as well as eloquent, so we get penetrating vignettes of intensely interesting people who were moved in their several ways to contemplate the big questions, exploring themselves and others to achieve the kind of enlightenment that liberates, whatever form the truth appeared to them to take.

It is especially welcome to find Montaigne and Emerson included, as they properly should be, among philosophers worthy of the name. There is considerably more enrichment to be had from their writings on the question of what it is to be human than in, say, Descartes or Kant, great minds as these (and especially the latter) are. I think Miller might have profited us more by replacing Diogenes with Epictetus or Cicero, the latter not least because of the great influence he had over the European mind from Erasmus (who thought he should be called St. Cicero) to Hume (who vastly preferred him to the Bible). And whereas Augustine is a name to excite theologians, the reversion to an orthodoxy which is the end point of his intellectual quest makes for a less interesting story than the others.

The two best of an excellent sequence of essays are those on Emerson and Nietzsche, and most especially this last. Because of his strange and tormented genius, Nietzsche has been much biographied of late, and rather well; but Miller's account is so well crafted that it illuminates him with wonderful clarity, like a sharp engraving on metal. His physical frailty, even femininity, and its contrast to his aggressively ambitious mind, are subtly sketched, and the harbingers of lunacy in his late works are made salient. Readers of this portrait will see Nietzsche from a slightly shifted perspective accordingly.

Miller gives us a fine read, and much to chew profitably upon. With luck we might get another dozen portraits from his pen; and with them, perhaps, a less pessimistic assessment of the profit philosophy offers.

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From Socrates to Nietzsche
By James Miller

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

Copyright © 2011 James Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-15085-3


Of all those who start out on philosophy—not those who take it up for the sake of getting educated when they are young and then drop it, but those who linger in it for a longer time—most become quite queer, not to say completely vicious; while the ones who seem perfectly decent ... become useless.

—PLATO, Republic (487c–d)

Once upon a time, philosophers were figures of wonder. They were sometimes objects of derision and the butt of jokes, but they were more often a source of shared inspiration, offering, through words and deeds, models of wisdom, patterns of conduct, and, for those who took them seriously, examples to be emulated. Stories about the great philosophers long played a formative role in the culture of the West. For Roman writers such as Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, one way to measure spiritual progress was to compare one's conduct with that of Socrates, whom they all considered a paragon of perfect virtue. Sixteen hundred years later, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) similarly learned classical Greek at a tender age in order to read the Socratic "Memorabilia" of Xenophon (fourth century B.C.) and selected Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, as retold by Diogenes Laertius, a Greek follower of Epicurus who is thought to have lived in the third century A.D.

Apart from the absurdly young age at which Mill was forced to devour it, there was nothing unusual about his reading list. Until quite recently, those able to read the Greek and Roman classics were routinely nourished, not just by Xenophon and Plato but also by the moral essays of Seneca and Plutarch, which were filled with edifying stories about the benefits and consolations of philosophy. An educated person was likely to know something about Socrates, but also about the "Epicurean," the "Stoic," and the "Skeptic"—philosophical types still of interest to David Hume (1711–1776), who wrote about each one in his Essays, Moral and Political (1741–1742).

For Hume, as for Diogenes Laertius, each philosophical type was expressed not only in a doctrine but also in a way of life—a pattern of conduct exemplified in the biographical details recounted by Diogenes Laertius about such figures as Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism; Zeno, traditionally regarded as the first Stoic; and Pyrrho, who inaugurated one branch of ancient Skepticism. Besides Hume and Mill, both Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)—to take two equally modern examples—also studied The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Indeed, both Marx and Nietzsche, while still in their twenties, wrote scholarly treatises based, in part, on close study of just this work.

Today, by contrast, most highly educated people, even professional philosophers, know nothing about either Diogenes Laertius or the vast majority of the ancient philosophers whose lives he recounted. In many schools in many countries, especially the United States, the classical curriculum has been largely abandoned. Modern textbooks generally scant the lives of philosophers, reinforcing the contemporary perception that philosophy is best understood as a purely technical discipline, revolving around specialized issues in semantics and logic.

The typical modern philosopher—the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), say, or the John Rawls of A Theory of Justice (1971)—is largely identiied with his books. It is generally assumed that "philosophy" refers to "the study of the most general and abstract features of the world and the categories with which we think: mind, matter, reason, proof, truth etc.," to quote the definition offered by the outstanding recent Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Moreover, in the modern university, where both Kant and Rawls practiced their calling, aspiring philosophers are routinely taught, among other things, that the truth of a proposition should be evaluated independently of anything we may know about the person holding that proposition. As the philosopher Seyla Benhabib puts it, "Philosophical theories make claims to truth that transcend historical and social context. From inside the discipline, the details of personal lives seem quite irrelevant to understanding or evaluating a thinker's views."

Such a principled disregard of ad hominem evidence is a characteristically modern prejudice of professional philosophers. For most Greek and Roman thinkers from Plato to Augustine, theorizing was but one mode of living life philosophically. To Socrates and the countless classical philosophers who tried to follow in his footsteps, the primary point was not to ratify a certain set of propositions (even when the ability to define terms and analyze arguments was a constitutive component of a school's teaching), but rather to explore "the kind of person, the sort of self" that one could elaborate as a result of taking the quest for wisdom seriously. For Greek and Roman philosophers, "philosophical discourse ... originates in a choice of life and an existential option—not vice versa."

Or, as Socrates puts it in the pages of Xenophon's Memorabilia, "If I don't reveal my views in a formal account, I do so by my conduct. Don't you think that actions are more reliable evidence than words?"

In ancient Greece and Rome, it was widely assumed that the life of a philosopher would exemplify in practice a specific code of conduct and form of life. As a result, biographical details were routinely cited in appraisals of a philosophy's value. That Socrates faced death with dignity, for example, was widely regarded as an argument in favor of his declared views on the conduct of life.

But did Socrates really face death with dignity? How can we be confident that we know the truth about how Socrates actually behaved? Faced with such questions, the distrust of modern philosophers for ad hominem argument tends to be reinforced by a similarly modern skepticism about the kinds of stories traditionally told about philosophers.

Consider the largest extant compilation of philosophical biographies, the anthology of Diogenes Laertius. This work starts with Thales of Miletus (c. 624–546 B.C.): "To him belongs the proverb 'Know thyself,'" Diogenes Laertius writes with typically nonchalant imprecision, "which Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers attributes to Phemonoe, though admitting that it was appropriated by Chilon." He describes Thales as the first absentminded professor: "It is said that once, when he was taken out of doors by an old woman in order that he might observe the stars, he fell into a ditch, and his cry for help drew from the old woman the retort, 'How can you expect to know all about the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just before your feet?'"

The work of Diogenes Laertius has long vexed modern scholars. His compilation represents an evidently indiscriminate collection of material from a wide array of sources. Despite its uneven quality, his collection of maxims, excerpts from poems, and extracts from theoretical treatises remains a primary source for what little we know today about the doctrines held by a great many ancient Greek philosophers, from Thales and Heraclitus (c. 540–480 B.C.) to Epicurus (341–270 B.C.). Diogenes' anecdotes, on the other hand, have often been discounted, in part because he makes no effort to evaluate the quality of his sources, in part because his biographies are riddled with contradictions, and in part because some of the stories he recounts simply beggar belief.

The stories preserved by Diogenes Laertius occupy a twilight zone between truth and fiction. From the start—in the Socratic dialogues of Plato—the life of the philosopher was turned into a kind of myth and treated as a species of poetry, entering into the collective imagination as a mnemonic condensation, in an exemplary narrative, of what a considered way of life might mean in practice. Joining a school of philosophy in antiquity often involved an effort, in the company of others, to follow in the footsteps of a consecrated predecessor, hallowed in a set of consecrated tales. Long before Christians undertook an "imitation of Christ," Socratics struggled to imitate Socrates; Cynics aimed to live as austerely as the first Cynic, Diogenes; and Epicureans tried to emulate the life led by their eponymous master, Epicurus.

The telling of tales about spiritual heroes thus played a formative role in the philosophic schools of antiquity. The need for such narratives led to the crafting of idealized accounts that might enlighten and edify. In such dramatic dialogues as the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, Plato's picture of Socrates facing death is meant to stir the imagination and to fortify the resolve of a student setting out on the uncertain path toward wisdom. As the classicist Arnaldo Momigliano has put it, Plato and his peers "experimented in biography, and the experiments were directed towards capturing the potentialities rather than the realities of individual lives ... [Socrates] was not a dead man whose life could be recounted. He was the guide to territories as yet unexplored."

Following in Plato's footsteps, and experimenting with some of the earliest known forms in the West of biography and autobiography, a number of Hellenistic philosophers, including Seneca and Plutarch, similarly supposed that a part of their job was to convey precepts by presenting, in writing, an enchanting portrait of a preceptor: hence, Plutarch's lives of the noble Greek and Roman statesmen, and Seneca's account of himself in his Moral Letters. To separate what is fact from what is fiction in such portraits would be (to borrow a simile from Nietzsche) like rearranging Beethoven's Eroica symphony for an ensemble consisting of two flutes.

But if the quest for wisdom about the self begins with heroic anecdotes, it quickly evolves into a search for abstract essences. For numerous Greek and Roman philosophers from Plato to Augustine, one's true self is immaterial, immortal, and unchanging. But that is not the end of the story, since inquiry into the self eventually encounters, and is forced to acknowledge, the apparently infinite labyrinth of inner experience. First in Augustine (A.D. 354–430) and then, even more strikingly, in Montaigne (1532–1592), there emerges a new picture of the human being as a creature in flux, a pure potentiality for being, uncertainly oriented toward what had previously been held to be the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The transition from ancient to modern modes of living life philosophically was neither sudden nor abrupt. Writing a generation after Montaigne, Descartes (1596–1650) could still imagine commissioning a kind of mythic biography of himself, whereas, less than two hundred years later, Rousseau (1712–1778) can only imagine composing an autobiography that is abjectly honest as well as verifiably true in its most damning particulars. It should come as no surprise, then, that so many modern philosophers, though still inspired by an older ideal of philosophy as a way of life, have sought refuge, like Kant, in impersonal modes of theorizing and teaching.

This sort of academic philosophizing notoriously left Friedrich Nietzsche cold. "I for one prefer reading Diogenes Laertius," he wrote in 1874. "The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words."

A century later, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) expressed a similar view. In the winter of 1984, several months before his death, Foucault devoted his last series of lectures at the College de France to the topic of parrhesia, or frank speech, in classical antiquity. Contemplating, as Nietzsche had a century before, possible antecedents for his own peculiar approach to truthfulness, Foucault examined the life of Socrates and—using evidence gathered by Diogenes Laertius—the far odder life of Diogenes of Sinope (D. C. 320 B.C), the archetypal Cynic, who was storied in antiquity for living in a tub, carrying a lit lamp in broad daylight, and telling anybody who asked that "I am looking for a man."

Foucault of course knew that the lore surrounding a philosopher like Diogenes was no longer taken seriously. But he, like Nietzsche, decried our modern "negligence" of what he called the "problem" of the philosophical life. This problem, he speculated, had gone into eclipse for two reasons: first, because religious institutions, above all Christian monasticism, had absorbed, or (in his words) "confiscated," the "theme of the practice of the true life." And, second, "because the relationship to truth can now be made valid and manifest only in the form of scientific knowledge."

In passing, Foucault then suggested the potential fruitfulness of further research on this topic. "It seems to me," he remarked, "that it would be interesting to write a history starting from the problem of the philosophical life, a problem ... envisaged as a choice which can be detected both through the events and decisions of a biography, and through [the elaboration of] the same problem in the interior of a system [of thought], and the place which has been given in this system to the problem of the philosophical life."

Foucault was not the only twentieth-century figure who appreciated that philosophy could be a way of life and not just a study of the most general features of the world and the categories in which we think. For example, a conception of authenticity informed Heidegger's Being and Time (1927), just as a horror of bad faith inspired Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1944). Toward the end of that work, Sartre went even further, and imagined creating a comprehensive biographical and historical account that might demonstrate how all the apparently haphazard particulars of a single human being's life came together to form a "totality"—a singular and unified character.

As a graduate student in the history of ideas, and as an activist in the sixties, I aspired to understand and describe how the broader currents of social and political existence informed lived experience, and hence to show how the political became personal, and vice versa. My interest in these themes was doubtless shaped by my own religious upbringing in a Protestant community that claimed to prize telling the truth about one's deepest beliefs and inward convictions. Perhaps as a result, "authenticity" for me has meant an ongoing examination of my core commitments that would inevitably entail specific acts: "Here I stand. I can do no other." Later, when I wrote an account of the American New Left of the sixties, I focused in part on how other young radicals sought to achieve personal integrity through political activism. And when I wrote about Michel Foucault, I produced a biographical and historical account of his Nietzschean quest to "become what one is."

Still, as Foucault himself reminds us, the theme of the philosophical life, despite its durability, has been challenged since the Renaissance and Reformation by the practical achievements of modern physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as by the rival claims of a growing array of religious and spiritual traditions that, like Protestantism, stress self-examination. Hence the problem of the philosophical life: Given the obvious pragmatic power of applied science, and the equally evident power of faith-based communities to give meaning to life, why should we make a special effort to elaborate "our own pondered thoughts," in response to such large questions as "What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?"

The twelve biographical sketches of selected philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche that follow are meant to explore these issues by writing, as Foucault suggested, a "history starting from the problem of the philosophical life." Instead of recounting one life in detail, I recount a number of lives in brief. Anecdotes and human incident flesh out the philosopher under discussion. Distinctive theories are summarized concisely, even though their nuances and complexities often puzzle philosophers to this day. And following the example of such ancient biographers as Plutarch in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, I am highly selective, in an effort to epitomize the crux of a character. My aim throughout is to convey the arc of a life rather than a digest of doctrines and moral maxims.

"Excerpted from EXAMINED LIVES: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller, published in January 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by James Miller. All rights reserved."


Excerpted from EXAMINED LIVES by James Miller Copyright © 2011 by James Miller. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet 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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