Examined Lives

Platohas Socrates say, in the Apology,that the unexamined life is not worth living. Many of Socrates’s successorstook this saying to heart, regarding the examination of life as definitive oftheir calling. With Examined Lives, a set of beautifully written and richlyinformative mini-biographies of a dozen philosophers, James Miller exploreswhat this meant to each of them. His conclusion is a negative one: thecombination of wisdom, self-understanding, and self-possession that Socrates’ssuccessors took to be the gold standard for the philosophical life provedimpossible for most of them to attain, and, in some cases, what they preachedand what they practised fell widely apart.

The implication is thatwhere they failed, we cannot expect to succeed; the Socratic ambition, Millersays, represents “an unending quest, with no firm goal and no certainreward, apart from experiencing, however briefly, a yearning for wisdom and adesire to live a life in harmony with that yearning—come what may.”

There are two reasons fordisagreeing with this conclusion. One might point out that a demand to seekself-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 ademand to succeed in living accordingly. As the cliché has it—no less truly forbeing a cliché—it is the journey not the arrival that matters. Socrates put hispoint 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 letchance or others decide one’s fate. So life can be worth living if we reflectand 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 moralachievement) 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; andthis is often more than enough.

Miller therefore need nothave deduced so negative a conclusion from his twelve life studies, for onething his subjects show is that they had the desire for, and an understandingof, the good and well-lived life, even if most of them failed to live fully upto their ambition for it. At least they strove to know, which is more than manyso much as attempt; as Bertrand Russell said, “Most people would ratherdie than think, and most people do.”

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

Now, Miller has a goodpoint to make with this choice, which is that the selective nature of thephilosophy curriculum in contemporary universities is not representative of thephilosophical tradition itself. In classical and post-classical antiquity, aphilosopher was someone who sought to live a reason-guided, ethicallyconsistent life based on self-knowledge and a clear understanding of the world’sfalse blandishments. There was a compelling reason for this: the brevity andinsecurity of life required counsels of fortitude, designed to help the ancientphilosophers achieve “ataraxia”—peace of mind—in the midst of thechances, changes, and dangers of an uncertain world. Cicero summed up the questby saying that to learn to philosophise is to learn how to die, for when onehas lost one’s fear of death, one has truly liberated oneself to live well.

Onecan and should accept Miller’s point here, therefore; as philosophy was in itsSocratic origins a quest to know how to live, this emphasis is worthre-emphasising. But also one can and should point out that a different choiceof figures would have led Miller to a different conclusion. Examples ofphilosophers who succeeded in living the Stoic or ataraxic life, philosopherswho were martyred for their principles, philosophers who lived and diedcourageously, philosophers who stuck by their principles, can be found toillustrate the thesis that the power of reflection gives what the Socraticinjunction asks for. So Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, Giordano Bruno andSpinoza, Hume and Hazlitt, could have been among Miller’s partly-off-beatchoices, and they would all have been models of consistency and principle—unlikeSeneca and Rousseau, who easily represent the great gulf between principle andpractice 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 hisbastard newborns on the doorstep of a foundling hospital, never even began tolive like one.

On the other hand, Millercould have made his portrait of philosophy’s failure to achieve the Socraticideal even more dramatic: to the madness of Nietzsche he could have addedAlthusser’s strangling his wife, Russell’s philandering, Heidegger’s Nazism andSartre’s Communism, Wittgenstein’s gratitude for war, and, if the definition ofphilosopher is extended further, a lot worse besides.

None of this matters.True, Miller presents his twelve mini-biographies as responses to Foucault’sremarks about “the problem of the philosophical life,” namely, thequestion 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 andcompeting voices of religions. But one need not take the essays as endeavoursto see if philosophy still has a role in helping us identify the meanings oflife. Each of them is a little gem in its own right as the portrait of anindependently interesting individual and his thought. Miller is careful as wellas eloquent, so we get penetrating vignettes of intensely interesting peoplewho were moved in their several ways to contemplate the big questions, exploringthemselves and others to achieve the kind of enlightenment that liberates,whatever form the truth appeared to them to take.

It is especially welcometo find Montaigne and Emerson included, as they properly should be, amongphilosophers worthy of the name. There is considerably more enrichment to behad 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. Ithink Miller might have profited us more by replacing Diogenes with Epictetusor Cicero, the latter not least because of the great influence he had over theEuropean 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 toexcite theologians, the reversion to an orthodoxy which is the end point of hisintellectual quest makes for a less interesting story than the others.

The two best of anexcellent sequence of essays are those on Emerson and Nietzsche, and mostespecially this last. Because of his strange and tormented genius, Nietzschehas been much biographied of late, and rather well; but Miller’s account is sowell crafted that it illuminates him with wonderful clarity, like a sharpengraving on metal. His physical frailty, even femininity, and its contrast tohis aggressively ambitious mind, are subtly sketched, and the harbingers oflunacy in his late works are made salient. Readers of this portrait will seeNietzsche from a slightly shifted perspective accordingly.

Miller gives us a fineread, and much to chew profitably upon. With luck we might get another dozenportraits from his pen; and with them, perhaps, a less pessimistic assessmentof the profit philosophy offers.