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Words and Deeds

James Miller examines the lives of the life examiners

Photo: Emma Dodge, Hanson Photography, License: N/A

Emma Dodge, Hanson Photography

Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche

Non-fiction by James Miller

Hardcover, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche is not, I fear, “a page-turner,” as a blurb on the back of the hardcover would have it. But it may be as close as a volume tracing the history of philosophy can come. Miller, a professor at the New School in New York, has produced a fluid, three-dimensional account of 12 men whose ideas are now often sadly reduced to aphorisms on magnets and coffee mugs.

The book is ostensibly a serial biography, but Miller assumes no prior knowledge of philosophy. As a result, the text is both down-to-earth and readable, with a chronological approach that allows each chapter to build on what’s come before it. But it also, inevitably, has a CliffsNotes feel at times, since Miller is obliged to portray not only an entire man’s life in each chapter, but also the major points of his particular philosophical outlook. It would be a challenge to keep a biography of Nietzsche to 350 pages, yet Miller has crammed the lives of a dozen philosophers into a book that size. Despite this drawback, Examined Lives is a well-written, nuanced account that breathes life into figures who have in many cases calcified in our collective memory.

Miller’s choice of subjects—Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche—is, he freely admits, idiosyncratic. It’s not comprehensive, and includes “some figures rarely taken seriously by most contemporary philosophers—Diogenes, Montaigne, and Emerson, for example.” Miller asserts, however, that the philosophers he has chosen are “broadly representative.” Some in the field may take issue with that statement, but then, they are not Miller’s chosen audience: We, the uninitiated, are.

And for us, Miller’s nuanced, thoughtful writing style manages to make even the lives of stick-in-the-muds like Kant interesting. (Kant never married and almost never left the city of his birth in East Prussia. Miller quotes the poet Heinrich Heine: “‘[I]t is difficult to write the history of the life of Immanuel Kant, for he had neither life nor history.’”) The reader learns, for example, that Kant was an extreme hypochondriac who by the end of his life became obsessed with weather vanes, thermometers, and barometers, believing his health depended on the weather. He was also a believer in life on other planets, and theorized that “the creatures inhabiting Jupiter and Saturn had cognitive capabilities so vastly superior to those of human beings that their intellects would make Newton seem like a child.”

For modern philosophers like Kant, Miller had ample source materials from which to draw. (In the case of Emerson, he had a daunting 38 volumes of diaries, journals, and notebooks.) But for the ancient philosophers, histories are often sparse and none too trustworthy. Much of what we know about Socrates, for example, comes from Plato, a master of what Miller calls “exemplary biography.” This once-common biographical form presents “an idealized image of a life worth imitating,” not a purely factual account. Even less reliable information exists about Diogenes, who is nevertheless one of the most riveting characters in the book. “The whole of his life and work is a tissue of legends,” Miller writes. Consequently, every tale Miller tells about him is accompanied by a healthy dose of skepticism. Whether or not they’re all true, Diogenes emerges as a fascinating figure, worlds away from the usual dry tale of the man with the lamp. Believing in the simple life, Diogenes lived in a clay wine jar the size of a tub and begged for food. He believed that any action that was appropriate in private ought also to be appropriate in public. Thus he is said to have masturbated in public, and once, following a long discourse on virtue, reportedly squatted and defecated in front of the crowd.

One could dismiss such colorful details as fodder for the prurient, but they serve to show that the man apparently walked his talk. And that connection between word and deed seems in large part to be Miller’s interest in writing biographies of these men. Not surprisingly, he uncovers a good deal of hypocrisy. Rousseau—who offered his own life up as an example of how a man should live—repeatedly impregnated a woman he refused to marry and then gave their progeny up to an orphanage where children regularly died. (A contemporary called him a “moral dwarf on stilts.”) Augustine was a “youthful heretic [who] spent his adult life attacking heresies,” Aristotle supported a tyrant, and Seneca colluded in matricide. Later philosophers tended to reveal their own foibles in their writings, undercutting potential accusations of hypocrisy, and in some cases built their own codes of conduct around such self-examination. Miller traces this evolution of thought to Emerson, who had a famous retort for critics: “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Throughout the book, Miller is careful to explain how later philosophers were influenced by earlier ones, so that by the end we have a sense of how each of these passionate thinkers is related, and how they came by their conclusions. The surprisingly personal epilogue also helps to unify the 12 biographies. Miller writes about how his Lutheran background shaped him, and what he learned from examining the lives of men who dedicated themselves to finding wisdom. “The moral of these philosophical biographies is . . . neither simple nor uniformly edifying,” he writes. Philosophical self-examination, he points out, has as often led to misery and self-doubt as it has to happiness and wisdom. The process, he admits, has led him down an unexpected road: “I confess,” he writes, “that some of my old assumptions about the value of an examined life have been shaken.”

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