New York Times Book review by SARAH BAKEWELL
Published: January 23, 2011
If the proof of a pudding is in the eating, and the proof of a rule is in the exceptions, where should we look for the proof of a philosophy?
For Friedrich Nietzsche, the answer was obvious: to test a philosophy, find out if you can live by it. This is "the only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something," he wrote in 1874. It's also the form of critique that is generally overlooked in the philosophy faculties of universities. Nietzsche therefore dismissed the professional discipline as irrelevant, a "critique of words by means of other words," and devoted himself to pursuing an idiosyncratic philosophical quest outside the academy. As for texts, he wrote, "I for one prefer reading Diogenes Laertius" - the popular third-century Epicurean author of a biographical compilation called "Lives of the Eminent Philosophers." If the proof of philosophy lies in life, then what could be more useful than reading about how the great philosophers have lived?
As James Miller shows in his fascinating "Examined Lives," choosing Diogenes Laertius over more rigorous treatises was provocative because it challenged an idea already predominant in Nietzsche's time: that a philosophy should be objectively valid, without the need to refer to particular quirks or life experiences on the part of its originator. Diogenes Laertius represents an older tradition, which sees philosophy not as a set of precepts but as something one learns by following a wise man - sometimes literally following him wherever he goes, listening, and observing how he handles situations. The "Lives" offers its readers a vicarious opportunity to try this with a number of philosophers, and see whose way works best.
Miller has now had the superb idea of taking Diogenes Laertius as a model, while simultaneously using this model to test whether such an approach can still offer us anything of value. He covers 12 philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes the Cynic (not to be confused with Laertius), Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche. In each case, he explores the life selectively, looking for "crux" points and investigating how ideas of the philosophical life have changed. Few readers will be astounded to learn that philosophers make as much of a mess of their lives as anyone else. But Miller, a professor of politics at the New School and author of a biography of Michel Foucault, among other books, does not rest with digging out petty failings or moments of hypocrisy. He shows us philosophers becoming ever more inclined to reflect on these failings, and suggests that this makes their lives more rather than less worth studying.
His starting point is Socrates, the most mythologized of all thinkers, the original source of the statement that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and the philosopher whose life became the measure for all others. Early biographers wrote with awe of Socrates' strange, itinerant approach to wisdom; of his habit of hanging around the marketplace striking up conversations with any passer-by willing to talk or of standing motionless in the street all night while he thought a problem through. But what really set him apart was his death, which redefined his whole life. Condemned by a panel of 501 Athenian citizens to kill himself with hemlock, Socrates carried out the sentence with perfect composure and in full rational awareness - or so the myth has it. No greater confirmation of the value of a philosopher's existence could be imagined. As Socrates himself said, "Don't you think that actions are more reliable evidence than words?"
The rest of "Examined Lives"can be read as a history of other philosophers' failures to measure up to this ideal, either in their deaths or their lives. One of Miller's great transitional figures is the Roman court-philosopher Seneca. Living half a millennium after Socrates, he too was condemned to death by suicide. He accepted his fate with Socratic courage, but his death itself was difficult. He slit his wrists before begging for a cup of hemlock and retiring to a hot bath to expire. The messiness of his death reflected a morally messy life. For, while his writings promoted wisdom, balance, restraint and detachment, Seneca himself was forced into numerous compromises in the service of his protégé and employer, the murderous emperor Nero. He even helped Nero plot the murder of Agrippina, the emperor's own mother. The strain was evident. "I am not wise," Seneca wrote; "nor . . . shall I ever be." Yet he also advised his favorite correspondent, Lucilius, to "harmonize talk with life." As Miller remarks, Seneca was "in conflict" with himself.
Other philosophers suffered even more self-division, particularly those who succumbed to mental illness. Diogenes the Cynic lived in a clay jar, masturbated on the street and embraced snow-covered statues. His sanity sounds shaky at best, yet there is no doubting his importance: he inspired the early Skeptics and thus influenced the whole of Western thought. Immanuel Kant, most rational of thinkers, ended his life in an obsessive-compulsive hell, endlessly consulting thermometers and barometers, and stopping dead in his tracks whenever he felt warm on a walk because he was afraid that breaking into a sweat would kill him. And Nietzsche wrote some of his most incisive works while in the early stages of the syphilitic dementia that really did kill him.
The most striking of Miller's subjects is René Descartes, another "transitional" figure and a very strange person. We associate Descartes with the attempt to give mathematical clarity to philosophy, yet he was driven to this by a series of terrifying, irrational visions in 1619, and by life experiences ranging from vagabondage to periods of reclusive withdrawal. He made gripping use of this story in his "Discourse on Method," the very work where he also set out his criteria of total certainty.
As Miller notes, Descartes opened up two divergent paths in philosophy. One was the old tradition, in which one seeks a better life and recounts the search in a personal narrative. The other led to the impersonal discipline now prevalent in universities, which in theory can be practiced by anyone. Yet Descartes himself would barely have understood this separation. For him, a philosophical life required both the quest for precision and the intense personal experience that drove one to it.
Miller concludes that his 12 philosophical lives offer a moral that is "neither simple nor uniformly edifying." It amounts mainly to the idea that philosophy can offer little or no consolation, and that the examined life is, if anything, "harder and less potentially rewarding" for us than it was for Socrates.
Yet his entire book conveys a sense that the genuinely philosophical examination of a life can still lead us somewhere radically different from other kinds of reflection. At the end of his chapter on Descartes, Miller cites the 20th-century phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, whom he identifies as the major exception to the rule that places most post-Cartesian thinkers on one side or the other of the personal/impersonal divide. Apropos of Descartes, Husserl wrote, "Anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must 'once in his life' withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting."
It is an extraordinary thing to do: a project that remains "quite personal," as Husserl admitted, yet that reaches in to seize the whole world and redesign it from the very foundation. Perhaps this is what still distinguishes the philosophical life: that "once in a lifetime" convulsion, in which one reinvents reality around oneself. It is a project doomed to fail, and compromises will always be made. But what, in life, could be more interesting?
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