Thinkers in History - Philosophy as inspiration

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Niccolo and Donkey
Philosophy as inspiration

The Economist

January 27, 2011

Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. By James Miller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 432 pages; $28. Buy from


THE unexamined life is not worth living, or so Socrates famously told the jury at his trial. He neglected to mention that the examined life is sometimes not all that wonderful either. In 11 biographical sketches of thinkers who tried to tread in Socrates’s footsteps, plus one on Socrates himself, James Miller explores what it means to follow the philosophical calling. Much trouble and uncertainty seems to be the answer, and some of the most famous philosophers turn out not to be all that admirable or convincing, he finds. So can philosophy inspire a way of life? That is one question raised by Mr Miller, who teaches politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Fortunately, Mr Miller does not press that question too hard. Any attempt to draw an all-encompassing moral from the lives he examines would have distorted the stories he has to tell. What we get instead is a vivid set of philosophical tales that are notable for their judicious use of sources, including rare early works. The result is a fresh treatment of subjects who are often served up stale. Even Immanuel Kant, whose writings were justly described by Heinrich Heine, a poet, as having “the grey dry style of a paper bag”, emerges as human.

If one wanted to compile a charge-sheet against the great philosophers, to show that they were unfit to lead their own lives, let alone inspire others, this book could provide some useful evidence. There are Plato’s disastrous dealings with Dionysius the Younger, the tyrannical ruler of Syracuse, and Seneca’s hypocritical fawning over Nero. We hear of Aristotle’s support for Alexander the Great’s cruel imperialism, which sits uneasily with the philosopher’s professed political ideas. Rousseau, who preached on education, abandoned his five children by his long-term mistress, and made pathetic excuses for doing so (he was too ill and poor to be a good father, and a foundlings’ home is not such a bad place to grow up, anyway).

St Augustine turned against the spirit of intellectual inquiry once he had found salvation, and his dogmatic invective laid the foundations for centuries of intellectual tyranny by the Catholic church. Montaigne was a master of the suggestive non sequitur and the self-contradiction. The thinking of one orator-mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, an admirer of Montaigne’s, was “untethered”, as Mr Miller puts it, from empirical evidence or logical argument. Kant’s conception of morality as a matter of rigid adherence to strict principles emerges as partly an intended remedy for his own hypochondria. Nietzsche confessed in 1880 that his existence was “a fearful burden”, though he was at least happier than before, because of progress in his work.

Feet of clay, indeed; but Mr Miller does not chide his dozen unduly. Most of them were, after all, aware of their shortcomings, and did not (except for Nietzsche, in some madder moments) present themselves as prophets or saints. At the end of his life, Rousseau acknowledged that it was not nearly so easy as he had assumed to follow the Delphic oracle’s injunction to “Know thyself.” He concluded ruefully that it was “arrogant and rash” to profess virtues that you cannot live up to, and retreated into indolent seclusion.

If Mr Miller had included the sunny and admirable David Hume and some other less troubled souls in his portraits, his gallery of philosophers could have been brighter overall. But on balance, the summation in his epilogue is probably correct: philosophical self-examination is not a reliable source of happiness or political nous. Still, there are many philosophers, including Aristotle, who regarded the quest for understanding as an end in itself, not as a path to joy or success. After all, as most of those who have been bitten by the philosophy bug will know, philosophers philosophise mainly because they cannot help it.