Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche
By James Miller
Hardcover, 432 pages
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
List Price: $28
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 identified 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.
Excerpted from Examined by James Miller, to be published in January 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by James Miller. All rights reserved.