Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche
by James Miller
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 422 pages, $28
People saying things: That is all that the history of philosophy is, and everyone knows it.” Thus did the curmudgeonly Australian philosopher David Stove sum up his field in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies. Nor would many modern readers disagree with this deflationary assessment. Philosophers are, by reputation, the original talking heads—clever but impractical, all words and no action.
James Miller’s Examined Lives reminds that it was not always so. For most of its history philosophy was, and was known to be, a way of life as well as a way of thinking—albeit a way of life informed by a certain way of thinking. What way is that? That depends on which philosophers we are talking about. Miller profiles twelve: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche. Six ancients and six moderns, and as Miller makes clear, the latter’s conception of philosophy was by no means the same as the former’s. Nor is that unrelated to contemporary philosophy’s confinement to the ivory tower.
The modern reader knows that Socrates was condemned to death by democratic Athens, is familiar with the utopian vision of Plato’s Republic, and is aware that Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great. He may not recall, however, just how deeply these thinkers were involved in the practical affairs of their day, and how closely this involvement was connected with their philosophical work.
Socrates’ association with Alcibiades was motivated in part by a desire to mold the ambitious young aristocrat into a statesman guided by the love of wisdom rather than of power, pleasure, and glory—a project that failed dismally, and probably played a role in his execution. Plato went much further in the effort to realize the ideal of the philosopher king—and with as little success—in his complex and intermittent involvement with the government of Syracuse, and in particular with the tyrant Dionysius II. Aristotle’s acquisition of a vast number of books and his access to the flora and fauna he assiduously studied were greatly facilitated by Alexander’s patronage, though such Macedonian connections would get Aristotle into hot water with the suspicious Athenians.
The interpenetration of philosophy and politics was even more pronounced—and more eyebrow-raising—in the life of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, advisor to and professional apologist for the murderous emperor Nero. But if, as Miller emphasizes, the politicking of the ancient philosophers sometimes raises questions about the consistency of their actions with their principles, that is precisely because they took philosophy to demand a conformity of one’s life to the dictates of a natural law, whether that law be defined by reference to the Stoic logos, the Platonic realm of the Forms, or (as for Augustine) the God of Christianity. The “examined life,” for a Seneca no less than a Socrates, involves a continual judging of oneself in light of a moral order one discovers rather than invents.
With the moderns this attitude begins to change. Montaigne’s self-examination is carried out for its own sake, and he seeks in his Essays to describe himself as he really is rather than presenting his life as an idealized journey to perfection of the sort characteristic of the ancients. And whereas “before Descartes, one could not be impure, immoral, and know the truth” (as Miller tells us, quoting Foucault), after him “direct evidence is enough” and replaces spiritual and moral discipline as a prerequisite to wisdom. An impersonal, quasi-scientific conception of philosophy would come to supplant the older view that knowledge of the natural order of things has moral consequences.
Self-examination did not immediately cease to feature in philosophical writing, but it became increasingly subjectivist. Rousseau tells us: “I doubt that [consistency] is possible for man; but what is possible is for him always to be true.” Yet if consistency is no longer a concomitant of truth, then “truth,” at least in the moral sphere, ceases to be something objective. Hence “most of the classical thinkers—especially Plato and Aristotle—turn out to be in error, according to Rousseau’s account.” In particular, “they were wrong to think that the human being was naturally directed . . . toward one final and universal state of perfection, a proper telos.”
The result, as Miller tells us, is that for the moderns, the “examined life” has become “harder and less potentially rewarding than it seems to have been for Socrates”—indeed, “a potential source of depression . . . perhaps even madness.” The ancients’ philosophical eros was directed outward, and self-examination had a higher, metaphysical import.
With writers like Montaigne, Rousseau, and Nietzsche it becomes instead a kind of intellectual onanism—and no more satisfying, ultimately, than the other kind. It is unsurprising, then, that philosophy as self-examination would eventually give way entirely to the dryly academic enterprise of Kant, and that with its abandonment would go the idea that there is any inherent connection between philosophical understanding and the quest for moral and spiritual improvement.
That this is so is evident enough from Miller’s discussion. Why it is so is less clear. Miller’s chapters, considered merely as biographies, are individually excellent and pleasing. But his treatment of the ideas of the philosophers whose lives he recounts is shallow at best. What is lacking is any serious consideration of exactly how, at a theoretical level, the conception of philosophy to which the ancients were committed gave way to the very different modern conception—and of whether this transition was (and is) rationally justifiable. Miller reminds us that the history of philosophy is more than intellectual history, but he forgets that it is at least that, and the task of explaining why that history went the way it did gets lost amidst the biographical minutiae.
This is not unrelated to another glaring lacuna in the book: its nearly complete silence concerning the thousand-year period in the history of philosophy between Augustine and Montaigne. Was there really no space for a medieval thinker or two between the six ancients and six moderns? Surely the life of an Anselm, an Abelard, an Aquinas, or an Ockham would not have lacked for dramatic interest. More to the point, the early moderns and their philosophical motivations simply cannot be understood without some grasp of the Scholastics against whom they reacted. And since the Scholastics had built on the greatest of the ancient systems—Platonism and Aristotelianism—it is no surprise that the moderns’ rejection of the medievals led to an abandonment of the ancients’ conception of philosophy as well.
But Miller does nothing to trace the links in this complex conceptual chain. He merely insinuates vaguely that philosophy during the Middle Ages had become little more than slavish commentary on authoritative texts in the interests of furthering religious dogma, awaiting a Renaissance when something interesting might happen again. Professional historians of philosophy have at last begun to set aside this vulgar cliché, but for Miller, it seems, anti-Scholasticism is still the last respectable academic prejudice.
There is also the consideration that the decline of philosophy as a way of life surely is due in no small part to the hegemony in the modern world of the liberal conception of ethics as essentially a matter of interpersonal conflict resolution. The liberal wants to make the social and political worlds safe for each individual to pursue his own private vision of the good, and regards morality as a means of facilitating everyone’s getting on with this pursuit in a peaceful fashion.
The perfectionism of the ancients and medievals—which insists that one conform one’s private aims and actions to an objective standard of the good inherent in a common human nature—has always been regarded as a threat to this project. Yet such perfectionism was central to the ancients’ conception of the examined life. Naturally, a progressive writer nostalgic for the nobility of Socratic self-examination is bound to find this dissonance troubling—which is perhaps why Miller does not seem clearly to perceive it, much less address it.
And what is the thoroughly modern self-examiner left with if, as Miller insists, “for us today there can be no ideal form of philosophy as a way of life, ‘identical for all’”? Just this: “an unending quest, with no firm goal and no certain reward, apart from experiencing, however briefly, a yearning for wisdom.” Or as your high school guidance counselor told you, the journey is more important than the destination. Thus is the Delphic oracle’s “Know thyself” reduced to self-help banality. Miller could have put a little more thought into his history of thought.
Edward Feser is associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College and author of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide and The Last Superstition.