February 2011

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller

In a recent Huffington Post piece, a novice schoolteacher, eager to become “the next Socrates,” details her odyssey through the New York City public school system. When the semester goes south, the frustrated teacher laments, “Not only did I not become the next Socrates, a paradoxical thing happened -- the longer I stayed in teaching, the more I realized how much I didn't know.”

Our schoolteacher is not the first to make Socrates’s life a model for her own, though she might be the first to do so without reading the Apology. Socrates comes to us only through biography, his ideas riddled in his actions; he must be studied through emulation. James Miller’s Examined Lives -- chapter-length biographies of a dozen famous philosophers -- cautiously suggests that Western philosophy is a long series of just such attempts.

I say cautious, and Miller’s book is cautious indeed. Miller, a professor at The New School in New York, is an efficient biographer: his accounts are quick without being curt, steady with detail, and occasionally revelatory. The Delphic reply, for instance, to the question “Is anybody wiser than Socrates” (“No”) famously befuddled the thinker into his epistemological search. But Delphic responses were more detailed if accompanied by a sacrifice, and Miller suggests the petitioner, Chaerophon, couldn’t afford the animal, and received the poor man’s answer instead, less oracular than smaller in portion. Thus, a calf was saved and philosophy was born.

But for all that’s concisely covered, too much of it is available elsewhere, especially in the introductions to the thinkers’ texts, which have the benefit of then segueing into the thinkers’ texts. Examined Lives, while well told, is strangely absent the analysis that would distinguish it from either more pedestrian sources or more esoteric ones. Similarities and differences arise among and between the philosophers’ lives -- many have revelations while walking in the woods, and all seem to have paid their bills by magic -- but Miller merely points out the parallels, rather than probing these recurrences for insights into the philosophical character.

This is most palpably felt in the thinkers’ squeamish ties to power. Socrates was spared by the Thirty Tyrants thanks to his political connections, Plato kept by Dionysius the Younger as an in-house tutor-prisoner, and Seneca prized by Nero, who otherwise had a thing for poisoning people’s wine, and so on. One quickly surmises that for centuries, philosophy could not be practiced without the lucky benefaction of despots. Surely this affected not just the development of ideas, but who was allowed to have ideas at all. Take Rousseau, who thrived in his midlife turn to philosophy, while Diderot, his erstwhile better, languished in jail. Miller passes this by as trivia. But must the prominence of great thinkers be due somewhat to the survival of their ideas, a longevity granted by rulers? In other words, why Rousseau and not Diderot? Did Diderot lack an inner probing that kept his thoughts from transcendence -- the better to slip them out of handcuffs -- or was he just not the iconoclast Rousseau was? Should a young philosopher today be careful to hone, like Seneca, his powers of self-preservation as much as self-exploration?

These are the exact points at which Examined Lives needed to pivot from examination to analysis. Alas, the hinges of the book stay maddeningly firm. Miller adeptly traces the concurrent careers of autobiography and philosophy, the bow-tying of philosophy into its modern academic knot, and the emergence of the free self, poking its head out the second story window around Descartes’s time and slowly climbing down the tree to break curfew. But these insights are incidental, and they feel so.

Which is too bad. “Know Thyself,” the enigmatic command threading through the twelve lives, has inspired fierce writing. “The mind is dangerous blade,” quoth Montaigne, who, upon receiving praise from King Henry III (again, a philosopher pleasing power), quipped that if Henry liked the writing, he would like the writer. Sharp lives, Montaigne knew, make for sharp prose; if the mind is a dangerous blade, then men’s words are the cuts. For all that Examined Lives fascinates, the reader is left with a hunger not for the philosophers’ lives but for their writings, the slicing words themselves. I, for one, am richer one copy of Montaigne’s Essays since reading Miller’s book, and it might not be a bad thing that the lives of these men ultimately serve as an advertisement for their words rather than the other way around. After all, had the schoolteacher in New York City read Socrates (er, Plato) before trying to become him, she might have known better how little he knew himself.

Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374150850
432 Pages