Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller

Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche BY James S. Miller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 432 pages. $28.
The cover of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche

James Miller teaches “liberal studies” at New York’s New School, and his publishing history neatly embodies the interdisciplinary nature of his trade: He’s penned a social history of rock n’ roll (Flowers in the Dustbin), a study of Foucault (The Passion of Michel Foucault), and a history of social protest (Democracy Is in the Streets). Now, in Examined Lives, he explores questions related to what he deems “the problem of philosophy” in concise bios of 12 essential thinkers ranging from myth-shrouded ancients like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to the early moderns like Kant, Emerson, Rousseau, and Nietzsche.

Though the short biographies that make up Miller’s book aren’t subordinate to any domineering thesis, the author does suggest that Examined Lives is partly a reaction to contemporary mainstream pedagogy’s rejection of philosophers’ lives as a legitimate teaching tool. Thus the vague aim here seems to be the resuscitation of philosophy as a “way of life,” in which rigorous self-examination and integrity of word and deed are pitted against the discipline’s current incarnation as a willfully obscure, university-bound logician’s sport.

Miller does a commendable job of condensing the facts of the thinkers’ lives, while succinctly outlining the development of their core beliefs. He’s not overly idealistic or forced: There’s no attempt to present these men as entirely successful in either their search for self-knowledge or their quest for integrity. In fact, the often unflattering facts of these philosophers’ everyday existences tend to open up a “gap between inward and outward behavior,” as Miller phrases it. In other words, philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and Rousseau didn’t always practice what they preached; other figures discussed—notably Montaigne, Emerson, and Nietzsche—readily embraced contradiction and ambiguity.

The book also guides you through the changing roles of science and religion in philosophical thought over the centuries. Miller acknowledges pivotal figures like Descartes and Kant, who came to reject Socratic self-examination and focus their mental energies on scientific inquiry and the art of reason (and thus paving the way for the cold modernist rationalism of 20th-century thinkers like Wittgenstein). We also get a sense of how God fared over the centuries: Augustine had personal “dialogues” with the Almighty, whereas Descartes attempted to render proof of God’s existence as if solving a mathematical equation. By the 19th century, Emerson and Nietzsche were irreverently arguing that man, in fact, was his own God.

Still, while Examined Lives succeeds as a historical resource, there’s a nagging sense of unrealized potential here. Miller concludes with a disappointingly ambivalent sell of philosophy as a way of life. Although he insists this ancient notion is still a “real alternative” to faith-based religion and the dry academicism of scientific reason, there’s no cogent attempt to define what this “alternative” actually is. Miller weakens his own project when he admits that today we “lack the specific spiritual resources and cultural contexts” to adequately follow these philosophers’ examples. Considering that these individual quests for enlightenment often led to persecution, madness, and relatively short existences, what can we really learn from, say, Plato’s supposed cause of death (lice infestation)? More relevant connections to 21st-century culture could have allowed Examined Lives to have a fuller life of its own—one that might have extended beyond an undergraduate philosophy syllabus.

A former staffer at Pitchfork and Popmatters, Michael Sandlin has written for the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and various other print and online publications.