A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
We all want to know how to live. But before the good life was reduced to ten easy steps or a prescription from the doctor, philosophers offered arresting answers to the most fundamental questions about who we are and what makes for a life worth living.
In Examined Lives, James Miller returns to this vibrant tradition with short, lively biographies of twelve famous philosophers. Socrates spent his life examining himself and the assumptions of others. His most famous student, Plato, risked his reputation to tutor a tyrant. Diogenes carried a bright lamp in broad daylight and announced he was "looking for a man." Aristotle's alliance with Alexander the Great presaged Seneca's complex role in the court of the Roman Emperor Nero. Augustine discovered God within himself. Montaigne and Descartes struggled to explore their deepest convictions in eras of murderous religious warfare. Rousseau aspired to a life of perfect virtue. Kant elaborated a new ideal of autonomy. Emerson successfully preached a gospel of self-reliance for the new American nation. And Nietzsche tried "to compose into one and bring together what is fragment and riddle and dreadful chance in man," before he lapsed into catatonic madness.
With a flair for paradox and rich anecdote, Examined Lives is a book that confirms the continuing relevance of philosophy today—and explores the most urgent questions about what it means to live a good life.
Miller (The Passion of Michel Foucault) profiles 12 thinkers whose philosophies may have been consistent but whose engagements with the social and political mores of their time were far more fraught. From Plato's failure to mold the tyrant Dionysius into a philosopher king through Seneca's murky relationship with the despotic Nero to Kant's capitulation to King Frederick William II, the author casts a welcome light on the flawed, all-too-human aspects of famed moralists. Likewise we are made privy to a Descartes struggling to avoid religious controversy and a contradictory, sometimes paranoid Rousseau determined to publicly justify the abandonment of his own children to orphanages. Miller remains neutral, preferring to juxtapose the behavior of his subjects side by side with their words, even if, as in the cases of Socrates and Diogenes, so much still remains unknown about their lives. Nonetheless, this compelling book elegantly lays bare the distance between the abstract formulation of right action and its achievement in the real world, indicating that the lives of the great philosophers can be exemplary but not always in the ways we might have hoped.