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Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche Third Printing Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374150853
ISBN-10: 0374150850
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

Miller combines short biographies and compact synopses of 12 philosophers’ ideas of wisdom. In a format suiting those intrigued by the history of philosophy but not yet prepared to take on the texts, Miller introduces Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche. Enlivened by Miller’s attention to how the subjects lives and actions measured up to their declamations, the presentations start with the thinkers’ adoption, in some cases from revelation, in others from reflection, of moral inquiry as a mode of the enlightened life. As well as the questions they strived to answer about truth and ideal conduct, Miller pointedly presents how their mental realms of abstraction, ever buffeted by demands of material or political realities, could agitate contemporaries or provoke posterity to bridle at inconsistencies between words and deeds, such as Rousseau’s notorious abandonment of his children. Conducting his audience safely through abstruse aspects of these philosophers’ precepts, Miller proves concise about their imitational symbolism to those of introspective bent. --Gilbert Taylor
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Third Printing edition (January 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374150850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374150853
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #762,990 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
It's easy to forget that philosophy has any relation to the concerns of real life. This collection of short biographies reminds us that, for some of history's most eminent philosophers, real life and philosophy aren't truly distinguishable from one another. In each biography, Miller also deftly outlines the subject's philosophical ideas, throwing into relief how each man's life shaped his philosophy, and, more importantly, how each figure attempted (often unsuccessfully) to embody his philosophy through his way of life. What to make of this is up to the reader. Miller avoids polemics, but leaves us with some suggestive thoughts about the rewards and perils of a life dedicated to the search for truth. "Examined Lives" is impressively erudite, thought-provoking, and a lively read...satisfying on every level.
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James Miller has some writing talent -- he turns the lives of eight philosophers into a fairly entertaining scan. Along the way, he doesn't get much of the philosophy right, a few hours in a library with the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 Volume Set) would have been time well spent for him (and if you care about the philosophy, probably for you as well.) He also paints a fairly cartoonish picture of all of his subjects. Having just read Sarah Bakewell's outstanding How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, I found Miller's treatment of the 16th century French sage embarrassing.

All of this could have been forgiven if Miller had, either within the text or in an afterward, tied the mini-biographies together with some valuable insights about philosophy. Richard Ben Cramer's classic 1988 Presidential campaign opus What It Takes: The Way to the White House might have been a valuable template for such an effort. Unfortunately, Warren presents the stories in a linear fashion and makes no effort to draw connections between the philosophers in the main text, leaving the impression that he's going to get to the point of it all in his afterward.

But his afterward is repugnant -- giving right-wing preacher Rick Warren basically the last word on the utility of philosophy.
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Format: Kindle Edition
In his new book, Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, James Miller reexamines one of philosophy's original prerogatives: to teach by example. The Greeks, and later the Romans, saw the conduct of a thinker as every bit as important as their thought. For this reason we find biographical compilations, such as Diogenes Laertius or Plutarch from antiquity, praising or faulting those who should be the exemplars of wisdom.

This idea, that the validity of a philosophy should be judged by the life of the philosopher, is out of fashion in current academic talk. In fact, as the author notes in regards to the final subject of the book, Friedrich Nietzsche:

"...it is one consequence of Nietzsche's own criticism of Christian morality that anyone who takes it seriously find it hard, if not impossible, to credit any one code of conduct as good for everyone, and therefore worth emulating."

Nevertheless, if a philosophy should not be judged by its philosopher, the life is not necessarily of no value. Hero worship is likewise considered old hat these days, but surely something can be salvaged in the example of those who came before us. Miller seems to think so:

"...each of these men prized the pursuit of wisdom. Each one struggled to live his life according to a deliberately chosen set of precepts and beliefs, discerned in part through a practice of self-examination...The life of each one can therefore teach us something about the quest for self-knowledge and its limits."

I have often thought of philosophy as a substitute for religion, and have found in the examples of mortal men greater hope than the deeds of gods or the promises of heaven. Life is a constant striving but, it is in what we strive for that makes the difference. If we seek truth, our reach may often exceed our grasp, but in the reaching we may just find our better selves.
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This book made me think more and harder than any other recent book I've read (not counting old works I re-read that make me think equally as hard). And it wasn't so much that this book made me think hard about Seneca or Montaigne or Nietzsche (which, of course, it did); it made me think harder about myself. And I think that might have been the great goal.

When I was a younger and cockier professor, I used to exhort my students with Socrates' (purported) dictum, "The unexamined life is not worth living." I dimly understood but consciously suppressed the notions that (a) in the way that I and most others used it, the dictum is ripped hideously out of context, and (b) in some important ways, the examined life didn't work out all that well for Socrates. Reflecting on this further, I realized that it didn't work out well for other characters in literary works I was teaching, like Oedipus and Hamlet.

So this book, by examining the ways a dozen different philosophers engaged in the "examined life," helped me to think more deeply and I hope more clearly about that approach to living. Each chapter reminds one that there is a serious cost to living an examined life, and one who undertakes it must be willing to pay it.

James Miller's work also made me think hard about the relationship between philosophy and biography. At some point in my undergraduate and graduate education, I internalized what New Critics called "The Intentional Fallacy," the notion that a work should not be judged based on its author's life or purported intentions, but rather the "objective" validity of his argument (as if that could be determined).
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