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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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