CRF Blog

Examined Lives

by Bill Hayes

In Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, James Miller, chair of liberal studies and professor of politics at the New School for Social Research, looks at the lives of 12 philosophers and what they tell us about living the good life. The 12 are Socrates, Plato, Diogenes the Cynic, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche.

From the New York Times Book Review:

… Miller … does not rest with digging out petty failings or moments of hypocrisy. He shows us philosophers becoming ever more inclined to reflect on these failings, and suggests that this makes their lives more rather than less worth studying.

His starting point is Socrates, the most mythologized of all thinkers, the original source of the statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and the philosopher whose life became the measure for all others. Early biographers wrote with awe of Socrates’ strange, itinerant approach to wisdom; of his habit of hanging around the marketplace striking up conversations with any passer-by willing to talk or of standing motionless in the street all night while he thought a problem through. But what really set him apart was his death, which redefined his whole life. Condemned by a panel of 501 Athenian citizens to kill himself with hemlock, Socrates carried out the sentence with perfect composure and in full rational awareness — or so the myth has it. No greater confirmation of the value of a philosopher’s existence could be imagined. As Socrates himself said, “Don’t you think that actions are more reliable evidence than words?” [more]

Below is a panel that Miller assembled to discuss the question: Does philosophy still matter?