Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche
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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.
fictional character called “Rousseau,” passes judgment on the man who wrote the Confessions: “He is a man without malice rather than good, a soul healthy but weak, who adores virtue without practicing it, who ardently loves the good and does hardly any. As for crime, I am as persuaded as I am of my own existence that it never came near his heart, nor did hate. That is the summary of my observations on his moral character.” “Rousseau” even tells the Frenchman that Jean-Jacques is in the midst of
consistent with that of all others” is a “necessary idea” that cannot be dismissed through an appeal to experience or empirical evidence: “For what the highest degree may be at which mankind may have to come to a stand, and however great a gulf may remain between the idea [of a free society] and its execution [in practice],” he writes in the Critique, “no one can or should try to determine this, just because it is freedom that can go beyond every proposed boundary.” Hence the second aspect of
handful of assassins made an abortive attempt to kill the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny. Fearful that Protestant forces might seek revenge, particularly in the south of France, Henri de Guise convinced King Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de Médicis, to authorize a preemptive second strike two days later, on Saint Bartholomew’s Day. This time, a larger band of armed men succeeded in killing several dozen Huguenot leaders gathered in Paris for the dynastic wedding of the Protestant Henry
they seem. And by writing down everything that he thinks, he will truthfully render the gap—the inconsistencies—between the “best part” of himself, his inward beliefs, and the part of himself he owes to society: his outward behavior and his various public professions of faith. “I do not portray being. I portray passing … [These Essays are] a record of various and changeable events, and of irresolute and even contradictory thoughts … I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth … I do
outset of his text, one must set “aside all the facts,” approaching with skepticism most scientific books—which naturally raised the question: How, then, can one “judge properly” about the original constitution of the human being? Rousseau’s apparent answer is laconic. By “meditating on the first and most simple operations of the soul”—and perhaps by inviting a certain kind of rapturous illumination, not unlike what Rousseau experienced during his walks in the woods at Saint-Germain—anyone, so