Examined Lives, by James Miller

Nietzsche by MunchWhat an idea for a book: a series of essays on the lives of the most famous philosophers, from Socrates to Nietzsche.

Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and in that sense philosophy’s right on target with its systematic investigations into truth and human nature. But when its goal is anything but showing us how to live a good life, I’m less interested in what it has to offer.

James Miller seems to agree on that score and that made this an easy read indeed. Here are a few takeaways from Miller’s biographical essays.

Even though he left no writing behind, Socrates is the father of philosophy

As Nietzsche explains, his life was his work of art. The dialectic, as recorded by Plato and others, is the path to truth and wisdom.

Socrates inspires me to ask more questions.

Kant’s contemplative life was…odd

He was so dedicated to his line of inquiry and the validity of his mental processes that he forgot to live an actual life outside of his career. Socrates seemed to do this too, but he had the notable advantage of “working” at symposiums (which were big huge drinking parties).

I can’t follow Kant’s philosophy but it’s easy to admire his discipline.

Kant inspires me to leave the house.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was philosophical more than he was a philosopher

Of all the titans profiled in Miller’s book, Emerson seemed to lead the most fulfilling life. He did that by following his intuition wherever it led him — away from the church, onto the lecture circuit, overseas, etc. It’s exciting to read about his life because his opinions had a global impact during his lifetime.

If self reliance is the final destination of philosophical inquiry, Emerson seems to have made it there. Emerson inspires me to trust my lines of inquiry and to see where they take me.

Nietzsche was a tortured prodigy

He led a university’s philology department by the time he was 24, before he finished his doctoral dissertation. He had early memories of his young father losing his marbles and slowly dying of “softness of the brain,” what Miller presumes was a brain tumor. He recognized greatness in himself and wrote relentlessly in pursuit of it. He changed careers many times. He broke the conservative academic mold by publishing The Birth of Tragedy, which does not read like an academic essay. He made enemies. He may have been gay (Miller implies that he struggled with his sexuality throughout his life). He was terrified at the prospect of going insane, which he eventually did thanks to syphilis. He was always sick. But through it all he tried to make sense of his universe, and his writing is so honest and transparent in its ambitions that I can’t help but admire the way he lived and worked.

He grappled with the implications of Darwin’s work: “The human being became a knowing being by accident.”

And he eagerly anticipated the impact his work would have on the masses. Quoting Emerson: “Beware,” he wrote, “When the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.”

His life was an odd one and not many people would trade places with him. But he was NIETZSCHE!

Nietzsche inspires me to continue thinking and to stand up (in the depths of my mind, anyway) to any institution that predates me.

3.5 out of 4.2 Loon Stars

It’s a relatively easy read and it’s thought-provoking throughout. It seems that philosophy can improve your life if it’s aimed properly. Your thoughts and ideas may not be able to revolutionize the world, but if you choose a more achievable target (like self reliance), philosophy’s as powerful as ever.

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