Being in the World: On James Miller

Being in the World: On James Miller

With Examined Lives, James Miller offers a serious and readable study of the relationship between philosophy and life conduct.


Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that the history of philosophy had been dominated by linguistic confusions he referred to as “pseudo-problems.” His remedy was to reconceive philosophy’s perennial questions as conundrums attributable to improper language use. In Wittgenstein’s view, questions pertaining to the ultimate nature of reality or the problem of other minds, to cite merely two examples, are classical instances of scratching where it doesn’t itch. He argued that by paying greater attention to ordinary linguistic practice, or “language games,” we could make these problems cease to matter or disappear altogether.

Much has changed since Wittgenstein’s day. Now, by simply hiring a good publicist, philosophers can clear up such problems once and for all. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and a healthy helping of popular culture clears the cobwebs from Kant,” declares a recent sales pitch from the editor of Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. “Philosophy has had a bad public relations problem for a few centuries now. This series aims to change that, showing that philosophy is relevant to your life—and not just for answering the big questions like ‘To be or not to be?’ but for answering the little questions, ‘To watch or not to watch South Park?’” Blackwell is hardly the only player in the “pop goes philosophy” market. Similar books offered by the publisher Open Court include Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: The Porpoise Driven Life; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale; The Atkins Diet and Philosophy: Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietzsche; and The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless.

Among contemporary philosophers, even the best and the brightest can’t resist the blandishments of the pop philosophical turn, and there is no way of avoiding the fact that the net result has been to define philosophy down. Two years ago New School philosophy professor Simon Critchley published, to considerable acclaim, The Book of Dead Philosophers. Inspired by Cicero’s adage, later adopted by Montaigne, “To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die,” Critchley advanced the premise that we can tell a lot about philosophers—and about their philosophies—by examining the ways they died. According to Critchley, although we are accustomed to viewing philosophers as paragons of virtue, the exemplar effect can prove rather onerous for the layperson. Yet to study great philosophers’ modalities of morbidity “humanizes them and shows that, despite the lofty reach of their intellect, they have to cope with the hand life deals them like the rest of us.” From Critchley’s lighthearted tome, we learn that Heraclitus suffocated to death in cow dung; Diogenes committed suicide simply by holding his breath; La Mettrie succumbed at a dinner party to the effects of a rancid truffle paté; Heinrich Heine’s droll last words were “God will pardon me. It’s his métier”; Michel de Montaigne was struck by a horse, and Nietzsche may have died after kissing one. As one wag quipped, Critchley’s originality lies in the fact that he takes his bearings from the tombstone rather than from the philosopher’s stone.

With Examined Lives, James Miller presents us with an eminently serious and readable study of the relationship between philosophy and life conduct, one that, to employ a metaphysical analogy, subsists on a higher ontological plane than Critchley’s droll morbidity or Blackwell’s pop philosophical indulgences. Miller laments that “Modern textbooks generally scant the lives of philosophers, reinforcing the contemporary perception that philosophy is best understood as a purely technical discipline, revolving around specialized issues in semantics and logic.” In many respects, it was Wittgenstein who set the tone for modern philosophy’s retrenchment when, in Philosophical Investigations, he meekly observed that philosophy “leaves everything as it is.” As a specialized, technical discipline, philosophy has become part and parcel of the “intellectualization and rationalization” of all spheres of life that Max Weber bemoaned in the early twentieth century. As a result, philosophy has lost touch with its original, existential moorings. It was born in the robust marketplace of Athens 2,400 years ago; today it subsists on life support in arid seminar rooms. It is the experiential origins of philosophy—philosophy as a mode of “being-in-the-world”—that Miller, to his credit, sets out to resuscitate in Examined Lives.

Miller is the director of the New School’s Liberal Studies program and a former rock critic for Newsweek. One might claim that his true métier is thinking politically. Miller’s writing avoids treating political concepts as self-contained, disembodied ends in themselves. Instead, he examines the ways that political ideas affect and reshape specific historical and cultural contexts. In Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987), Miller provided a much needed corrective to neoconservative 1960s-bashing by showing how in its early years Students for a Democratic Society sought to redirect American society toward the core participatory democratic values of its republican founding. In his outstanding intellectual biography The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993), Miller persuasively demonstrated how the French philosopher-activist abided by the Nietzschean credo to “live dangerously.” Sadly, it was that same ardent quest—Foucault’s “passion”—that resulted in the philosopher’s premature death in 1984.

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In his new book, Miller discusses the lives of twelve philosophers—six ancient, six modern—beginning with Socrates and ending with Nietzsche. That he avoids the twentieth century might be viewed as an inexcusable oversight. But with the Foucault biography Miller has already written a superior book about twentieth-century philosophical life, and to do justice to figures as rich, complex and diverse as Bertrand Russell, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Wittgenstein, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida would require a sequel. Moreover, in its exploration of philosophy as “being-in-the-world,” Examined Lives picks up methodologically where The Passion of Michel Foucault left off. Foucault, the arch-structuralist and notorious prophet of the “death of man,” had been averse to correlating philosophy and life practice; he worried that a prurient focus on biography might undermine the philosophical esprit de sérieux. Yet, in a late text, “The Minimalist Self,” Foucault, true to his Nietzschean daimonion, came clean about the autobiographical basis of his own philosophizing, declaring, “For me intellectual work is related to what you could call aestheticism, meaning transforming yourself…. I know that knowledge can transform us, that truth is not only a way of deciphering the world.”

Miller points out that too little is known about the lives of the pre-Socratics—Anaxagoras, Anaximander, Parmenides and Heraclitus—for them to be included in his survey. Moreover, their intellectual focus was oriented more toward questions of natural philosophy than considerations of life praxis. Socrates, conversely, was the figure who, among the ancients, at least until Christianity’s triumph, was widely considered to have lived an exemplary life, owing to his unwavering, single-minded pursuit of truth—a conviction for which he was martyred in 399 BCE. Plato, his most loyal disciple, was so moved by Socrates’ martyrdom that he dedicated his life to immortalizing his mentor’s words and deeds. As Miller remarks, “Exemplary biography conveys the ideal through the imaginary, in order to dramatize a notable character. In the case of Plato’s Socrates, readers behold an idealized image of a life worth imitating—the mythic life of someone unswervingly committed to just action and right reasoning.”

Perhaps Socrates’ most radical claim is the idea that virtue is knowledge. In many respects, this insight represents the core idea of the Western intellectual tradition. By claiming that knowledge is virtue, Socrates simultaneously challenged and devalued all previous contenders for virtue or human excellence (in Greek, areté): piety, custom, friendship, courage, citizenship, wealth and competing definitions of worldly success. Therein lies the intrinsic radicalism of Socrates’ intellectual approach, as well as the reason he proved such an outstanding candidate for martyrdom. No manner of custom, habit, tradition or belief was secure against his mordant and unyielding manner of philosophical interrogation; Socrates thought that all inherited practices and standpoints should justify themselves before the tribunal of knowledge or truth. The criterion of truth was universality. In Socrates’ view, there could not be one truth for the Persians, another for Spartans, another for Helots and yet another for Boetians. To believe so would be to risk relativism and endorsing the Sophist conception that because truth is subjective, the end of knowledge is not human excellence but individual self-advancement. Were such unchecked egotism to flourish—as appeared to be the case in post-Periclean Athens—it would mean the death of the polis as a community of like-minded, committed citizens.

It was in the Apology that Socrates famously claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” With this maxim, he emphasizes that our path to the highest life is not gained through unthinking conformity but solely through the demanding labor of self-reflection and self-scrutiny. As Miller explains, in the Apology Socrates’ genius was to turn the tables on his Athenian accusers by cross-examining them. Accused of impiety (an allusion to his daimonion, or inner voice) and seducing youth, Socrates flung the charges back at the litigants, claiming that by philosophizing, rather than corrupting Athens as they had, he was doing the polis a service by ensuring that it lived up to the precepts of virtue for which it had become renowned throughout the ancient world.

As Miller shows, in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE), Athenian internal politics reached a nadir. First, the Athenian nobility elected the Thirty Tyrants to replace the vanquished democracy. But their reign rapidly deteriorated into an orgy of bloodshed and carnage, as they sought to purge the city of remaining democrats as well as political opponents. Then, in a major tactical blunder, the Thirty Tyrants enlisted Sparta, Athens’s traditional geopolitical rival, to help quell an internal uprising. Shorn of credibility, the Tyrants were compelled to yield to restored democratic rule. This was the democracy that would, to its eternal shame, put the 70-year-old Socrates to death.

It fell to Socrates’ heir, Plato, to determine how his mentor’s legacy would best be perpetuated. As Miller demonstrates, the nature of Plato’s response would have inestimable repercussions for the subsequent history of Western thought. Socrates deliberately shunned writing, since it lacked the vivacity of oral communication. In the course of his life Plato produced thirty-six dialogues and thirteen letters, thereby establishing a permanent link between philosophy and the technology of the written word. It was also through these dialogues that Plato reinvented the figure of Socrates. Unlike the historical Socrates, the Platonic Socrates is prone to speculative tirades and ontological disquisitions. If Socrates was, to quote Kierkegaard, a philosopher of “infinite absolute negativity,” Plato, conversely, was the West’s first bona fide and self-avowed metaphysician.

At stake in the transition from Socrates to Plato is a momentous transformation of the philosopher’s vocation. For Socrates, virtue was a phenomenon immanent to life practice. Even if among average Athenians the comprehension of virtue’s inner workings was often badly muddled, there was still a sense that, via the Socratic techniques of dialectic and anamnesis (the capacity to remember innate eternal truths), its gist could be retrieved and reanimated. With Plato, this sense is entirely missing. It is as though with Socrates’ tragic death, Attic virtue also died. Henceforth, only a very potent medicine—the austere and ethereal doctrine of the eidei, or Forms—could purify the disease-ravaged polis and make it whole once more.

Plato’s reaction to Socrates’ execution was to flee Athens. He undertook a ten-year odyssey that brought him into contact with many of the leading philosophical minds of classical antiquity. Above all, it was the Pythagoreans’ views about the ontological primacy of mathematics that made an indelible impression on the young philosopher. After all, if one associates truth with the virtues of timelessness and universality, the theoretical properties of numbers seem to fit the bill admirably. We use the number five to enumerate specific objects. Yet from a conceptual point of view, five itself—the “Idea” of five—transcends all of its empirical instantiations. One might reformulate this idea by saying that five’s pure Being outstrips and supersedes all of its various concrete manifestations. It was hardly fortuitous that the sign above the entrance to Plato’s Academy read: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” Describing the end result of Plato’s extended Mediterranean sojourn, Miller quotes the German classicist Paul Friedländer, who observed that Plato “set out on the quest for the best state, and on this quest he discovered the world of Forms.”

The doctrine of the Forms prepared the way for much that was valuable and enduring in Plato’s thought. By the same token, the Forms’ otherworldly, supersensible provenance opened a potential chasm between the concerns of metaphysics and the ends of human practical life. The locus classicus of this dilemma is The Republic’s cave allegory sequence, one of the most moving and lyrical passages in the entire history of philosophy. Chained to the cave’s walls, we perceive only dim silhouettes or illusion as projected by objects held before a small bonfire. Only the bold, Promethean spirit who breaks free of his chains is able to perceive reality for what it truly is: shadow play. Emerging from the cave itself, he ultimately encounters the sun—for Plato, a figure of the summum bonum, or highest good—whose light is blinding.

The philosopher’s dilemma is this: what incentive is there to return to the nether world of the cave and unmask his fellow prisoners’ shadow existence when he is predestined not only to be misunderstood—for his fellow captives know nothing about bonfires or sunlight—but liable to be savagely attacked as the scourge of his comrades and their illusions? Why should the philosopher, once he has discovered the beatitude of the Forms, return to the sordid and cutthroat corruptions of society? Why not instead choose a life of pure contemplation—the bios theoretikos—over the confusing and messy realities of human experience as actually lived? As Miller shows in a superb chapter on St. Augustine, in early Christianity the original Platonic breach between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa would grow to cavernous proportions. With Christianity’s triumph, the last vestiges of Greco-Roman worldliness were sacrificed on the altar of the City of God. With the paramountcy of salvation and eternal life, death itself became more glorious than life.

To redress the philosopher’s quandary of whether or not to re-enter the world after having experienced the unmatched sublimity of the Forms, Miller turns to The Republic. There Plato explains that for the philosopher to turn his back on the needs of the polis would be an act of unconscionable selfishness. The philosopher owes his whole existence to the city: his family, his friends, his language, his education. The polis is the institution that, in nearly every respect, engendered him. To repudiate it would be to reject the preconditions of his entire being as an individual and a citizen.

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The world of classical antiquity was a relatively self-contained and homogeneous ethical universe. Thus, discussions of virtue, or a life well lived, proceeded on familiar and well-defined terms. In The Republic Plato’s list of virtues included wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. It was generally agreed that in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, a more “realistic” thinker than Plato, had successfully enumerated the major Greek virtues: courage, moderation, generosity, amiability and magnanimity. To this Aristotelian catalog, early Christianity added the spiritual virtues of faith, hope and charity.

Miller’s kaleidoscopic inventory of philosophical lives culminates in a diverse cast of modern thinkers: Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche. Here the dilemmas and difficulties set in. With the onset of modernity, the loose consensus that prevailed during antiquity was essentially torn asunder. There is a paucity of agreement about virtue or philosophical prescriptions for human flourishing. In the modern world a gaping chasm opens between society and the self, between the “city” and “man.” Upon reading Miller’s narrative, it soon becomes apparent that the chasm he describes has become almost unbridgeable. In no uncertain terms, it has become the defining feature of the human condition in the modern world. The self has become quasi-sovereign, and that which is external to it is often denigrated as an obstacle or hindrance.

In many respects, Rousseau’s Confessions set the tone for the new ethos of the modern self. Rousseau’s autobiography is nothing less than a manifesto of modern individualism. As the inimitable Jean-Jacques declaims in the book’s opening passages: “I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mould with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.” The Socratic paradigm has been irrevocably pushed aside. No longer does one esteem the individual’s subordination to pre-existing models or patterns. Instead, originality, uniqueness and even idiosyncrasy are prized as ends in themselves. When the modern self embarks on its Odyssey, there is no Ithaca in sight. Instead, it is in free fall—a fate that is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. At a later point, Sartre would felicitously capture the precariousness of the modern self when he remarked that we are “condemned to freedom.”

Montaigne, too, is an excellent example of the modern self’s zealous rejection of all pre-existing normative strictures and codes. As Miller explains, Montaigne came of age at the height of the religious wars that had turned much of France into a combat zone. In the course of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, angry Catholics butchered more than 2,000 Huguenots in Paris. Soon even bloodier violence would spread to the provinces. Across the continent, similar outbreaks occurred.

Had Christian virtue degenerated into a warrant for slaughter and extermination? Wherein lay righteousness? In Montaigne’s view, the inner self embodied the last bastion of certainty in a world that had become irredeemably untrustworthy, chaotic and cruel. According to Miller, as Montaigne began to write he increasingly “moved away from classical and modern precedents, and his work slowly turned into a novel search for self-knowledge, undertaken not through a close reading of canonic texts…or through adherence to any traditional set of virtues…but rather through an increasingly candid description and analysis of himself, and the world, as he directly experienced them.” In this way the Essays, an unprecedented exploration of modern literary inwardness, was born. Yet, as Miller shows, at a certain point Montaigne’s despondency over the prospect of discovering an objective basis for truth, meaning and self-coherence became so acute that it would be something of a misnomer to refer to him as a philosopher. Instead, he might be more aptly described as a cartographer of his inner experience.

* * *

If Miller’s series of colorful existential-philosophical portraits offers any lessons, one may be that philosophy and politics rarely mix well. In The Republic Plato famously proclaimed that “Cities will have no respite from evil…unless philosophers rule as kings…or those whom we now call kings…genuinely and adequately study philosophy.” Plato thought he had spied an ideal opportunity to implement this doctrine in the case of the tyrant Dionysius the Younger of Syracuse. The result was an epic debacle. Plato was abused and humiliated; in the end, he barely escaped with his life.

Nor did this episode deter Plato’s legendary disciple Aristotle from allying himself with Philip II and Alexander of Macedon. As a conqueror, Philip had already acquired a reputation for unprecedented brutality. When Alexander died abruptly in 323, Aristotle hastily fled Athens in order, as he put it, to spare the city the ignominy of putting yet another philosopher to death. In Rome the sage Seneca became court philosopher to Nero, publicly sanctioning many of the tyrant’s heinous excesses and misdeeds. When Seneca sought belatedly to resign his post to save his reputation—and, potentially, his life—Nero suspected him of treason and had him promptly put to death. Seneca’s execution was part of a wider purge of Roman Stoics, whose independence of mind Nero systematically mistrusted. As Miller explains, the end result was that “For the next forty years, philosophy was virtually outlawed in Rome.”

Not even the pious St. Augustine could escape morally compromising entanglements. Miller writes that the Bishop of Hippo became “the first major thinker to turn persecution itself into an intellectual art form, as ruthlessly effective in theory as it could sometimes be in practice.” During his episcopate, Augustine supervised the demolition of pagan temples as well as the brutal repression of non-Christian religious practices. In 405 he promoted the so-called Edict of Unity, which proscribed the worship of Donatist Christianity in Numidia. Miller concludes that in his most combative texts, Augustine “wielded words like a scythe, slashing away at the enemies of the One True Church.” Those “guilty of heresies” were “paradoxically immortalized in Augustine’s countless pages of invective and doctrinal quibbling, as unpleasant and dreary as anything to be found in the collected works of Lenin.”

How might one account for philosophy’s dismal track record in politics? (One might also invoke Heidegger’s notorious Nazi dalliances as well as Foucault’s effusive enthusiasm for Iran’s Revolution of the Mullahs.) Though the nature and extent of the transgressions vary from case to case, one is tempted to conclude that there is something endemic to the philosophical mindset that, with some frequency, renders its practitioners impervious to actuality or “facts.” Such was Raymond Aron’s conclusion in The Opium of the Intellectuals, his famous reproach of the dewy-eyed, marxisant French intellectuals of his day. Writing in the mid-1950s, Aron pointed out that the proletarians exalted by gauchiste intellectuals bore almost no resemblance to the actual workers found in factories, who were almost always more interested in the prosaic business of making ends meet than in being conscripted into the utopian task of redeeming humanity. Miller strikes a similar note of skepticism and humility when he warns, “The man who deludes himself into thinking that he has achieved real knowledge of the true, the just, and the good is liable to be a very poor judge of what is really true, just and good, since the Forms exist independently of any earthly embodiment, and perhaps beyond any mortal comprehension.”

Miller explains that his original motivation for studying philosophy was his reading as a student the classic texts of twentieth-century existentialism, above all the works of Heidegger and Sartre, who emphasized questions of personal authenticity. But at the end of the day, the various conceptions of what it might mean to lead a “philosophical life” that Miller has surveyed in his book seem irredeemably pluralistic, to the point of being inherently irreconcilable. “The moral of these philosophical biographies,” he writes, is “neither simple nor uniformly edifying. For anyone hoping for happiness, or political wisdom, or salvation, philosophical self-examination seems in practice to have led to self-doubt as often as self-trust, to misery as often as joy, to reckless public acts as often as prudent political conduct, and to moments of self-inflicted torment as often as moments of saving grace.” For Miller, we live at best in a realm of “polytheism” or “warring gods.” Unlike that of the ancients, our moral orientation is no longer firmly rooted in community practice but instead is a product of highly individualized choice or decision. Since Socrates’ day, self-knowledge has seemed to be philosophy’s telos. But, Miller speculates, perhaps Nietzsche’s celebrated adage from the Genealogy of Morals—“we are necessarily strangers to ourselves”—is the final word for us moderns, no matter how we die.

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