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'Examined Lives': Spying On The Great Philosophers

The word "philosophy" comes from the Greek for "love of wisdom," and that's appropriate -- it's largely a calling one pursues for love, not for fame and certainly not for money. And while the most well-read philosophy junkies might know the names and works of well-known contemporary thinkers like Saul Kripke, Daniel Dennett and John Searle, it's doubtful that many people know much at all about their personal lives.

The lives of the philosophers may seem completely irrelevant to modern readers, but as James Miller points out in his new book, Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, that wasn't always the case. "In ancient Greece and Rome, it was widely assumed that the life of a philosopher would exemplify in practice a specific code of conduct and form of life," Miller writes, and it wasn't until recently that scholars started concentrating only on the texts, and not on the biographies, of influential theorists.

Examined Lives looks at the stories behind, and the doctrines of, 12 of the world's great philosophers (or, if you're a particularly skeptical student of the field, 11 of the world's great philosophers and Ralph Waldo Emerson). The careers of the profiled sages range in time from the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. to just over a century ago -- and while not much is known for sure about the lives of Socrates and Plato, Miller, a historian, does an admirable job of piecing together coherent and sometimes fascinating narratives.

Miller obviously respects the contributions of his philosopher subjects, but it very quickly becomes clear that Examined Lives is not an act of hero worship. (The author describes his reactions while writing the book as "awe and admiration" mixed with "pity, chagrin, and, in a few instances, amused disbelief.") He doesn't know quite what to make of Diogenes, who "thought masturbating in public was a perfectly natural thing to do" and once urinated on his audience. And while it's certain that Miller appreciates the works of Immanuel Kant, he is also bemused by the philosopher's "strange cult of unintelligibility." The ancients might have trusted philosophers to live exemplary lives; it's not a standard many of them were able to live up to.

Philosophy can be notoriously intimidating to beginners (or, for that matter, to anyone). But Miller has a knack for clear prose that manages to be smart and pointed without ever being overly lofty or condescending -- you don't have to know anything about Stoics, Skeptics or the Baden school to enjoy his insights. With Examined Lives, Miller brings the same ardor and earnestness to philosophy that he brought to rock music with his brilliant 1999 book Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977. Philosophers might only be rock stars to a select few, but the author proves they're sometimes more interesting than you might think.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.