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And as outsiders looking in, can we understand a person’s thinking by examining their lives? Can we understand their philosophy that way?
I don’t know. Biographies describe the events of a person’s life, but cannot look into their innermost thoughts. Modern biographies told in conjunction with living people as collaborators may pull the curtains up, letting us see what they want us to see. But dead people?
Most lives are measured in arbitrary milestones that mark various transitions on the roads of our lives. Our tenth birthday. Or thirtieth. Sixtieth. First kiss, Last girl/boyfriend. First car. 100,00th kilometre on the odometer. Fifth anniversary. Tenth. First job, Last job. And so on. Do these events define a person, or are they just convenient places on which to hang memories or to craft stories that reflect the bigger picture?
Most of the biographies I’ve read, most of those that still sit on my bookshelves, follow the predictable path through their subject’s life: birth, childhood, teens… building the story through the stages of life until the focal period is reached – Shakespeare’s writing prime, Darwin’s epiphany before he wrote Origin, Einstein’s period of cosmological insight, Patton’s WWII activities, Nixon’s presidency, Hudson set adrift on the bay – there’s always a particular someplace the author wants to take us. Someplace that every other line in the book leads to; someplace that justifies all the rest of the writing.
Biographies are, too, interpretations; a form of storytelling designed to lift or tear down the subject for the audience. To reaffirm or demolish the image others (and history) have built around them. And to shore that view up through the bricks and mortar of fact and (allegedly) objective data.
Most of my biographies are about scientists, politicians, kings and queens, writers, warriors, explorers. Very few seem to be about philosophers (Montaigne excepted). Which is one reason I picked up James Miller’s 2011 book, Examined Lives, in which he looks at twelve philosophers – not just who they were and how they lived, but how that influenced what they thought. I wanted to flesh out my rather thin knowledge about these people: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche.
(You might note that my happy discovery of Montaigne among them helped incur my interest in the rest…). Yes, they are all men, all Western philosophers, and it’s a very personal selection, not entirely representative of the long trends and history of Western philosophy. Miller explains why he chose them, why he wrote this book, Examined Lives, and why philosophy is important to us today, in this radio interview:
Surely we can’t know them through fully biography alone; only know of them. But does knowing what Descartes ate, or where Montaigne wrote, or when Nietzsche went for his daily walks help us understand their thinking? Perhaps, if a causal link can be demonstrated (and that events and thoughts are not simply synchronistic) we can connect the dots. Miller helps us do that.
Miller himself asks, in his introduction,
If, like Plato, we define philosophy as a quest for wisdom that may prove unending, then what is the search for wisdom really good for?
Is it good for anything – in some utilitarian manner where “the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting consequences.” What, after all, are the actual consequences of wisdom? Is wisdom itself the consequence? Is it the outlook it installs in us? Or is the resulting behaviour it spawns the real consequence? And can we gain wisdom for ourselves by reading about the wisdom of others?
Can we really understand how Socrates thought by laying out the form of his life – what little we really know – and following his short timeline to his inevitable death by drinking hemlock? What do we really know about his life anyway? Everything we know of him comes from the writing of others. And much of that was written in a long-dead culture, in an ancient language, in a land many thousands of kilometers away. How much is fact, how much imagination?
Many of the ancients’ lives are obscured by history, mythology and subsequent layers of interpretation. We never know if we are seeing the real person or simply looking through layers and layers of interpretation.
Miller again notes:
Some philosophers were influential figures in their day, while others were marginal; some were revered, while others provoked scandal and public outrage. Despite such differences, each of these men prized the pursuit of wisdom. Each one struggled to live his life according to a deliberately chosen set of precepts and beliefs, discerned in part through a practice of self- examination, and expressed in both word and deed. The life of each one can therefore teach us something about the quest for selfknowledge and its limits. And as a whole, they can tell us a great deal about how the nature of philosophy -and the nature of philosophy as away of life -has changed over time.
Which makes me ask, is there something special about the quest for “selfknowledge”? Isn’t that something we all pursue, right from birth? Or is it the manner of their quest that’s different? Did they see the quest in different terms, on a larger canvas than the rest of us?
Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live (a life of Montaigne), reviewing Miller’s book in the New York Times, gives us a reason to read it:
If the proof of a pudding is in the eating, and the proof of a rule is in the exceptions, where should we look for the proof of a philosophy?
For Friedrich Nietzsche, the answer was obvious: to test a philosophy, find out if you can live by it. This is “the only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something,” he wrote in 1874. It’s also the form of critique that is generally overlooked in the philosophy faculties of universities. Nietzsche therefore dismissed the professional discipline as irrelevant, a “critique of words by means of other words,” and devoted himself to pursuing an idiosyncratic philosophical quest outside the academy. As for texts, he wrote, “I for one prefer reading Diogenes Laertius” — the popular third-century Epicurean author of a biographical compilation called “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.” If the proof of philosophy lies in life, then what could be more useful than reading about how the great philosophers have lived?
So to know their philosophies, we need to also know the context of their lives. It means there is no objective truth in philosophy: it is valid only in the subjective experience. Context is everything.
Montaigne, as Bakewell writes in her book, was also trying to examine himself and come up with the answer to to essential question that defined every human being: how to live? He did it through writing about himself, a process during which he examined his inner self. And, as Bakewell concludes, we can learn about our own lives by reading Montaigne and using his own explorations as a mirror – or perhaps a guide – to our own.
In the same way, Miller is saying we can learn about ourselves by reading about the lives of the philosophers and how they applied their beliefs and ideals to their own lives. Perhaps by seeing the banal and sometimes comical humanity behind the great minds, by de-mythologizing them, we take them off the academic pedestal and are more comfortable with them as role models in our everyday lives.
We can make philosophy a daily activity, not just an intellectual exercise. The contemplative life is not merely an ascetic pursuit: it’s something we can all participate in every day, even within the framework of our own, busy lives and all the demands it places on us. (That’s a very Buddhist concept by the way; I’d be interested to see how Miller perceives the Buddhist approach to life and philosophy).
Bakewell wrote in her review that simply writing about morals, ethics and ideals is not sufficient. You have to live those words, a realization as old as philosophy itself:
As Socrates himself said, “Don’t you think that actions are more reliable evidence than words?”
In the Wall Street Journal review of the book, Gary Rosen reminds us of an old folk tale that emphasizes the need to not separate the intellectual from the mundane:
According to legend, the first philosopher, Thales of Miletus (in the sixth century B.C.), was so intent on observing the stars that, while walking one night, he fell into a ditch. An old woman taunted him: “How can you expect to know all about the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just before your feet.”
This is the beginning of a journey for me; learning to use philosophy to examine myself, and to examine ideas, morals, ethics and ideals to find what works for me (and my place in this world). Examining to discover what best fits that question of Montaigne’s, “How to live?” that we should all ask ourselves.
If learning how these philosopher’s lived will help me do that, then there is great value in this book. But of course, I have always believed there is great value in learning itself, outside of any utilitarian consequentialism.
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