Re-Examined Lives

Hello again, seekers! We spent our vacation in Montana’s glacial Rocky Mountain range suspiciously eyeing Canada — the US-Canada border is still the longest totally undefended border in the world, people! — and making my way through James Miller‘s Examined Lives, which presents bite-sized, Plutarchian capsule biographies of 12 philosophers “from Socrates to Nietzsche.”

Philosophers in Their Spare Time

It’s interesting to blaze through 12 lives because what appears from the mist, like Montana’s eerie “Snow Ghosts” at the summit of Big Mountain, are not 12 bright individuals but 3 unsettling themes.

Great philosophers are:

  1. Absolutely Insane — Diogenes made a career of what could charitably be called eccentricity: he lived in a barrel, defecated in public, walked around naked with a lamp “looking for a man,” and acted like a dog (hence the word “cynic” from the Greek “canos,” for dog). Nietzsche was progressively raving, probably as a result of syphilis contracted in his 20’s; by the end, he was hugging horses and dancing around in the nude. Kant was a hypochondriac and obsessive-compulsive, unable to change his routine in Konigsberg even if it meant a better job. Rousseau became certifiably paranoid, believing himself to be the singular object of a vast global plot.
  2. Independently Wealthy — Few of the thinkers Miller describes were in any big hurry to get a job. Plato was a kind of freelance teacher and later, of course, had a school. Augustine was dragooned into becoming a full-time bishop in North Africa. Seneca was an “advisor” to the Emperor Nero. But philosophy requires what the world ignorantly calls leisure. Emerson inherited money from his first wife, who died young. Aristotle and Montaigne came from wealthy families. (As did our old friend Aquinas.) Nietzsche retired on his teaching pension at age 34. Descartes inherited property from his mother’s family. Rousseau was a sponge on wealthy admirers.
  3. Single — A fertile family life doesn’t seem to lead to deep thoughts, perhaps because you’re always having to dangle things in front of your kids and talk like a two year-old. Emerson remarried and had children, but he’s outnumbered here by the sterile, loveless, crypto-gay or just plain peculiar. Augustine was celibate (after the misspent youth). Kant had a (probably) Platonic boyfriend he visited every day. Montaigne started writing as a “sustained conversation with himself” out of loneliness, after a friend died. Nietzsche fell in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, who rejected him.

The impression left from hours spent within these philosophers’ lives — not their ideas but their lives — is that they are adepts in a kind of parallel universe that sits uneasily beside our own. Miller quotes a character in Plato’s Gorgias:

“Philosophers in fact are inexperienced in the laws of their city, inexperienced in the language to be used in business contracts, public and private, inexperienced in human pleasures and desires, utterly inexperience, in a word, in human character. So when they come to action, public or private, they make fools of themselves.”

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