James Miller, Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January, 2011
James Miller is the author of one of the biographies of Foucault: The Passion of Michel Foucault
Miller combines short biographies and compact synopses of 12 philosophers’ ideas of wisdom. In a format suiting those intrigued by the history of philosophy but not yet prepared to take on the texts, Miller introduces Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche. Enlivened by Miller’s attention to how the subjects lives and actions measured up to their declamations, the presentations start with the thinkers’ adoption, in some cases from revelation, in others from reflection, of moral inquiry as a mode of the enlightened life. As well as the questions they strived to answer about truth and ideal conduct, Miller pointedly presents how their mental realms of abstraction, ever buffeted by demands of material or political realities, could agitate contemporaries or provoke posterity to bridle at inconsistencies between words and deeds, such as Rousseau’s notorious abandonment of his children. Conducting his audience safely through abstruse aspects of these philosophers’ precepts, Miller proves concise about their imitational symbolism to those of introspective bent. –Gilbert Taylor
A.C. Grayling notes in his review on barnesandnoblereview.com
Miller presents his twelve mini-biographies as responses to Foucault’s remarks about “the problem of the philosophical life,” namely, the question of the relevance of philosophy to the questions of what one can know, and do, and hope for, given the conquests of science and the fragmented and competing voices of religions. But one need not take the essays as endeavours to see if philosophy still has a role in helping us identify the meanings of life. Each of them is a little gem in its own right as the portrait of an independently interesting individual and his thought. Miller is careful as well as eloquent, so we get penetrating vignettes of intensely interesting people who were moved in their several ways to contemplate the big questions, exploring themselves and others to achieve the kind of enlightenment that liberates, whatever form the truth appeared to them to take.