The Philosophical Life

Posted on November 17, 2012 by Jack Kelly
Tags: readings

On this most recent voyage, I have found time to continue reading. This time, it is James Miller’s The Philosophical Life. (It appears to be called “Examined Lives” in America). It’s a collection of 12 mini-biographies of philosophers throughout history: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche. The book was not exactly what I was expecting: the back cover makes the book sound like it examines how each thinker approached life, but details of their respective systems are only presented as part of each biography. It’s good to see how their systems developed, but it was a little disappointing. Clearly, I need to find a proper philosophy text.

Even so, the philosophers’ stories are fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that Diogenes is one of the earliest recorded examples of a troll. Montaigne’s idea that humans are fundamentally good (but human institutions damage their morals) is inspiring, and I’m sure someone’s studied it in the context of business. Disappointingly, many of the thinkers show gaps between the morals they espoused and the way they lived their lives. What would’ve happened to philosophy (in the old sense of finding the best way to live), if it didn’t have the idealised image of Socrates that his admirers left behind?

What this book has made clear is just how poorly I understand myself. I mentioned this in a previous post, but it is much more clear now. On the scale of revelations, it has nothing on Montaigne’s, and I probably won’t write a book about it. Once I finish up on Windeward Bound, I think I need a proper break, with time to sit and think on these things. From past experience it is all too easy to live by reacting to events rather than living to a system or living with intent. In several of the biographies, groups of thinkers would gather to discuss how best to live life, and it sounds like a useful exercise. Why doesn’t it seem to happen any more? Maybe when I’m back ashore, I should get a group of friends together over an infinite plate of spaghetti and have a philosophical dinner.

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