Mike Kueber's Blog

February 1, 2012

Sunday Book Review #61 – Examined Lives, from Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller

Filed under: Book reviews,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 12:36 pm
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Because one of my life’s mottos is “The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living,” I was naturally attracted to James Miller’s new book titled, Examined Lives.  Unfortunately, the book does not specifically address the motto, but rather provides brief biographies of twelve significant philosophers, from Socrates to Nietzsche.   Between them are Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, and Emerson.  The author describes the biographies as follows – “I am highly selective, in an effort to epitomize the crux of a character.  My aim throughout is to convey the arc of a life rather than a digest of doctrines and moral maxims.”      

Although there are several branches of philosophy – epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics – nonscholars like me are most interested in ethics or “moral philosophy,” which concerns itself with the best way to live.  And because I wasn’t much interested in the biographical details of these philosophers’ lives, I skimmed much of the book.  This proved to be a bad strategy when the author pointed out in the epilogue a critical insight about the lives of philosophers– i.e., although philosophers put a lot of energy into thinking about the best way to live, very few of them achieved their objective of happiness and tranquility and some became depressed.  It appears that living the good life is easier said than done.

After finishing one of the early chapters, I told a friend that the early philosophers, at least as described in Examined Lives, seemed to ignore the role of romantic love in a satisfying life and that I was hopeful that the later chapters would address this issue.  That hope was unfulfilled.  It seems that romance and fun were not part of these philosophers’ lives.  To the contrary, Socrates encouraged what became known as a Platonic relationship.  And that reminds me of an old saying about New York City a hundred years ago – the Jews owned it, the Irish ran it, and the blacks enjoyed it.  Which of those has the best philosophy?

Incidentally, the motto “the unexamined life is not worth living” came from Socrates at his trial for heresy.  According to Karl Palachuk

  • “He was on trial for encouraging his students to challenge the accepted beliefs of the time and think for themselves. The sentence was death but Socrates had the option of suggesting an alternative punishment. He could have chosen life in prison or exile, and would likely have avoided death.  But Socrates believed that these alternatives would rob him of the only thing that made life useful: Examining the world around him and discussing how to make the world a better place. Without his ‘examined life’ there was no point in living. So he suggested that Athens reward him for his service to society. The result, of course, is that they had no alternative and were forced to vote for a punishment of death.”

According to Robert Gerzon:   

Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We are unable to grow toward greater understanding of our true nature unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon our life. As another philosopher, Santayana, observed, “He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it.”  Examining our life reveals patterns of behavior. Deeper contemplation yields understanding of the subconscious programming, the powerful mental software that runs our life. Unless we become aware of these patterns, much of our life is unconscious repetition.

As a psychotherapist, I see so many tragic examples of the effect of an unexamined life. I remember Melissa, a sensitive, attractive woman in her late forties who realized that a series of repetitive, doomed-from-the-beginning relationships had used up so many years of her life that it was now very unlikely that she could still manifest her dream of a husband and children of her own. I recall Donald, a caring, hard-working man who neglected his wife and family emotionally for too many years. By the time he came to see me he was divorced, depressed and living alone in an apartment.

If only Melissa and Donald had taken the time to examine and reflect upon their lives as they were living them, they could have made changes and had a different experience during their lifetime.  The good news is that it is never too late to start examining our life more thoroughly — and to reap the rewards. Melissa never had the child she wanted but she stopped recreating her past and eventually married a loving man who helped her heal her childhood wound of a father who deserted her. It was too late for Donald to get a second chance with his wife, but he was able to build strong relationships with his children.

We all have blind spots. Sometimes when I examine a chronic problem in my life, I have that unsettling feeling that I must be missing something, but I can’t quite see what it is. We try to examine ourselves, but none of us can see our own back side (our “shadow”).  That’s why Socrates’ method of self-examination included an essential element that became known as “Socratic” dialogue. Dialoguing with a close friend, a spouse, a skilled psychotherapist or spiritual adviser helps reveal those blind spots we cannot see by ourselves.  Our society discourages self-awareness with a weekly cycle of working and consuming that keeps us too busy to slow down for self-reflection. Consumer capitalism’s game plan prefers an unaware and vaguely dissatisfied populace that tries to fill the emptiness inside with shiny new products.  It’s a radical act to stop and contemplate your life. But according to Socrates, it’s the only game that really matters.


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