Using biographies of 12 Western philosophers, Miller (Politics/New School for Social Research; Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, 1999, etc.) seeks insight into the quest for wisdom about the self.
“Once upon a time,” writes the author, “philosophers were figures of wonder”—not only for their ideas, but also for the lives they lived. For example, the fact that Socrates willingly martyred himself rather than betray his allegiance to truth teaches much about how we might live. Thus Miller searches for the meaning of philosophy in the lives of the philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Rousseau, Kant and Emerson, among others. The author places each subject within the social and political currents of his time and follows the ways in which they both disrupted these currents and were swept along by them. If the ancient Greeks became “the stick-figure representation of perfect integrity,” the rational unity of word and deed, later philosophers became all too aware of the frailty and fractured nature of reason. Augustine found that only the most draconian religious and political strictures could “curb the intellect and tame the will,” while Montaigne, living in a time of extensive religious bloodletting, came to believe that little other than great virtue could lead to great terror. Rousseau insisted that men might find goodness through their free will, though seldom reached such goodness himself. Emerson, in his eminently American way, found reason and God in every man. Miller concludes that while the philosophical life may as often lead to misery as to joy, it nonetheless continues, as does the desire for wisdom. Unfortunately, the narrative remains only partly realized. Miller’s brief biographies of each philosopher are solid, but much of the book will be murky for readers not well-versed in philosophy. Also, Miller’s exclusion of women philosophers is unfortunate.
Intermittently compelling but ultimately disappointing for the general reader—though it could find use in philosophy courses.