Surely, you would not take nutrition advice from someone who was three hundred pounds overweight. An equivalent skepticism is warranted towards philosophers who, often by their own admission, did not, could not, or would not apply their principles consistently. I highly recommend reading this book before delving into the complex writings of any of these philosophers. The context of their life choices and circumstances is fundamental to evaluating the content of what each of these twelve men—or, for that matter, any man claiming to be wise—says.
Did you know that Descartes bore a child out of wedlock? Or that Augustine in his adolescence was a heretical follower of the teachings of Mani? Or that Plato was placed under house arrest by the tyrant Dionysius? These anecdotes reveal the humanity in these fabled intellectual giants. Some philosophers acknowledged their own flaws, while others attempted to shield their abstract discourse from their own lives. Perhaps, a more accurate statement would be to say that they used philosophy to avoid living a philosophical life.
Granted, this criticism cannot be applied to all of the well-known figureheads in the book. Montaigne, with the publication of his Essays, opened the door among modern philosophers to introspection rather than stoicism as a way of gaining enlightenment. So too, Rousseau and Emerson followed a self-reflective path in their search for truth. Interestingly, the latter two ended their lives loved and praised by many, while the norm among philosophers appears to be the opposite. Seneca, Descartes, Montaigne, Nietzsche and countless others, who had the courage to speak against the moral commandments of the rulers of the time, did not live to see their works gain wide acceptance by the rest of the world. This, I must declare, is the nature of the discipline; if you aren’t willing to go against the masses, then you are not truly a philosopher but an appeaser with a knack for stringing together pleasant sounding words. The enormous fear that thinkers like Descartes and Montaigne must have felt in the face of uncertain accusations of treason or heresy, should I think give those of us who yearn to spread philosophy today deep appreciation for the amazing opportunity we have in front of us.
I cannot conclude my review without echoing Miller’s disclaimer that Nietzsche was not the last philosopher. Even at present, the same fiery spirit that ignited the minds of Socrates and Aristotle is still alive and kicking. Host of Freedomain Radio, Stefan Molyneux, is one who I am certain will be remembered as one of the great philosophers of the 21st century. If you haven’t heard of him yet, then I’ve only added to my point about the twisted relationship between philosophers and popularity.
My only criticism of James Miller’s collection of biographies here is that the focus on early development of these men’s childhoods is not as fleshed out as I would have liked. Even if only speculation, one cannot ignore the heavy influence of parental attachment, trauma, and abuse on the development of the brain. We may never know what drove these enigmatic souls to cry out for the milk of philosophy’s teat, but to me that question is as worthy of scrutiny as the very topics with which these men wrestled.
When they’re learning about the world, children don’t pay attention to what adults say; they pay attention to what adults do. As children ourselves, learning the ropes of the philosophical world, we are, I dare say, wasting our time if we only read the writings of philosophers long dead and do not study how they actually lived. “Sapere aude.”—A favorite motto of Montaigne, requoted by Kant two centuries later—means “Dare to know.” Nietzsche is quoted as saying that “The love of truth is terrible and mighty.” The truth about the world is not what frightens us; it’s the truth about ourselves. In the absence of religion, we still recognize, and more strongly than ever, that the spirit which we seek lies within, and is the foundation from which immovable mountains of conviction lasting as long as man remains curious are built.
Dare to know; dare to speak.
Matt Ryan Drake