The Examined Life is Rarely Worth Living?

The Economist summarizes a new book by James Miller,  Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, wherein he explores the troubled lives of some of the world’s most famous philosophers.  He proposes that the pursuit of philosophical questions, wrought with uncertainty and self-questioning, has led to similarly unfortunately troubled lives:

If one wanted to compile a charge-sheet against the great philosophers, to show that they were unfit to lead their own lives, let alone inspire others, this book could provide some useful evidence. There are Plato’s disastrous dealings with Dionysius the Younger, the tyrannical ruler of Syracuse, and Seneca’s hypocritical fawning over Nero. We hear of Aristotle’s support for Alexander the Great’s cruel imperialism, which sits uneasily with the philosopher’s professed political ideas. Rousseau, who preached on education, abandoned his five children by his long-term mistress, and made pathetic excuses for doing so (he was too ill and poor to be a good father, and a foundlings’ home is not such a bad place to grow up, anyway).

St Augustine turned against the spirit of intellectual inquiry once he had found salvation, and his dogmatic invective laid the foundations for centuries of intellectual tyranny by the Catholic church. Montaigne was a master of the suggestive non sequitur and the self-contradiction. The thinking of one orator-mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, an admirer of Montaigne’s, was “untethered”, as Mr Miller puts it, from empirical evidence or logical argument. Kant’s conception of morality as a matter of rigid adherence to strict principles emerges as partly an intended remedy for his own hypochondria. Nietzsche confessed in 1880 that his existence was “a fearful burden”, though he was at least happier than before, because of progress in his work.

We at the Core tend to thrive on philosophical debauchery, and Miller is certainly not without his contenders. So, do you think philosophizing leads to unhappiness and general dissonance, or is it rather a key to understanding ourselves and being more genuinely content with our lives?  Or is it worth it simply as an end in and of itself, irrespective of consequence?  Feel free to share your thoughts below or on the EnCore Facebook page.


Fabiana C. posted on February 7, 2011 at 11:42 am

The more I think about it (irony!), the more I’ve come to believe that the excessive introspection philosophers (and other folks) innately are prone to may play a part in the array of psychological maladies they historically suffer from (depression, social problems, etc.)

However, I don’t think “philosophizing” itself is to blame. Any one who ruminates constantly is bound to be more sensitive to this multifaceted, wonderful and terrible world. But philosophizing directs that thinking instinct and gives it purpose. By reflecting on the ideas of previous thinkers and producing the thoughts of tomorrow, the philosopher can’t but experience joy; for understanding leads to a stronger foundation of contentment than indulging in ignorance, which can only give fleeting unAristotelian happiness and enchantments, which as they fade guarantee future fear and even despair.

jjmc posted on February 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm

So, properly put, both the unexamined and over-examined lives aren’t worth living? Seems we need to apply the golden mean even to our contemplation of the golden mean.

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