Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsc


Of all those who start out on philosophy—not those who take it up for the sake of getting educated when they are young and then drop it, but those who linger in it for a longer time—most become quite queer, not to say completely vicious; while the ones who seem perfectly decent … become useless.

—PLATO, Republic (487c–d)

Once upon a time, philosophers were figures of wonder. They were sometimes objects of derision and the butt of jokes, but they were more often a source of shared inspiration, offering, through words and deeds, models of wisdom, patterns of conduct, and, for those who took them seriously, examples to be emulated. Stories about the great philosophers long played a formative role in the culture of the West. For Roman writers such as Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, one way to measure spiritual progress was to compare one’s conduct with that of Socrates, whom they all considered a paragon of perfect virtue. Sixteen hundred years later, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) similarly learned classical Greek at a tender age in order to read the Socratic “Memorabilia” of Xenophon (fourth century B.C.) and selected Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, as retold by Diogenes Laertius, a Greek follower of Epicurus who is thought to have lived in the third century A.D.

Apart from the absurdly young age at which Mill was forced to devour it, there was nothing unusual about his reading list. Until quite recently, those able to read the Greek and Roman classics were routinely nourished, not just by Xenophon and Plato but also by the moral essays of Seneca and Plutarch, which were filled with edifying stories about the benefits and consolations of philosophy. An educated person was likely to know something about Socrates, but also about the “Epicurean,” the “Stoic,” and the “Skeptic”—philosophical types still of interest to David Hume (1711–1776), who wrote about each one in his Essays, Moral and Political (1741–1742).

For Hume, as for Diogenes Laertius, each philosophical type was expressed not only in a doctrine but also in a way of life—a pattern of conduct exemplified in the biographical details recounted by Diogenes Laertius about such figures as Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism; Zeno, traditionally regarded as the first Stoic; and Pyrrho, who inaugurated one branch of ancient Skepticism. Besides Hume and Mill, both Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)—to take two equally modern examples—also studied The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Indeed, both Marx and Nietzsche, while still in their twenties, wrote scholarly treatises based, in part, on close study of just this work.

Today, by contrast, most highly educated people, even professional philosophers, know nothing about either Diogenes Laertius or the vast majority of the ancient philosophers whose lives he recounted. In many schools in many countries, especially the United States, the classical curriculum has been largely abandoned. Modern textbooks generally scant the lives of philosophers, reinforcing the contemporary perception that philosophy is best understood as a purely technical discipline, revolving around specialized issues in semantics and logic.

The typical modern philosopher—the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), say, or the John Rawls of A Theory of Justice (1971)—is largely identified with his books. It is generally assumed that “philosophy” refers to “the study of the most general and abstract features of the world and the categories with which we think: mind, matter, reason, proof, truth etc.,” to quote the definition offered by the outstanding recent Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Moreover, in the modern university, where both Kant and Rawls practiced their calling, aspiring philosophers are routinely taught, among other things, that the truth of a proposition should be