American writer and scholar James Miller has had multiple interests in life, and turned them into successful work. Philosophy and the lives of philosophers (including sex) and rock and roll (along with its history and culture) are among them.
Miller works as a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. He was also a high-profile music critic, and editor of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (1976).
But he’s perhaps best known for writing The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993), a biography of the iconic contemporary philosopher. It claims that Foucault’s sex life and preferences – including experiences in the gay S&M community – and intellectual work were closely intertwined. The book received admiration from both the public and specialized critics, though not unanimously: “Some neoconservatives” have demonized it, reducing it almost to a gratuitous manual on perversity.
Meanwhile, Miller has continued exploring the personal side of philosophy legends.
In his book Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche (2011), Miller follows the line of a few other excellent contemporary works on philosophy. These include Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995), a spiritualized perspective into the philosophical journey; Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals (2007), which analyzes the lives of thinkers in a pleasant but also somewhat acidic and ideological way; and Wilhelm Weischedel’s Die philosophische Hintertreppe (1966), which highlights the fun side of thinkers’ lives.
But for Examined Lives, Miller says that “unlike Pierre Hadot, for instance, who studied spiritual exercises as a component of ancient philosophy, I wanted to focus on constitutive legends, especially in the case of the ancient philosophers, Socrates and Plato – lives that their disciples seriously tried to imitate.” The goal of his book “was to compose brief biographical epithets of 12 philosophers representative of the Western tradition to the mold of Plutarch and his work on the lives of the Greek and Roman statesmen.”
He told me more in the interview reproduced below.
Felipe Cherubin: The title of your book alludes to the words attributed to Socrates in his final speech in Plato’s Apology [38 a], which poses a paradox for most of your readers: The unexamined life is not worth living, but the author of those words did not hesitate to take his cup of hemlock, even when he had a chance to escape his death sentence. Is this the final irony of Socrates?
James Miller: I think that the life of Socrates embodies two propositions: that the unexamined life isn’t worth living; but also, that the examined life is worth dying for. Because he wishes to live a life of perfect integrity, in which he never will do anything he regards as wrong – and this includes evading the city’s death sentence – Socrates is willing to die. His martyrdom inaugurates philosophy as a way of life.
FC: Paul Friedlander, the well-respected German scholar of Plato’s work mentioned in your book, explained once that Socrates did not die as a cynic or epicurean philosopher, nor as a Buddhist monk – but died just as Socrates. Friedlander [Plato, p. 153] believed that the central notion of irony in Socratic thought should be understood as the tension between ignorance and access to a transcendent ethical model [justice embodied in the just man]. So, is this not also stating that there is a tension, perhaps unbridgeable, between personal experience and collective experience personified in Socrates’s experience in Athens?
JM: From the time he was a child, Socrates (according to Plato’s account in the Apology) felt isolated and different – a unique individual in a city, Athens, that prized its sense of community, expressed in a web of rituals and crowned by its democracy. The first philosopher felt alienated from his own community – and a sense of alienation, generated by a serious quest for wisdom, becomes a recurrent challenge for many philosophers: from Diogenes the Cynic to Rousseau, and Nietzsche.
FC: Examined Lives mentioned Karl Jasper’s book The Great Philosophers (1957), which opened with Socrates, Buddha, Confucius and Jesus. All of them, examples of moral conduct and founders of lifestyles, religions and even entire civilizations. Thus, what is your opinion about the relationship between philosophy and religion?
JM: Western philosophy exists in a very complicated relation to religion, not least because many Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had a deep appreciation for both Plato and Aristotle. In any case, the line between reason and revelation isn’t as clear-cut as some modern philosophers pretend. Many of the greatest proponents of thinking through reasoned propositions – Plato is a perfect example – incorporate a certain mysticism in their teaching as well. I think Plato might have agreed with Wittgenstein’s penultimate (and cryptic) maxim in the Tractatus: “anyone who understands me… must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.”
FC: In history, there have been lives unthinkable without the notion of “platonic love.” The philosopher Emerson and his “intellectual twin,” Thoreau, embodied this higher sense of the word “friendship.” It’s a tension that turned into a legend, based on Emerson’s visit to Thoreau in prison where Emerson would have said, “Why were you arrested?” And Thoreau would have answered, “Why were you not?” Is friendship a transforming agent of philosophical life?
JM: Friendships were a necessary component of the quest for wisdom in many philosophical schools in antiquity. In Plato’s vision, Socrates subsists through dialogue with others. The Stoics made an art form out of the letters exchanged among philosophical friends. Without conversation among friends, the search for wisdom risks becoming a kind of solipsism, perhaps even a form of madness. Nietzsche learned this in the hard way.
FC: Your book can be understood as a beautiful essay on the journey of the man who discovers himself as part of humanity (and, of course, the ruptures and failed attempts of this quest). How do you deal with the difficult relationship of experiencing and communicating ideas of universal relevance with the impasse of being involved with survival problems?
JM: Philosophy is a luxury: The first organized philosophical school arises in an imperial capital (Athens). It is likely that Plato’s famous Academy was endowed initially by one of the richest men in Greece, Dion of Syracuse. Aristotle, Seneca, Montaigne, and Descartes – these men were all independently wealthy. And obviously, if children lack adequate food and shelter, you can’t expect them to flourish in school – never mind embark on a search for truth and beauty.
FC: You mention the moments of euphoria and depression Nietzsche experienced. You also mention that in modernity, the practice of self-examination would be a possible source of depression due to the nature of the investigation of our inner life. Is there an intersection between mood disorders and the philosophical or artistic temperament?
JM: Trying to apply modern psychiatric labels to historic figures seems to me a mistake. Still, a variety of philosophers have expressed an interest in madness – for example, Plato in the Phaedrus, where Socrates gives a speech in praise of folly. Some philosophers have regarded some forms of madness as divine, and not simply a disease. And in fact, I think there are all sorts of interesting, and complex, relationships between what a modern doctor might call pathologies and what posterity considers works of genius.
FC: Is there a neosophism occurring in today’s world, with the institutionalization of philosophy having as objectives careerism and acquisition of titles, with no affective attachment to the research other than an increase in salary and social position?
JM: I generally don’t much like philosophical prose that is impersonal and dispassionate – but I don’t think it’s wise to be dogmatic about such things. Nietzsche was scathing in his criticism of academic philosophy: “All that has ever been taught” in universities, he once remarked, “is a critique of words by other words.” Years later, Heidegger criticized Nietzsche for dropping out of the university, as he felt this showed a failure of nerve. Some philosophers have flourished in scholastic settings – Heidegger, certainly, and Kant as well. But others have found an academic framework stifling. Sartre spurned the academy – but Michel Foucault managed to live an extraordinary philosophical life, despite his academic affiliations.
FC: You wrote a well-respected biography of Foucault convincingly showing that sex is a plausible experimental path to value creation. So would it not be your job to protest against a certain intellectually irresponsible attitude, such as heavy criticism of your book by the editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball?
JM: Unlike some neo-conservatives, I believe there are many ways to pursue wisdom, and that the quest can’t always be limited by conventional norms of what is right and what is wrong. As Emerson remarked in his great essay… Self-Reliance, “If I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” It’s of course true that some philosophers have abjectly failed to live up to their professed ideals. But I sympathize with Rousseau, a man tortured with guilt for good reason, when he remarked late in his life that he preferred to “be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices.”
FC: You have a history as a music critic, writing about rock ‘n’ roll. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who marked the pop culture of Generation X, once joked that the members of Nirvana were “a kind of philosophers without an academic background.” How do you see the relationship between music and philosophy as fuels of human cultural life?
JM: Professional philosophers, as credentialed in modern universities, obviously have no monopoly on the quest for wisdom. Ever since Goethe and Beethoven, modern writers and musicians have sometimes offered themselves as exemplary seekers of truth and beauty. Near the end of his life, Foucault approached the question “What is Enlightenment” by looking at two disparate exemplars, Kant and Baudelaire. But forget about Nirvana. The music of Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Elis Regina, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento: this to me is a source of endless wonder and happiness – and one of Brazil’s great gifts to contemporary civilization.