Living An Examined Life: An Interview With Professor James Miller

When you go to Professor James Miller’s page on The New School’s website, you’d notice at the bottom of the page a section of his interests. The first one? “Philosophy as a way of life.” That’s exactly why we reached out to Professor Miller for an interview to learn more. You probably recognize his name already as he is the author of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche (you can find the chapter on Seneca for free here), which is a collection of biographies of twelve famous philosophers, and it is also a book we have previously recommended. He is also the editor of the new edition of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, which features profiles of several Stoics, including Zeno and Chrysippus, among many other renowned ancient philosophers.

Apart from these books, Professor Miller’s other work is as equally impressive. He is is Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies, and Faculty Director of the MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research. And what you’d probably didn’t expect, is that he was the original editor of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and that he has written about music since the 1960s, when one of his early record reviews appeared in the third issue of Rolling Stone magazine. We did not get to touch on music in our interview, but we did ask Professor Miller about his work on ancient philosophy, Stoicism, the witty Chrysippus and much more.

Enjoy!

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We’ve previously recommended your excellent book, Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, and particularly the chapter on Seneca, which we just found that you have made available for free. Thank you for that. Can you tell us why you originally decided to write the book?

Examined Lives grew out of a previous book that I wrote about Michel Foucault. I was struck by Foucault’s interest, in his final lectures at the College de France, in philosophy as a way of life. Responding to a passing comment in one of those lectures, I wondered if one could illuminate that approach to philosophy by composing a series of brief biographies of philosophers, not unlike the biographies written by Diogenes Laertius.

Which profile of the twelve philosophers was your favorite to immerse yourself in, and why?

I was quite taken with the work of Montaigne while writing the book, by the way he moved from self-criticism to self-affirmation in a style of writing that seems finally a form of free association, carefully considered.

The Daily Stoic community loves the practicality of Stoicism, and we think it’d be interesting if you tell us about Descartes and the divergence in philosophy—the practical aspect of philosophy that seeks living a better life and the philosophy that we find today in universities. Putting into context this for people will be incredibly valuable, and it will help them understand these two aspects of philosophy.

Descartes I believe represents a great divergence in the Western philosophical tradition, a great separation of the purely theoretical from the more pragmatic uses of philosophy, to forge a code of conduct. But the quest for certainty, understood in terms of physics and mathematics, pushes philosophy away from the ethical and moral concerns that preoccupied Socrates and the Stoics and Montaigne — and even Descartes in his autobiographical writings and meditations.

You are the editor of the forthcoming Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. Can you tell our readers who Diogenes Laertius is, and perhaps what have been some lessons from him that you constantly revisit and think about?

It has proved impossible to determine the exact dates of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote his works in ancient Greek. Since the author makes no mention of neo-Platonism, which began to flourish in the latter half of the third century AD, and since he discusses nobody born after the second century AD, experts have tentatively concluded that he lived in the first half of the third century AD. Equally uncertain is the reason for the text’s survival: If Diogenes Laertius had readers in his own lifetime, we don’t know who they were. His manuscript may well have been published only posthumously, prepared by a scribe forced to work with unfinished material. Nobody knows how many copies were initially made. It’s as if the manuscript had been preserved as accidentally as the wall paintings in Pompeii (or the papyrus rolls of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus in nearby Herculaneum).

Despite the obscurity of its provenance, Diogenes’ anthology of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers is a primary source for much of what we know about the origins of philosophy in Greece. The work covers a larger number of figures and a longer period of time than any other extant ancient source.

At the same time, the author’s voice is extraordinarily hard to fathom. His prose is direct, generally plain, even impassive—though a dry sense of humor is also at play. Diogenes appears as a stockpiling magpie, leaving little out if it fits with his own apparent fascination with how, and whether, the lives of philosophers squared with the doctrines they espoused. Evidently interested in odd and amusing anecdotes, the more controversial the better, he sometimes notes the bias of his sources, but only rarely does he make an effort to evaluate their plausibility or the authenticity of the letters and other documents he reproduces. Although he obliquely comments on his Lives through a series of epigrams by others and poems of his own, filled frequently with puns and wordplay meant to amuse, he almost never praises or criticizes directly the characters he describes, nor does he venture any unambiguous opinion of his own about how one might best undertake philosophy as a way of life. His philosophical views (if he had any) are obscure.

Recent research suggests Diogenes may have died before he was able to organize a definitive version of his text, which would explain some of the lacunae and inconsistencies careful readers will notice. Yet even if the overall order of the books and some of the biographies was still unsettled at the time of his death, the text as we have it is never haphazard, since the material on individual philosophers is sorted more or less carefully into sections on genealogy, anecdotes, apothegms, doctrines, key works, and (almost always) a necrology, just as each of the work’s ten books is more or less plausibly organized by schools and lines of putative succession. As a result of this encyclopedic format, it has long been the habit of most scholars and ordinary readers to dip in and out of Lives and Doctrines of the Eminent Philosophers, treating it like a reference work (however strange and unreliable). But if instead one reads the entire text straight through (as there is some evidence the author intended), a not unwelcome bewilderment descends.

Despite some rough parts and missing passages, we behold a meticulously codified panorama of the ancient philosophers. Through the eyes of Diogenes, we watch them as a group living lives of sometimes extraordinary oddity while ardently advancing sometimes incredible, occasionally cogent, often contradictory views that (to borrow a phrase from Borges) “constantly threaten to transmogrify into others, so that they affirm all things, deny all things, and confound and confuse all things”—as if this parade of pagan philosophers could only testify to the existence of “some mad and hallucinating deity.”

Like we said, you have studied and written about Seneca and have of course read about some of the other Stoics in Diogenes’s book. Do you have a favorite Stoic?

Zeno of Citium is my favorite Stoic in Diogenes — A.A. Long has a wonderful essay on him in our new edition of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.

And have you studied Stoicism in particular, and did the philosophy resonate with you?

I am ambivalent about Stoicism as a way of life. In many ways, it is the most influential philosophical school in the West to this day: it’s stoicism that I have in mind if I say that someone is taking bad news “philosophically.” But its precepts are embedded in a cosmology and philosophy of nature that I don’t find very plausible. Its adherents commend a striving for independence that seems to me both unrealistic (as I believe human beings by nature are dependent on others, especially in infancy) and deeply gendered (since women are more keenly aware than men of the profound interdependence of human beings.)

What are some noteworthy anecdotes or aspects of the lives of the Stoics from Diogenes Laertius’s book? Can you share a few examples?

Since I’ve referred to Borges, consider this tidbit about Chrysippus.

A Stoic of unrivalled industriousness and quickness of wit, Chrsyippus, according to Diogenes, was renowned for his copious use of citation, “with the result that in one of his books he copied out nearly the whole of Euripedes’ Medea, and when someone holding the book was asked what he was reading, he replied ‘Chrysippus’ Medea.’”

Friedrich Nietzsche, who came to admire the Lives after itemizing its manifold defects from the standpoint of modern scholarship, once quipped that Diogenes Laertius is the porter who guards the gate leading to the Castle of Ancient Philosophy. Nietzsche eventually came to savor the paradox that this gatekeeper was also a fabulist. That is why the biographies recounted by Diogenes became for him one touchstone of how properly to search for wisdom—through studying lives as well as doctrines.

“I for one prefer reading Diogenes Laertius,” Nietzsche wrote in 1874, in the context of dismissing academic philosophy as arid and uninteresting: “The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.”

Nietzsche I think offers a very good reason why readers interested in Stoicism may well be interested in the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.