Holt and McGinn

Holt and McGinn

New books dissected over email.
Sept. 14 1998 1:50 PM

Holt and McGinn

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Thomas Carlyle, one of the worst-dressed men in Victorian England, attempted to construct a philosophy of clothing in Sartor Resartus. This illustrates a general principle: Those who are no good at x will frequently try to produce a philosophy of x. Practitioners of the philosophy of science tend to know very little science. Ditto for the philosophy of law, economics, and art. Why should the philosophy of life be any different? Take a look at any figure in the history of philosophy who has tried to answer the "Socratic question": How to live? Chances are his own life was odious, pathetic, or merely humdrum--not to mention ludicrously at odds with the philosophy he propounded. The only exception I can think of is Diogenes the Cynic--who, true to his doctrine that the wise man satisfies all natural urges without shame, masturbated in the marketplace. (When criticized for this, Diogenes said that he only wished he could satisfy his hunger by rubbing his stomach.) Almost never do the lives of philosophers evince exceptional style, humor, happiness, or virtue.

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So it strikes me as a little silly that anyone today would go to philosophers for enlightenment on how to live happily and wisely. Yet people are doing just that, in droves. This is less true in the United States than in Europe, where the withdrawal of the old opiates--religion and Marxism--has been more traumatic. (France's leading news weekly declared this summer l'ete philo, as people there jammed into "philosophical cafes" to brood together on the good life and picked up bits of Greek wisdom from Marie Claire.) Yet even American philosophers, who used to fight shy of existential questions, have been having a change of heart. At least three books titled The Examined Life have appeared in recent years, one of them by the virtuoso Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. And now we have The Art of Living by Alexander Nehamas of Princeton, a philosopher known for boldly crossing disciplinary boundaries and also known as a self-avowed artist of living. No longer is professional philosophy content to be a parlor game of logical quibbles. It now aspires again to guide the soul.

Nehamas is trying to restore the ancient conception of philosophy as the pursuit of practical wisdom and peace of mind--the Socratic conception--as opposed to the Cartesian conception of philosophy as the art of inquiry. Two of the exemplars of the art of living that Nehamas discusses, Nietzsche and Foucault, seem to me to be the worst possible choices. For all his bombastic rantings about the Overman and the Will to Power, Nietzsche was a solitary valetudinarian whose main practical concern, before he went mad, was his bowel habits. Foucault's "experiment in living" was a failure, from his tonsured pate to his mode of death (not just that he deliberately contracted AIDS, but that he probably knowingly infected others--and then, at the end, lacked the courage to acknowledge publicly what he was dying of).

But for Nehamas, it is not actual, lived lives of philosophers that matter. It is the literary lives they fashion in their writings. The art of living, "though a practical art," he says, is "practiced in writing. The question whether its practitioners applied it successfully to themselves is secondary and in most cases impossible to answer." What has happened to Socrates' tenet that knowledge equals virtue? If you can write the good life, it should follow that you know the good life and hence, by the Socratic axiom, that you live it.

"Philosophy as the art of living began with Socrates," Nehamas observes. Of course, Socrates never wrote a thing. The Socrates we know is a literary creation of Plato, and is held up as the epitome of the noble life. I wonder whether he deserves this status, and whether the famous Socratic irony--belabored by Nehamas to within an inch of its life--isn't greatly overrated.

The Art of Living is a subtle book full of ingenious textual exegesis--and as Gore Vidal once noted, "Exegesis saves!" But what existential advice does it ultimately offer? Be hard! said Nietzsche. Be cruel! said Foucault. Be original! says Nehamas.

If this is the art of living, I vote the thing a bore.

P.S: Are you the same Colin McGinn who is described on page 57 of John Horgan's The End of Science as "a compact man, with a defiantly jutting chin and pale blue eyes [who] could pass for Anthony Hopkins's younger brother"?

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Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for
Lingua Franca and the Wall Street Journal. Colin McGinn is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. This week they discuss...