The consolations of understanding

From The Economist:

Aris THE unexamined life is not worth living, or so Socrates famously told the jury at his trial. He neglected to mention that the examined life is sometimes not all that wonderful either. In 11 biographical sketches of thinkers who tried to tread in Socrates’s footsteps, plus one on Socrates himself, James Miller explores what it means to follow the philosophical calling. Much trouble and uncertainty seems to be the answer, and some of the most famous philosophers turn out not to be all that admirable or convincing, he finds. So can philosophy inspire a way of life? That is one question raised by Mr Miller, who teaches politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Fortunately, Mr Miller does not press that question too hard. Any attempt to draw an all-encompassing moral from the lives he examines would have distorted the stories he has to tell. What we get instead is a vivid set of philosophical tales that are notable for their judicious use of sources, including rare early works. The result is a fresh treatment of subjects who are often served up stale. Even Immanuel Kant, whose writings were justly described by Heinrich Heine, a poet, as having “the grey dry style of a paper bag”, emerges as human.

More here.