“IT IS difficult to write the history of the life of Immanuel Kant,” Heine once observed, “for he had neither life not history.”
The sage of Königsberg was famously so regular in his daily life that people set their clocks by him. He never travelled and never married. What on earth could possibly be learnt from such a puritanical life and by extension, from the lives of other philosophers?
Yet as Miller, who has here studied 12 of them, points out, Kant was in his 40s before he adopted his Puritan-max lifestyle. Prior to that he was not impartial to overindulging in the grape and the grain, had his moments with the ladies and enhanced his popular reputation with the social circle of Prussian officers by swaggering around with gold-braided epaulets brandishing a ceremonial sword.
Putting flesh on the bones of Miller’s philosophical heroes, also allows the newcomer to philosophy and the philosophy-curious a fundamental grasp of the doctrine that emphasises how previous great thinkers have influenced subsequent generations. What is common to all Miller’s subjects, from Socrates to Nietzsche, is that their own work was itself informed by previous generations, as they influenced subsequent ones.
Kant, for instance, was one of the thinkers who influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th- century American writer, lecturer and poet, yet Emerson’s approach to life could not be further removed from Kant’s.
For Emerson, philosophy was poetry and his detailed diaries provide a fascinating insight into how the man’s mind worked.
Widely travelled, Emerson not only visited and lectured across America and Europe, he included several trips to Scotland. Between 1833 and 1864 he delivered more than 60 lectures in Scotland and England, including one famous expedition in 1838 in which he tracked down Thomas Carlyle to his Dumfriesshire home.
It was a trip that resulted in a lifelong friendship, one illustrated by the fact that Carlyle provided the introduction to Emerson’s Essays. For Emerson and many of his contemporaries there was a personal mission to promote philosophy.
Miller says that “more strenuously than almost any previous philosopher he advocates self- examination as the key to liberation and well-being, the pre-condition for human flourishing”.
Interestingly, Miller offers the possibility that the success of this mission that has resulted in the “pseudotranscendentalist slogans” and America’s love-affair with personal psychology makes America the home of self-help that it is today.
Miller’s ambitions are more modest. His deep knowledge of his subject is matched by a passion to share what he knows with others and make that subject relevant, interesting and accessible.
• THE PHILOSOPHICAL LIFE
BY James Miller
Oneworld Publications, 416pp, £14.99
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