The Art of Living by Alexander Nehamas

The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (Sather Classical Lectures, 61) The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault by Alexander Nehamas

Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living was recommended to me by Stephen Black, my professor of Ancient Philosophy and Late Antiquity in college. A fundamental change in my education occurred in Professor Black’s Ancient Philosophy course. While ten of the twelve students were timid, silent & barely alive, my friend Turbo and I dominated the course, demanding answers, insights, and knowledge from the shrewd and dialectic and always-willing Professor Black. Patient as Socrates, he never tired of my persistent inquiries, and in doing so he fostered the part of my personality that constructs itself continually through the investigation and production of philosophical views.

The style of Professor Black’s teaching I have learned since (and fully realized now in reading The Art of Living), was, in my opinion, the result of the influence of Socrates on Professor Black and in turn his enactment of Socrates’ method. In opposition to this engaged, dialectical spirit of Socrates, much of philosophy is experienced by students and practiced by ‘professionals’ as purely theoretical, as a self contained, static system of concepts, and thus easily ignored or abandoned as soon as the class ends, the book is finished, or the paper is completed. Philosophy conceived and practiced in this detached and purely theoretical way often removes the self from the system of thought.

This, Nehamas argues, is what for many people philosophy has become, but for others this is not what philosophy was or is meant to be, not how it ought to be practiced.  The goal of his book is to “open a space for a way of doing philosophy that constitutes an alternative, though not necessarily a competitor, to the manner in which philosophy is generally practiced in our time (Nehamas, 2).” Some philosophers search for answers and truth without thinking it has anything do to with who they themselves become, but those who practice philosophy as an art of living believe in the importance of the truth of one’s views “but what also matters is the kind of person, the sort of self, one manages to construct as a result of accepting them (2).”

As you can tell all I have explained thus far is merely the first two pages of the introduction of this book. Nehamas goes on to explain that “the philosophy of the art of living began with Socrates,” (6) who, he claims, is especially different from any philosopher before or after because he wrote nothing himself and we know very little about his life besides his search for knowledge and truth. He is the originator of the art of living, but also the inspiration, because in reading Plato’s Socratic works we are provoked (at times to shouting) by the silent Socrates who merely asks leading questions. Those who have followed Socrates example “care more about the fact that Socrates made something new out of himself, that he constituted himself as an unprecedented type of person, than about the particular type of person he became (11).” Socrates does not ask us to imitate his model, but challenges us to make ourselves different from one another. This individualist approach is aesthetic, best practiced through writing, and is articulated by philosophers who do not insist that their life is a model or ideal but who want to articulate their own particular vision, their own art of living (10). The three that Nehamas discusses are Montaigne, Nietzsche and Foucault, all models of the aesthetic art of living.

What follows is a series of essays on Socratic and Platonic irony and on the three thinkers who Nehamas feels most embody the art of living. Like all ‘great books’, The Art of Living becomes a branch extending towards other ‘great books’. I took the opportunity presented by Nehamas’ references to other works to go through several of Plato’s Dialogues, Montaigne’s essay On Physiognomy, a few of Nietzsche’s works, and a few of Foucault’s late lectures. Reading and re-reading these works within the context of Socratic philosophy and the concept of the Art of Living illuminated the texts in an entirely new way.

I thoroughly enjoyed Montaigne’s essay and the way Nehamas lifts this thinker to the rank of philosopher of the art of living, and I found his approach to Nietzsche wonderful in demonstrating how the German philosopher’s anti-Socratic diatribes constitute, ironically, perfect examples of Socratic thinking. But it was the last chapter on Foucault that seems to me to be the great achievement of the book. Nehamas discusses how Foucault, in his final lectures, analyzes Socrates idea of the care of the self as essential to the practice of philosophy. Nehamas concludes that in these lectures, at the end of Foucault’s life, Foucault’s philosophy becomes individualistic (this word is being used as Nehamas used it, a more specific meaning, different from but related to the common usage). This is actually a rather large claim, considering Foucault’s philosophy and geneological histories, in which he consistently argues that humans are nothing but products of history and that progress, as we traditionally conceive of it, is virtually non-existent. Contrary to the enlightenment’s idea of progress, Foucault claims to uncover in his genealogies of so-called “progressive historical movements” ever-tightening systems of power and control, systems whose perverse signature and primary product is our own individuation. But Nehamas cites a change in Foucault’s thought when Foucault begins to examine Socrates role as ‘truth-sayer’ for his society and begins to realize the ways he is consistently portrayed as a father figure to other truth-seekers around him. As stated earlier, Socrates does not contain a body of knowledge he is transferring to people; rather, he is consistently encouraging others to realize how little actual knowledge they possess in their worldly views in order to encourage them to retreat and to seek knowledge and to abandon false beliefs. This exhortation represents the call to care for the self. The philosopher’s role in instigating the care of the self leads Foucault to redefine his own individuality and to perhaps begin to view humans as more than large herds subjected to and subjecting each other to systems of power, and perhaps capable of achieving meaningful states of individuality, in the truest sense of the word (again, which Nehamas explains in great detail).

Foucault’s personal life is often interwoven with his philosophy. Being a prominent philosopher spanning the great social changes of the twentieth century, from the revolutions of ’68 to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic (which most likely killed him in 1985), Foucault viewed the rapidly changing landscape of the Western world and took upon himself the role of critic to the Enlightenment-based interpretation of recent history as a staggering but nonetheless praiseworthy and steady improvement. At first this may have been a reaction to the fraudulence of the communist experiments in Asia, but Foucault’s cynicism was firmly implanted by his nuanced analyses of prisons, medicine, and history. But, as Nehamas argues, Foucault’s own understanding seems to change late in his life when he begins to leave Europe frequently for visits and lectures to San Francisco and begins to consistently identify as gay. His small involvement with gay rights, at least in his own thoughts and among friends, seems to lead him towards a desire for change and the very progress whose culturally dominant (mythological) image he had spent twenty-five years debunking. This, along with his experience with the complexity of the United States as a whole, seems to foster in him the idea of the care of the self, the project he sets upon for the last few years of his life.

The late lectures of Foucault give the philosophy student a wonderful picture of the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. Already a renowned thinker and developer of theories on power and knowledge, at the time of these lectures Foucault was spending much of his time reading in the basement of national and university archives all year long, showing up for a few lectures to share his ideas on various topics, ranging from psychology to history to Socrates. Many have been translated and released and enjoyed, however, his Care of the Self lecture series has not but is adequately summarized by Nehamas. Foucault starts with Socrates’ famous last words about the need to sacrifice to the god of health: “O Crito, we owe Asclepius a rooster. Do sacrifice it to him; do not forget.” There is much to be discussed in these lines, the meanings, paradoxes and implications, and many thinkers have done so. Foucault, dying himself at this time, is pondering these last words of the first philosopher with particular gravity and urgency. In his analysis of Socrates as ‘truth-sayer’ in this lecture we can’t help thinking that Foucault at this time is not just focusing on what he himself has found in the basements of those libraries, but that he is also analyzing the very process of philosophical discovery. While Foucault may or may not have contributed significant, lasting concepts to philosophy, I believe with Nehamas that his greatest contribution was to have fashioned a singular self of his own in spite of the hyper-systematic, hyper-historically determined and non-individualistic (in Nehamas’ sense) world he exposed.  The Art of Living  argues that Foucault’s analyses are worth less than his self and his unique process of creation and his astonishing ability to inspire in others an ability to analyze and to pursue truth themselves.

The Art of Living is a great affirmation of living, of thinking, and of writing, and possibly the greatest affirmation for reading I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. The renewal of the spirit this book incited in me has led me to view the book as a gift, a gift from a plane of thinking I may not yet have attained to, but which I can nonetheless benefit substantially from. Not only is there a lifetime of unraveling to be had within it and the texts it refers to, but also it is itself an inspiration to care for one’s self, and to never stop doing so.

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One response to “The Art of Living by Alexander Nehamas

  1. Excelent and through review. Do you practice his tenets?

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