A QUIET REVOLUTION may have taken place over the last three decades in our understanding of the history of Western philosophy. So quiet, in fact, that few have noticed it. Three recent books give us a sense of the significance and extent of this paradigm shift: Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell; and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes. What has this revolution brought forth? The realization that some of the most influential Western philosophers (primarily the ancient philosophers, but also Montaigne, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) intended their philosophy to be not just a body of doctrines, of pure intellectual content, but to be above all an “art of living.” It is immediately obvious that, like most revolutions, this one, too, is about how we relate to the past.
At the heart of the notion of philosophy as a “way of life” there lies the idea of a radical transformation. In Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Karl Marx famously challenged the way philosophy had been conceived of in the West: “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Yet, understanding philosophy as an “art of living” means not to change the world, but the philosopher herself. In a way, “changing the world” is a touch too easy, because nobody exactly knows what it means. Revolutionaries and spin doctors alike never stop talking about “changing the world,” which results in a social anesthetization of sorts; too much revolutionary talk is the best way to kill a revolution before it even starts. Soon enough we feel no discomfort living in a world that, in spite of all appearances, does not really change. Plus ça change… On the other hand, should one be unlucky enough to be visited by it, one will find it very hard to get rid of the relentless feeling that one has to change oneself. Rilke’s admonition, which Peter Sloterdijk borrowed for the title of one of his recent books, sounds now harsher than ever: Du mußt dein Leben ändern (“You must change your life”).
In this understanding of the Western tradition, the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself at a given moment. One day you suddenly, painfully realize that something important is missing in your life, that there is a gap between what you currently are and the sense of what you could be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. In a way, you don’t even exist yet. (It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing; by subjecting those around him to the rigors of his philosophy, he was bringing them into existence properly.) Philosophy thus presupposes a certain degree of self-detestation. It may well be that philosophizing begins in shame. If you are a bit too comfortable with yourself, if there is nothing you are ashamed of, you don’t need philosophy; you are fine as you are.