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Diacritics 31.1 (2001) 25-54

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Philosophy as Self-Fashioning
Alexander Nehamas's Art of Living

R. Lanier Anderson and Joshua Landy

Alexander Nehamas. The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections From Plato to Foucault.Vol. 61 of the Sather Classical Lectures. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1998. [AL]


How can we make things beautiful, attractive, desirable for us when they are not? . . . this we should learn from artists while being wiser than they are in other matters. For with them this subtle power usually comes to an end where art ends and life begins; but we want to be the poets of our life. . . .

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

To turn philosophy to the service of life—to become the "poet of one's life"—is the animating thought behind Alexander Nehamas's recent book, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. The book's central aim is to argue that philosophy can be an activity, a way of life, as distinct from a body of scholarly doctrine. While it has become standard to insist that "philosophy is a theoretical discipline" [AL 1], producing claims about the nature of truth, beauty, causality, and so on, Nehamas draws on an ancient tradition under which practical activity is the core philosophical enterprise, and the true philosopher, like Socrates in the Apology, need not author compelling theories but must livethe life of a sage. His efforts to revive the ancient idea give rise to a conundrum, however. For he claims that his own book embodies the essentially practical type of philosophy, even though, to all appearances, it is standard theoretical fare: views are laid out, claims evaluated, and counterarguments refuted (often in extensive footnotes). How can we explain Nehamas's conviction that his book belongs on the side of the practical philosophers, when it seems so theoretical? 1 Where is the art of living in The Art of Living? [End Page 25]

The question about praxis turns out to be a question about the self, for Nehamas believes that philosophy counts as an art of living only when it embarks on a project of "self-fashioning" [AL 4-6 et passim]. While others have noted the contrast between the two conceptions of philosophy, 2 Nehamas's distinctive move is to locate the primary task of philosophical living in the construction of character. In one sense, of course, every normally functioning individual already has a self, as part of the inevitably present, standard equipment for a human life. But Nehamas points to a stronger, normative notion, under which becoming a genuine self counts as an achievement [AL 2-5 et passim]. Life presents each of us with a bewildering variety of factors attaching to our person: character traits, physical features, talents and abilities, a sociocultural context, and so on. There is no guarantee that such components will fit together without serious tensions. Achieving selfhood in the stronger sense is a matter of creating a harmonious order out of these elements, thereby fashioning a coherent, perhaps even admirable, way of life. On this view, who we are is not given to us but set for us as a problem, to which the philosophical art of living pursues solutions. Self-fashioning is thus essential to philosophy as a way of life.

Nehamas argues further that the tradition of philosophical self-fashioning has an essential relationship to the figure of Socrates, that enigmatic "pied piper of Athens" [Nietzsche, GS 340; cf. Plato, Symp. 215b-d], who searched for knowledge primarily for the sake of making his life more rational. Philosophers who follow Socrates in this respect are trying to live well — not to say what a good life is, but to show us how they have fashioned their own lives. Nehamas demonstrates that even in the modern period, in the margins of the modern canon of theoretical philosophy, figures like Montaigne and Nietzsche have practiced philosophy as just such an art of living, turning their reflections on the model of Socrates to the service of a project to live well and...