Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Alexander Nehamas and the Art of Living

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Alexander Nehamas and the Art of Living

Article excerpt

In today's cultural environment, it is often hard to remember a time when sociological orientations toward literature and life weren't dominant. Gender studies and the new historicism have so captivated the producers of social capital that other possible approaches to our experience have an increasingly hard time getting a hearing. In such a milieu we too easily forget that the writers on whose works we most depend-I am thinking chiefly of Nietzsche and Foucault were sufficiently multifaceted to embrace more possibilities than those that are found in the various forms of cultural materialism that pervade our thinking. Nietzsche and Foucault may have been instrumental in providing us with the tools for the critique of culture of which we make such dexterous use, but at the end of their writing lives both were moving in directions that embraced other perspectives. We may have abandoned aesthetic concerns at the moment because we consider our social agendas more important, but Nietzsche and Foucault were interested in the ways our lives are grounded in aesthetic contexts above all else. Nietzsche always insisted that existence can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon whereas Foucault only developed an interest in an aesthetic orientation toward life near the end of his career, but both figures point to a way of thinking about ourselves and the products of our culture that we need to consider more seriously than we are.

Given our current indifference to beauty, it is refreshing to find writers who continue to pursue the implications of the aesthetic elements of existence and the ways in which those elements take priority in our lives. Alexander Nehamas is such a writer, and his most recent work, The Art of Living, makes a concerted ef fort to redirect our attention to the manner in which our lives develop out of a concern for the aesthetic dynamics of life.* The very title of his most prominent earlier work-Nietzsche: Life as Literature-suggests that Nehamas is committed to a consideration of the ways in which the beautiful determines the parameters of our lives. The Art of Living continues this discussion through an assessment of Socrates' importance to Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault. In contrast to our belief that philosophical endeavors have primarily a theoretical interest with no particular application to the way in which we live, Nehamas reminds us that for Socrates philosophical discourse was always about how best to live rather than how to meditate on abstract questions like the nature of beauty or truth. Socrates lived his philosophy, and even if Nehamas believes that "the philosophical life is only one among many praiseworthy ways of living" (2), he goes to some lengths to show us how significant the art of living can be and how important it was for writers up to and including Foucault. Nehamas's vision of Socrates is flavored a bit too much with Foucault rather than the other way around, but in the end he reminds us of things we have too easily forgotten.

It takes courage in our day to write a book that insists we need to consider the art of living for ourselves. Such an approach suggests we have lost sight of a most important set of values. Although Nehamas is far from arguing that we ought to rethink entirely our ways or organizing our social productions, he does insist that an important piece of the cultural puzzle concerns those exceptional individuals who manage to produce aesthetic visions through their lives. The subtitle to Nehamas's Nietzsche book suggests that we should think of our lives as aesthetic events in the way we used to consider literature from an aesthetic context. This is both the strength and the weakness of Nehamas's approach: he insists on the value of an aesthetic orientation to the business of living even as he filters it through an overly self conscious contemporary idea of self construction that distorts all the figures he discusses except Foucault. Nehamas explains: "The philosophers of the art of living I discuss in this book all consider the self to be not a given but a constructed unity" (4). …

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