Life Stories

Is it worth knowing about the lives philosophers led, or is their philosophy enough?


Ripped from the blank pages of history.

Saint Teresa of Avila is best known in her ecstatic state, as captured in marble by the sculptor Gian Bernini — her arched back, her body caught in an orgasmic wave, the moan from her parted lips almost audible. She felt the presence of God as an erotic power, the connection between the divine and the mortal as an energy unlike any other. This chaste 16th-century nun wrote about her soul being penetrated by the arrow of the angel, “so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish it to cease, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”


  • Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein. 304 pages. Schocken. $22.
  • Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. 432 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.
  • How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. 400 pages. Other Press. $25.
  • When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life by Saul Frampton. 320 pages. Pantheon. $26.

In reality, St. Teresa spent her life trying to distinguish between that real religious ecstasy — a power that was worthy of God — and abobamiento, a foolish stupor. She knew the human mind is drawn to excess, and one can create a fantastical connection that isn’t there. The foundations of belief, of meditation and piety, that’s the hard work that creates the space for real transcendence.

As it happens, though, she attracted devoted followers who just wanted to writhe on the ground and be ravished by the spirit. Followers do that sometimes. They hear what they want to hear and disregard anything inconvenient. So when Teresa the nun became head of a convent, it was occasionally filled with these young, flailing, “oh my sweet Jesus” sexually confused girls. One such girl was pissing off the older nuns, who knew this carrying on was not the sweet touch of God but merely an hysterical libido. After she relayed yet another night of passionate divine embrace, the abbess admonished the lay nun, “We don’t need you here for your raptures, but for washing the dishes.”

If the young nun was disappointed in this answer, it’s probably because she confused St. Teresa the Bernini sculpture for St. Teresa the slightly frumpy, disapproving nun. Philosophers did not always live out their philosophy. Certainly not every minute of every day. I heard a young woman once argue for the removal of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex from the feminist canon because of the existentialist philosopher’s tormented love life. And she did suffer, greatly, from her romantic entanglements. The young woman couldn’t hold the contradiction in her head, that a woman who participated in her own sexual degradation could write a book that gave witness to the societal degradation of the female part of the species. Maybe our assumption is that their lives would be — or should be — the perfect example of the abstract made concrete. The divine in the mortal body. The “I think therefore I am” in the grocery aisle.

That intersection between the philosopher and the philosophy is a messy and sometimes disappointing one. When we discussed the lives of the philosophers in the past, it was always directly through the lens of their teachings. Was Socrates exactly as Plato and other followers depicted him? No, because as Miller points out in his introduction to Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, the first biographers of philosophers — such as Plutarch, Seneca, and Diogenes Laertius — were more concerned with portraying the man and philosophy as one, their “one true self… immaterial, immortal, and unchanging.” Their lives were used to illustrate their ideas, and what was lost — the personal details and tiny truths — were sacrificed for the Truth of their work. Miller’s profiles of the real lives of 12 philosophers attempt to offer a corrective and view the men as they really were: mortal and seeking, and occasionally really screwed up.

It’s a project more suitable for our modern age than the legends of yore. As philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein points out in her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, we are a culture “endlessly captivated by the drama of the self in all its distinctive singularity.” Mankind has always been able to find the universal in the personal, but now we’re really, really personal. Allegory is no longer satisfying. We want real life stories from our writers, our philosophers, our pop stars, our saints. It’s no surprise that Michel de Montaigne is having some sort of big comeback, with two introductions to his work for the general reader out in the last year. His philosophical essays are rooted entirely in his personal daily life, from his kidney stone to his observations on the interactions between the sexes. There’s something about these books’ approach to philosophers — books that try to create a man out of the philosopher of Spinoza and the philosophers profiled in Miller’s book, and the others trying to create a philosophy of life out of the man of Montaigne — that illuminates our culture’s ambivalence with the philosophical life and the people dealing with the question of how to live.

In James Miller’s Examined Lives, we see the gaps between ideal and practice much more clearly. Nietzsche tried to accept life as it came, enjoy it, and let go of regrets. He kind of famously failed at this. Rousseau, who used all that free will he was always going on about to decide to abandon his children to a foundling home and accuse his closest allies of conspiring against him, wrote, “How sweet it would be to live among us if exterior appearance were always the image of the heart’s disposition, if our maxims served as our rules, if true Philosophy were inseparable from the title of Philosopher!” Diogenes is perhaps the only pure philosopher in Examined Lives. He taught others to break societal taboos, and he enjoyed masturbating and shitting in public. That’s a man committed to his belief system. No wonder, then, that he had fewer devoted followers living by his example than St. Teresa.

If Miller’s book is unsatisfying at all, it is because there is not enough about the work of the philosophers. By trying to remove the legend from the man — and all of the philosophers Miller profiles are men, leaving out the ecstatic nuns like St. Teresa and St. Hildegard, and, in my opinion, the 20th-century’s most undervalued philosopher, Simone Weil — he removes that lens of their work almost entirely. The result is a blurry account of mortal men who may have been great thinkers, but were failures at most everything else. That failure does not interest me. I’m interested in the triptych that makes up a great person’s whole self: the consumption of learning, books, people, travel; the life lived, the choices made, the narrative of existence; and then the work, the output, the teachings and writings and influence. I’m curious about how those things interact, how the writing influences the life and vice versa, of how input becomes output, and the contradictions and paradoxes that exist in the spaces between these three aspects. When you set aside what Diogenes was working for, and what his philosophical structure was — Miller doesn’t really go into that whole lamp/“I am looking for a man” thing that is perhaps the only thing Diogenes is still known for — you’re left with an exhibitionist or, at best, a prankster. There’s nothing to distinguish him from the guy on your street corner who is constantly taking off his pants.

What, then, do we do with a philosopher such as Baruch (later Benedictus) Spinoza, who not only left huge gaps in the written record of his life, but also argued that your personal hopes and dreams are irrelevant? Spinoza believed that only by getting out of the idea of the self could true equality be achieved, and true joy as well. His certainty that rationality could not only explain the workings of the world but also bring us closer to God established ideals such as secularism and the decentralization of power from the religious institutions. It also paved the way for writers such as Voltaire and John Locke. But Goldstein tells us in Betraying Spinoza that as a schoolgirl she was first introduced to the 17th-century philosopher as a liar, a blasphemer, and an atheist. An allegory of Spinoza still existed, at least in the Jewish history class at her Orthodox school — Spinoza’s work was forbidden, but his life was laid bare to be an example to the students of how not to live. He questioned and he doubted and he created discord in his city, and for it, he was excommunicated from his Amsterdam community. Goldstein reacts in a very modern way: She goes about trying to fill in his personal details, but in her case, it’s to save his work from those who would use it to disparage his name.

As Goldstein goes about trying to restore the life to the legend — Spinoza was an intensely private man and there are lost years about which almost nothing is known — she understands that this is somehow a betrayal, both to the man and the philosophy. His work should stand alone, and it does. Spinoza’s The Ethics instructs the reader on how to reach out to the divine through rational thought and logic only, and it was the first work in a long time to help me do just that. Spinoza was dismissive of the identity, of the personality and the life story and preferences and the individual, and he believed those things have to be overcome in order to reach “the infinite intellect of God.” Because those are the very things we worship in our day, we can’t help but wonder: What was his personal reality?

It’s a project Goldstein feels deeply ambivalent about. “The appeal of the memoir says something about the temperament of our times,” she writes. “What, precisely, it says, I’m not prepared to say, though I suspect it’s nothing good.” Yet it’s a task she sets about with respect and an appealingly thoughtful nature. She starts with the allegory and the way it hinges around his excommunication. The details of what led to such a drastic act of shunning remain lost from the historical record, but his response was recorded: “All the better; they do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord if I did not dread scandal; but, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path that is opened to me.” It’s a tantalizing fragment from a man kicked out of his community and forbidden from seeing his family; a descendant of a people driven out of Spain and then Portugal by the Inquisition; a friend of fallen Christians and rational thinkers barred from God’s grace; and a logician aware of the illogical label of “the chosen people.” Goldstein finds a way to incorporate all of these contradictions into alignment with his work. She picks through what Spinoza discards, reassembling not only his life, but the theological discussions of the day, the trail his family left from their Spanish origins, the lives of the men who signed the excommunication order (and the one who didn’t), and the community of dissenters who accepted and loved him.

Goldstein is also cautious not to dip into gossip. When her students see certain passages in The Ethics as proof that Spinoza must have been spurned by a lover, she points out that there are all sorts of things that can break your heart. Like losing your community because they disagree with your world view. And what else could a man whose identity has been stripped from him, and a man who saw how his ancestors and his family suffered because of that identity, do but try to create a pathway to the divine that was open to all, regardless of identity? Not through the method of converting to the right religion, but by forsaking any claims to exceptionalism.

We are perhaps in need again of Spinoza as a corrective to our times. We are once again living in a time where the personal identity has become problematic. We are swimming in memoir, reality television, and people who are celebrities only for being celebrities. This is also a world of political polarization, with a rise in tribalism and nationalism, and individual sects of nations’ wanting their own sovereignty. Knowing where Spinoza was coming from — out of the Inquisition, into a community where excommunications were used to punish anyone who held beliefs inconvenient to the rabbinical authority, leading to poverty and despair — allows us to see how we could benefit from his teaching today. We can see the relevance, because we can relate.

Goldstein achieves the paradoxical: She expands Spinoza by contracting him. By restoring his discarded identity, his philosophy flourishes. The reason it works is because she allows his work to be the framework to his biography. There is universality hidden in the personal story of a man trying to transcend his personal setbacks. Maybe the answer is in Spinoza’s own writing. “Individual things are nothing but modifications of the attributes of God, or modes by which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite manner.” She reveals the tiny fragment of God manifested in the life of Benedictus Spinoza.

Seated at the opposite pole from Spinoza is Michel de Montaigne. This was a man in love with the personal identity. From Miller: “‘They want to get out of themselves, and escape from the man,’ remarked Michel de Montaigne of such aspiring saints. ‘That is madness.’” The 16th-century Frenchman essentially invented the personal essay when he sat down halfway through his life to start writing. He had been a longtime lover of the ancient philosophers, and he used their discourses as a starting point to pontificate on the daily life of a man living through the French religious wars. As Miller notes in his short biography of the essayist, Montaigne’s task made him more philosophical than a philosopher himself. There is nothing abstract about Montaigne. In the three volumes of essays he left behind, he chronicled all the details of his own personal life and his own identity. He recorded his thoughts and feelings on sex, on the habit of wearing clothes, on horseback riding, on his penis size, on war, on fatherhood. The writers Sarah Bakewell (How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer) and Saul Frampton (When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life) try to cull all of that glorious excess into a philosophical framework.

It is perhaps as great a betrayal to Montaigne as Goldstein’s work on Spinoza. Frampton and Bakewell diminish Montaigne’s work by trying to pull a skeleton from it. Bakewell’s chapter titles alone are more aphorism than insight: “Question Everything,” “Wake from the Sleep of Habit,” “Be Ordinary and Imperfect.” We want to turn Montaigne’s life into philosophy for one reason: his happiness. He led a rich life of travel, leisure, friendship, and respect (also, a horrible marriage, an awful relationship with his mother, and a job in politics he didn’t care much about). He certainly ended up better than Rousseau or Nietzsche, but his vision of happiness is not necessarily going to translate to everyone else’s. You can’t figure out the recipe to a cake by reducing the final product to smaller and smaller bits — the chemical process will not reveal itself that way.

Bakewell and Frampton are right about one thing: Montaigne is a wonderful model for how to incorporate the impersonal philosophy into the personal life. The reader can watch as, through the years Montaigne was writing, he accepts, rejects, and adapts the ideas of the ancient thinkers who helped shape his worldview. By Montaigne’s final essay, “Of Experience,” he’s made their rigid rules into something malleable, something that suits his life. That’s something we all have to do, dig our way out of abobamiento, our silly stupor, whether it’s by adapting the religion or societal structure we were born into, or whether we go looking for new modes of being through philosophy and education.

We may have a modern day skepticism about those who would try to answer, as Miller lists them, “What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?” for us, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t want to ask. And while we may reach for the same books to help us find the answers, the way we fit them into our lives will vary wildly. Montaigne worked for a lifetime on these questions, and in “Of Experience” he came to the conclusion that “truth is so great a thing that we must not disdain any medium that will lead us to it.” Montaigne serves as a wonderful counterbalance to Spinoza, warming up his cold rationality, and Spinoza gives some air to Montaigne’s self-indulgences. They should be read together, even if they would roll their eyes at one another and bicker endlessly.

But I think our new emphasis on what the philosophers did rather than what they thought has something to do with our modern obsession with happiness. We can’t see the value in something unless there is a material benefit, and if philosophy makes you end up like Nietzsche, batshit crazy with syphilis, well, then… But we’re all still mortal. St. Teresa still had to run the convent, edit her manuscript, and scrub the floors. That’s hard to do in a state of grace. We are forever having to put aside our rapture, our grief, and our rage to do the dishes. Halfway between the cold sculpture and the frumpy woman who ran an abbey is the philosopher who wrote The Interior Castle, perhaps the finest meditation we have on creating the space in our daily lives for God. (If the word God gives you the shakes, you can always substitute Goddess, or “the universe,” or inner strength, or state of peace, if you like. Like all great philosophy, it transfers to your own specific reality.) That’s the human being I want to get to know. • 3 March 2011

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of She currently resides in Chicago.

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