The Philosophical Life: 12 Great Thinkers and the Search for Wisdom, from Socrates to Nietzsche

Philosophy flourishes best outside academia.

James Miller is an academic who has become dissatisfied with the way that philosophy is taught in universities. Like Simon Critchley or A C Grayling, he is fed up with the insularity of his profession and wants to communicate with a broader audience. He believes that philosophers have forgotten to connect their subject with the experience of everyday life. "Once upon a time, philosophers were figures of wonder," he writes nostalgically, but now philosophy is largely forgotten, because it is understood by the general public to be "a purely technical discipline, revolving around special­ised issues in semantics and logic".

He's sorry that we tend to understand phil­osophers through their ideas rather than their lives. An autobiographical approach is common when it comes to writers and artists, yet is often shunned in the case of philosophers. Miller wants to reverse this and looks to the example of Diogenes Laërtius, who wrote Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, for inspiration. He quotes Nietzsche approvingly: "I for one prefer reading Diogenes Laërtius. The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities."

Miller presents 12 philosophers, great names including Socrates, Seneca, Montaigne, Kant and Nietzsche. What draws Miller to them is that they are all, in different ways, utterly unlike what a modern philosophical academic is expected to be. They don't want to be clever, they want to know how to live. They want to be wise.

Take Seneca, a philosopher who lived through one of the most dangerous periods of ancient Roman history - the reigns of Caligula and Nero - and who believed that the task of philosophy was to help us to cope better with anxiety, upsets and frustrations.

Though the term "self-help" has nowadays acquired trashy connotations, Seneca can with justice be described as one of the first and finest self-help writers. He wrote a beautiful and intelligent book titled On Anger, which was designed to calm all those Romans with hot tempers; he also wrote books about how to cope with the death of loved ones, how to deal with failure in the workplace and how to endure poverty.

For Seneca and the Stoics, being a true philosopher meant being able to encounter tragedies and frustrations without getting bitter. Nowadays, we often use the word "philosophical" to suggest calmness and in doing so connect to a vision of what philosophy should be about that originated with Seneca and the Stoic school to which he belonged.

Seneca trained for a career in politics but in his early twenties he succumbed to suspected tuberculosis, which lasted six years and led to suicidal depression. He then tried to get into politics but his attempt coincided with Calig­ula's rise to power - not an ideal time to aim for high office. Within only a few years, Seneca was caught up in a political scandal and had to spend eight years in exile in Corsica. When he was finally recalled to Rome, it was to take on, against his will, the most fateful job in the imperial administration - being tutor to Nero, who, 15 years later, would order him to kill himself in front of his wife and family.

Seneca knew why he was able to withstand the anxieties and frustrations he was faced with. "I owe my life to philosophy, and that is the least of my obligations to it," he wrote. So how did philosophy help? Though the terrain covered by the word frustration may be vast - from a stubbed toe to an untimely death - at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality. We want something and we can't get it. For Seneca, in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate an already negative situation through our responses, by learning, in a word, to be more stoical.

A single idea recurs throughout his work: that we best endure those frustrations we've prepared ourselves for and understand, and are hurt most by those we least expected and can't fathom. A good working philosophy must therefore reconcile us to the true dimensions of reality and so spare us, if not frustration itself, then at least its panoply of pernicious accompanying emotions.

Miller's other great favourite is Montaigne, in part because he, too, took on the academics. He distinguished between two categories of knowledge: learning and wisdom. In the category of learning, he placed, among other subjects, logic, etymology, grammar, Latin and Greek. And in the category of wisdom, everything that could help a person to live well, by which Montaigne meant helping them to live happily and morally. To be wise meant responding intelligently and calmly to things such as arguments with friends, illness, money or death.

The problem with the academia of his time was that it excelled at imparting learning but failed entirely at imparting wisdom:

I gladly come back to the theme of the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us good and wise, but learned. And it has succeeded. It has not taught us to seek virtue and to embrace wisdom: it has impressed upon us their derivation and their etymology. We readily inquire, "Does he know Greek or Latin?" "Can he write poetry and prose?" But what matters most is what we put last: "Has he become better and wiser?"

These thoughts led Montaigne to call for a complete overhaul of the education system in France. He wanted to correct a long-standing intellectual bias towards abstract questions. Thales from Miletus in Asia Minor had been an early example of this kind of bias. He was celebrated for having determined, in the sixth century BC, the height of the great pyramids of Egypt according to the theorem of similar triangles - a complicated and dazzling achievement, no doubt, but not what Montaigne wished to see dominate his curriculum. He had greater sympathy with one of Thales's impudent young acquaintances.

I have always felt grateful to that girl from Miletus who, seeing the local philosopher . . . with his eyes staring upwards, constantly occupied in contemplating the vault of heaven, made him trip over, to warn him that there was time enough to occupy his thoughts with things above the clouds when he had accounted for everything lying before his feet.

Montaigne thought we were always glamorising difficult activities and ignoring the small but important things - such as living an undramatic but good enough life.

After closing Miller's excellent book, one is left wondering about the fate of a discipline that appears to flourish most vigorously outside the university. He is to be commended for leaving behind the sterile practices of his colleagues and speaking to civilian readers. And he is sure to reap the fruits, both in terms of higher sales and exile from the esteem of his more cloistered colleagues.

Alain de Botton is the author of "Religion for Atheists" (Hamish Hamilton,£18.99)