Alexander Nehamas by David Carrier

BOMB 65 Fall 1998
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Alexander Nehamas. Photo by Richard Frank. Courtesy University of California Press.

I met Alexander Nehamas in the 1970s in Pittsburgh, where we both were teaching. We shared developing intellectual interests. I told him Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture had convinced me that there was more to painting than academic aestheticians had ever dreamt; he told me about his struggle to write his book Nietzsche: Art and Literature (1985), which has since become a classic. I was in the process of turning myself into a philosopher of art history, and I recall his kind, persistent encouragement. I admired and wanted to emulate the determined lucidity of his prose, the combination of bold speculation and extreme fastidiousness. After he left the University of Pittsburgh, we kept in touch.

Now Nehamas is Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. Head of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton, Nehamas is a very busy administrator. His remarks about the public role of philosophers carry personal authority. He does not write about these issues from a position of detachment—he wrestles with them in his daily life. He has two books forthcoming. Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates (Princeton University Press, 1998) discusses “modern anxieties about television and other forms of popular culture” from the viewpoint of a classical scholar. The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (University of California Press, 1998) based on the Sather Classical Lectures he delivered at Berkeley in 1992-93, traces Socrates’ concern with the practice of philosophical life, in antiquity and as developed by Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Nietzsche’s most distinguished champion, Foucault.

My visiting lectureship at Princeton this past spring gave us a chance to do this interview, in which I frequently felt like one of Socrates’ interlocutors. Fascinated even when unconvinced by Nehamas’ claims, I wanted to keep arguing. We professors meet cab drivers and deans who want to know what philosophy can do for them. No doubt such people are seeking self-help manuals. Certainly they will not find much help in academic philosophy. The Art of Livingargues that no one else can show you how to practice the art of living—you must learn for yourself. Does that seem like a hard lesson? Like Plato (and Proust), Nehamas is claiming that some of us already know quite enough to save ourselves.

David Carrier Alexander, you were born into a privileged family in Greece; you studied at Swarthmore and Princeton; you are, by background and choice, an aristocratic personality who holds liberal political sentiments. Is that fair?

Alexander Nehamas Fair, except that from my family’s point of view, I’m a failure. Greece was not and is not a country where an intellectual and academic career is considered proper. It’s all right to be cultured and educated, but you are not really supposed to live off your education. You work; it’s a mercantile society.

DC “Aristocratic” has all the wrong connotations?

AN Not quite. Greece was never aristocratic in the traditional sense, where work is something you don’t dirty your hands with. It’s a bourgeois society. But when I was growing up, pieces of the culture of pre-World War I Europe were still alive there. It was a contradictory society. My parents, for example, spoke French at home, not Greek. My father was in banking. But banking is something a true aristocrat looks down on. Banking is a business, aristocrats own land.

DC You really went wrong.

AN I failed … What happened in my case might have been a long-term project that started when I first read Spinoza in high school and decided that was what I would do for the rest of my life. Or it might have been that I walked backwards into a life, deciding to do whatever seemed easiest at the time, just postponing difficult decisions indefinitely. Either by design or by accident, I ended up in philosophy. It was June of my senior year at Swarthmore when I decided. There had been a coup d’etat in Greece that spring, 1967, and I decided I didn’t want to go back yet. So I came to Princeton to get a Ph.D. in philosophy, and of course my idea wasn’t to look for a job in philosophy—but I happened to find a pretty good position and five years later, I got tenure and saw that philosophy was where I belonged. Then I got really depressed; it was at that point I realized I had failed.

DC It was too late to go to business school.

AN It was too late. I was 30, and I belonged to this other world.

DC You chose to fail all the way through.

AN Yes, you might put it that way. My official plan was to go into business and retire at a relatively young age in order to discuss intellectual issues on my yacht. But I never got a yacht, I got tenure instead.

DC When we first met, you were the most exotic person it had been my good fortune to meet in Pittsburgh, and yet you feel completely American, don’t you?

AN I feel very much at home in America. And I’m sure that my Greek friends and family think of me as American. But I speak perfect Greek, I’ve never lost my accent.

DC Because you’ve gone back regularly?

AN Yes. And because speaking the language shows me that I am still part of that society as well. You see, I still want to retire on a yacht! What I really mean is this: I’m as committed an intellectual and academic as one can be; but I am also interested in, I appreciate, am able to deal with the public world, the world of business, the world of society. That means that I can play one against the other. I can say, I’m not quite one of you. The same thing applies to Greece and America. I can act perfectly comfortable in either society, but I can also withdraw and say: Among you, but not of you—to paraphrase Byron. That is a pattern I see in myself, and in my work within the academy. I work in Greek philosophy, but I don’t just do Greek philosophy, so perhaps I can write Greek philosophy in a slightly different way. I work on Nietzsche and the philosophy of art, and I also keep thinking about Plato, so I can write differently about Nietzsche or about art. I work in comparative literature. I see myself as always trying to straddle things. That, of course, can be either a healthy or a seriously unhealthy feature.

DC Would you confess to being an elitist?

AN An elitist may be someone who thinks that people have different talents and abilities, and if that’s what an elitist is, I absolutely am one. I think that talents are not equally distributed. Elitism about talent has nothing to do with justice, the distribution of political power, or political privilege. With the same opportunities a few people are going to do better than most others, and those who do better are those I admire. But I would not deprive those who do worse of political rights, nor would I presume to know in advance who has, and who lacks, talent. That is determined only after the fact. It’s stupid to think you are a special person if you have not already done something special, and perhaps it’s stupid even then. What counts is what you do.

DC Treating the world as if it were a text, is that not to be an aesthete?

AN I do believe the features that characterize oneself and one’s life are similar to the features of literary works. The virtues of life are comparable to the virtues of good writing—style, connectedness, grace, elegance—and also, we must not forget, sometimes getting it right. Of course I’m an aesthete. My main difficulty with the late 20th century in America is that we neither respect nor admire enough what we used to call “aesthetic values.”

DC In The Art of Living you note that Foucault thought of his writing “as a model for groups, particularly homosexuals and other oppressed minorities … unable to speak with a voice of their own.” Is there any parallel in your life? For whom are you speaking? For whom can you speak?

AN That’s very difficult to answer. I haven’t thought of myself as speaking for a group; that’s why I have made such an effort to read my favorite philosophical and literary authors as individuals. I find that Nietzsche or Montaigne are different from Foucault. These two care for themselves, they are concerned with their own, personal life, not with the welfare of some group. And yet the dominant trend in recent years has been to make philosophy look more and more like a science. And it’s been very difficult for those of us who have a different vision to speak out. So here is a group for which I perhaps speak—philosophical “cosmopolitans” and cosmopolitans in general. Cosmopolitans refuse to belong exclusively to a single tribe, whether the tribe is a nation, a profession, or a discipline. I think of myself as a cosmopolitan. To be a cosmopolitan is not to belong nowhere; it is to belong to many places.

DC But you are a Greek-American.

AN I am not a Greek-American. I am a Greek. And an American. And also a Spanish citizen. And a philosopher. And a critic. And I like Proust. And television. And argument. Interpretation. Intelligence. Sensibility.

DC Did your relationship with Foucault affect your discussion of him in The Art of Living?

AN As a writer, Foucault (the late work on sexuality hadn’t appeared yet) was one of the most forbidding, impersonal, austere writers you could imagine. He gave you the impression of someone who has seen the truth (even though he didn’t believe that there is such a thing as truth) and who is narrating the grand narrative of our tradition (even though he didn’t believe there was a grand narrative). He seemed to know it all, and to despise it. He was frightening. But when I actually met him, I was bowled over. He was one of the humblest, most playful, most inquisitive, and most naive people I’d met in my life. At that time he was reading a lot of Plato, and he knew that he didn’t know very much about him. He was like a precocious undergraduate—he just wanted to learn. When I tried to put this personality together with the writing, it was very difficult for me. It didn’t fit. But I had not yet seen his late works on the history of sexuality, which are tentative, inquisitive, self-doubting, and experimental. His personality fit perfectly with them. The suspiciousness of his earlier work was still what pushed him into taking nothing for granted, to pull everything apart, but it no longer dictated that you couldn’t put the pieces together in a new way. He took both his picture of the world and the pieces of his life and put them together into a new outlook, a new way of writing, a new self. And he did that, in great part, by studying how the Greeks and the Romans put the pieces of their own lives together so that they could become persons of a certain sort. So everything fell in place for him.

DC Is the Foucault in The Art of Living the late Foucault?

AN I have tried to show that the earlier Foucault, the forbidding, pessimistic, even nihilistic Foucault of Discipline and Punishment, was a necessary, and therefore an essential step toward becoming the particular author, the humanistic author, he became in the end. You need to have doubted much in order to realize how large a part of yourself has been constructed by others. Yet human beings have the power to transform themselves. That is something Foucault came to see in his late work. Transformation always involves recalcitrant material. And in his earlier works he had investigated how the world provided us with the recalcitrant material, with the selves we are to transform.

DC California had an effect on him?

AN In California he was not greeted with the kind of respect he was receiving in France. He was, of course, admired. But, also, he was pushed, he was doubted. He was loved in California, but the playfulness of his interactions, intellectually and personally, affected his relationship not only to himself, to his sexuality, but also to his own writing. He changed in California, and at the same time he realized that one can change.

DC Had he not been there and changed, and had you not met him, then certainly your book would be very different—it wouldn’t end with him.

AN My book would be totally different. Everything is contingent. If I hadn’t met him, I probably wouldn’t have been charmed by him. I probably would not have worked as hard as I did on his later works. For me, he represented the most radically and disturbingly negative view of our world. I might even have continued to hold such a radically negative view myself. When I saw that even someone who’d written the books he had could change, I found a kind of hope. Through reading Nietzsche, I was already predisposed in that direction. But Foucault certainly would not have been part of the book, and the book would have been much less confident about our ability to transform ourselves.

DC Has Nietzsche any responsibility for the events of World War II?

AN Nietzsche was not a fascist, or a Nazi. Nietzsche was not a totalitarian. He was not even an authoritarian. Nietzsche, in a way, is a philosopher of adolescence—he is the fellow who says, “Let me be just as I am … you’re wrong to try to make me like you. I don’t want to belong.” But this is also a very serious message.

DC Once you wrote about Nietzsche, The Art of Living followed almost inevitably?

AN Nietzsche’s great enemy was Socrates—at least, so he says. But Socrates was my other favorite philosopher. To some extent that’s what The Art of Living is about. It’s an effort to show that Socrates was someone Nietzsche should have liked. Not just Nietzsche, but Socrates himself, was interested in living as an art.

DC The Art of Living is dedicated to your wife, Susan Glimcher, and your young son Nicholas. And yet, of the writers you discuss, some were not married, hardly any had wives (or children) who played a role in their intellectual life. Why are you different?

AN Nietzsche writes in The Genealogy of Morals that a married philosopher belongs in comedy. That has always upset me. The matter, again, is contingent. There are things that just happen. If I hadn’t gone to Swarthmore when I did, if I hadn’t run into Foucault when I did, if I hadn’t been married, everything would be different. The art of living is turning your life into a coherent object, into something with style whatever the recalcitrant facts, to weave everything into a pattern, a text. I am married, Nietzsche wasn’t. But there are no rules here. You can’t say in advance what is necessary or impossible for a life, what is bound to make a work of art good, or bad. Whether married philosophers belong to comedy or not depends on what they do with their philosophy. This was one case where Nietzsche was wrong to generalize (though he may have needed to).

DC In The Art of Living you say, “The purpose of philosophy as the art of living is, of course, living. But the life it requires is a life devoted to writing.” Could you explain this?

AN The issues that are involved in a philosopher’s life are too complex to address in any other way. If you don’t write about them, you can’t see their details.

DC You care about details, in texts and in life.

AN Details really do matter; they matter to me, and they matter tout court. Clothes, for example, matter to me. It’s not that I made a decision to care for them; rather, I found myself caring. Which brings us to the importance of appearance in general, that most overlooked, so to speak, aspect among philosophers, with their emphasis on clunky, boring, deadly depth.

DC Simplicity takes a lot of work to achieve.

AN Yes, Montaigne is the best proof of that. I try to write simply, I can only conceive of writing that way, but it takes me forever to do it.

DC You have been quoted repeatedly in The New York Times recently.

AN Being known is essential—your texts, your actions—something has to appear. Otherwise you haven’t made a difference. And then you are not different, either.

DC What do you have to say to the public?

AN This is a really difficult issue. I care about private life. But what people do privately is of great public significance because eventually, one way or the other, it will affect the issues we identify as public issues—how our income is going to be distributed, how can we secure some basic rights for everyone, how can we make sure that children don’t starve. The worst, the most difficult thing that affects us as people is the failure of the imagination. We do not realize that various things are possible, which is to say that we don’t realize that most everything is contingent, that things could be different. If we see the contingency in our private lives, we will see it in the public world as well. And we will realize that we can change that world—though only a little at a time.

DC Would this not be hard to communicate to a public that watches TV?

AN Let’s not put TV, or its public, down. TV plots depend essentially on contingency. And their audience often knows it. Here is one example. St. Elsewhere, my favorite TV show, was shown on NBC, which belonged to RCA, which was bought by General Electric. Everybody was saying that GE only cared about profits and not about the quality of what went on the air. What did St. Elsewhere do? The writers had their inner-city hospital bought out by a hospital chain that didn’t care about real health care, but only about profit. So they could comment on what was happening to the show from within the show! And they did!

DC Don’t people watch TV and see the lesson, if TV, as you say, always manifests contingency?

AN Many people watch TV and just enjoy a good yarn. The thing about yarns is that they lookvery uncontingent: everything follows from everything else. Although a story has no need to begin in the first place, once it has begun, it must make sense. It has to be, if it is a good story, just the story it is. If it were a different story, the original story wouldn’t exist. You would have something totally different in its place.

DC You are an individualist?

AN What I call the art of living is exactly the kind of thing that can’t be taught. The effect of practicing the art of living successfully is that you become different from other people: That’s what it is to be an individual. There is absolutely no way one person can show another how to become an individual. The moment you try my way of being different, you will only succeed in imitating me. You’re no longer different, you are my copy. The only way you can learn how to be different is by seeing examples of difference and becoming, in turn, different from them. What materials you have to work with, the contingencies that make up your life (your marriage, your childhood, your early plans) are all going to be different from mine. So you can’t put them together just as I do. That’s why most people actually lead borrowed lives, stories told by other people. They occasionally make small differences here or there to the stories they are told, but a small difference leaves you essentially the same as the rest of the world. It is in that sense that they live lives of quiet desperation—or, at least, quiet lives. We never know them—which for me is sufficient to show that they are in fact not different from the rest, and therefore not individuals. They may be very good people, but that has nothing to do with it. We’re not talking about goodness here. We’re talking about importance.

DC You are interested in how one becomes an individual. Does this mean that you are a snob?

AN In a trivial sense, everybody is an individual, but that is not what I am talking about. To become an individual, as I understand it, is to become someone different from the rest of your world. A snob in the most literal sense is someone who believes that it’s wrong, demeaning, or even harmful to associate with people of a lower social or economic class. I’m not a snob in that sense. But a snob can also be someone happy to be engaged in activities others find difficult. There is real positive value in not being like everyone else. And when I look at the world, at our history, I see that we value those who stand out, who are different from others in one way or another. That is a historical fact.

DC Who are your intellectual heroes?

AN My intellectual heroes are people like Nietzsche, who think that many things happen for no particular reason. But once they happen you can use them for your purposes. And if you use them successfully, you have given them a reason.

DC How do you view the present state of philosophy?

AN In modern times philosophy has traditionally been taken to be in the broadest sense a scientific discipline. The large questions that are given us either by the nature of our lives or by reason or whatever, the questions that are given us by our history, these are the questions philosophers answer. But in ancient Greece, as well as in a modest modern tradition, the primary issue is not to find answers to particular philosophical questions like “What is knowledge?” or “What is reality?” or “What is good?” The primary issue is to live a philosophic life. To be a philosopher is to be a certain kind of person, not simply to have views on certain issues. A philosopher who is a certain kind of person is also, of course, a person who has views on philosophical issues. But what matters is not just the answers such a person gives. What matters is the kind of connections you establish between various philosophical issues and the rest of your life. What matters is that a personality emerges who has asked certain kinds of questions and given certain kinds of answers to them, and who, most importantly, has constructed a life around such questions and answers.

DC This really is treating the world as a work of art. Is that an anti-scientific position?

AN It’s neither anti-rational nor anti-scientific. I am thinking of two very different traditions, one scientific, one more artistic. Both have a perfectly fine place in the economy of life. Both are needed. What has happened in modern times, especially in the universities, is that the scientific, the systematic way of doing philosophy, is the only approach to philosophy allowed, as if the other tradition never existed. In the book, I am trying to reclaim the defining tradition of Greek philosophy, philosophy as techne tou biou—the art of living. Though “art” is not a particularly accurate translation of the Greek techne , which is not art in the sense of our “fine art,” but something between art and craft. I’m trying to reclaim that tradition and to say that it has in fact been present in modernity, though we academic philosophers haven’t seen it. The public reads Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Montaigne and Pascal, not John Locke or Leibnitz. The public reads the philosophers of the art of living, not the systematic thinkers.

DC Your interests have little to do with “cultural studies”?

AN I am engaged in a very different enterprise. Cultural studies also address television, but what I do with television is very different. I am trying to locate aesthetic values in popular culture, not to discover or reveal its influence on our moral sensibility.

DC Moralizing is not your concern?

AN I am an aesthete; that is the one “sin” I confess to. If I do have a public message, it is that aesthetic facts—beauty, style and elegance, grace and connectedness—are crucial to life.

DC Life would be boring without interpretation, it would be a picnic on a rainy day.

AN To say that suggests that we have a choice over whether to interpret or not. I don’t think we do. We’re condemned to be interpreters. The only question is whether we do it well or badly: do we interpret in an original manner or in the way others have already interpreted? Will we simply follow the authority of others, or are we strong enough to establish our own? And I don’t mean this in a political sense, as we generally understand politics.

DC I’ve read about someone like this, Socrates!

AN Socrates (though not everyone agrees with me) was concerned with himself above all else. Athens came second. By contrast, those who take care of the affairs of the state won’t be able to think too much about themselves. Buses won’t go, sewers won’t run, welfare checks will not be written out, national defense will fail if political leaders are Socratic individuals. You can’t have Socratic society and yet, a society with no Socratics is a deficient society. How deficient? In what way? If I say that it will be a boring society, you will say, “But you’re being an aesthete!” I can’t say that an un-Socratic society will be less moral—I am not at all sure about that. But it will certainly be less variegated, with less sense of how many different things are possible. I don’t know what words to use for such a society—Less moral? Less beautiful? Less imaginative? It would be a society that understands less about possibility and therefore less about contingency. Imagination is necessary everywhere. In Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, imagination unfettered by reason creates horrors. I want to say that reason unaided by the imagination is in fact asleep, and that we are close to that kind of sleep in America and in Europe right now. Reason is falling asleep because it is abandoned by imagination—imagination is the sense that different things are always possible. Is that optimistic? I don’t think so. The possible includes the terrible.

DC What makes a society memorable?

AN What do we admire the Greeks for? For Plato, Aeschylus, Homer. Of course we also admire them for creating what we call “democracy.” But in Athenian democracy there were 30,000 citizens, thousands of non-citizens (including all women), and countless slaves. The average life of a slave in the Athenian silver mines was less than a year. You entered the mine and never stood up again; you lived the rest of your life crouching, and soon you died. We don’t admire the Greeks for their morality. We admire the Greeks mostly because of their art.

DC But this is unreflective because we haven’t considered the price of their art.

AN What we do instead is to turn their art itself into a moral force. We interpret their art morally. We interpret their art as telling us how we should live. And since we find good advice in it, we conclude that they must have been good people. In fact they weren’t. But they are still admirable. There’s a lesson in that.  

David Carrier has published studies of Poussin’s paintings, Baudelaire’s art criticism, and American abstract painting. His most recent book is Garner Tullis: The Life of Collaboration. The Aesthetics of the Comic Strip will be forthcoming out in 1999. He is working on A Philosophy of Art History: The Princeton-Hangzhou Lectures.

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Originally published in

BOMB 65, Fall 1998

Featuring interviews with Yusef Komunyakaa & Paul Muldoon, Ian McKellen, Sam Taylor-Wood, Thomas Nozkowski, Geoffrey O’Brien, Alexander Nehamas, and Mark Richard.

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