All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 1990

A Reviewers Notebook: The Examined Life

Here’s a funny one. After carrying his readers to the very end of his book of meditations called The Examined Life, philosopher Robert Nozick asks that “no reader summarize this book’s contents or present slogans or catchwords from it.” He warns that the trickled-down philosophy “is not worth following.”

But how in Heaven’s name can a reviewer talk about a book of six-or-eight-sided summaries without doing some summarizing of his own? It is indeed part of a necessary summary to say that the book is published by Simon and Schuster in 303 pages for $21.95. Nozick disobeys his own injunction in section after section. He takes on capitalists, Communists, Christians, and nationalists seriatim. He does this in a most even-handed way. No one can say that he is not fair. In a beautiful paragraph he sets forth the capitalist ideal of free and voluntary exchange. Then, back-pedalling with skill, he comes in with a negative summary of the nastier items that are attributed to capitalism—items such as “international predation, companies bribing governments abroad or at home for special privileges which enable them to avoid competition.” This, says Nozick, “is the underside of the capitalist ideal as it actually operates. R is not the whole of the story . . . but it is part of that story.”

Similarly with the Communist, Christian, and nationalist ideals. There are undersides here, too. Ideally, Communism should be operating in a society without class distinctions. Christianity should stress loving one’s enemy, with no violence permitted. But violence is nonetheless part of the story here, as it is in the case of nationalism. If Nozick wants to deny summarization fights to everyone save himself, that is his business. But he believes in

“the problem of evil,” and he can’t resist engaging in eloquent bull sessions about the nature of a God Who, though He is presumably omniscient and omni-competent, allows evil to be. The reader must think he is back in sophomore class when he hears Nozick say that free will is good because it provokes people to think about goodness.

Something perverse in bull session logic leads to asking crazy questions, such as “suppose God created beings with free will in order to make them unpredictable, so that He could follow their story with interest and surprise.” This might be called “God’s television serial.” Query: could an omniscient Being be reduced to such a soap opera level of entertainment without risking the laughter of all the gods on a pagan Olympus or in a Christian Heaven?

Nozick’s chapter on “1ove’s bond” is a lovely bit of writing. It is about the making of new entities in the world consisting of romantic couples who form “we” attachments. A “we” happens when love means that two reflective persons can walk down the streets separately without thinking of “trading up” for better partners.

“Each person,” says Nozick, “in a romantic we wants to possess the other completely yet each also needs the other to be an independent and non-subservient person.”

“Seeing the other with us and made happy through our love,” says Nozick, “we become happier with ourselves.”

The difference between common friendships and the making of a we is tenuous when “trading up” is a possibility, “but between lovers, it never becomes this complicated explicitly.” Lovers should not be expected to solve paradoxes.

Nozick would view with disapproval any effort to undercut his bringing older books into the picture. Yet much of what he has to say about such topics as love, marriage, prayer, happiness, death, and crime and punishment was said by followers of St. Francis of Assisi years—and even centuries—ago.

Kahlil Gibran summarized the Franciscan points in his poetic The Prophet of the Twenties and Thirties. Gibran was a Lebanese who could be both poetic and succinct. The Prophet is still in print (I found a good copy at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on New York’s Frith Avenue, and was informed that the book had sold a total of four million copies).

I found much of Nozick’s book to be blurry and vague. The invocation of a few great names (Rilke, Wallace Stevens, etc.), and the dependence on a many-sided matrix, didn’t help. Nozick piles abstractions upon abstractions in long solid pages that seldom refer to anything concrete. For myself, reality, a favorite word with Nozick, demands a good deal more.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.