The Unexamined Life

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“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared in his trial, “is not worth living.” His student, Plato, wrote down those words in his account of Socrates’ trial and death, in the book, Apology.*

Socrates was speaking for himself and about the value of his life as a thinking person. He was on trial in 399 BCE for impiety – questioning the gods and introducing new gods – and corrupting youth. His real “crime” was his threat to established thought: he made his followers think, to question everything, to examine their beliefs and their knowledge and determine for themselves its validity. He taught them critical thinking and analysis – a dangerous new way to look at things. It shook the foundations of his society.**

And, of course, here is where Socrates’ approach conflicts with faith. Faith requires us to stop questioning and believe. Socrates exhorted his followers to question. His detractors stood on the firmament of faith. There was bound to be a clash.

The jury found him guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. But more than two thousand years later, Socrates words remain with us, are still repeated and debated today, while the members of the jury and their arguments are long forgotten.

As Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Socrates, of course there were political undercurrents to his trial:

Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’s questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their elders. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates’s much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

Socrates’ famous statement is repeated in the opening of Robert Smith’s book, Breakfast With Socrates (Free Press, New York, 2009), described in a review in The Guardian as, “…an attempt to illuminate daily life by means of philosophy and philosophy by means of daily life.”

The reviewer doesn’t believe the author succeeds and proceeds to find fault.*** However, I take a much more liberal view of the author: as a popularizer of philosophical ideas that most people would find have at best a nebulous connection to their daily lives. Whether he is comprehensive or even correct in his reduction of major ideas is less important that having those ideas introduced to us in a context we can all appreciate.

Smith followed up that book with a similar work, Driving With Plato (Free Press, New York, 2011), which looks at life’s milestones through the eyes of various philosophers. Both can be read cover to cover or chapters at random, picking those that relate more specifically to times, events or activities.

What I think is important about these two publications – as I do when I am reading Montaigne’s Essays, or books about Montaigne – is that statement of Socrates: an unexamined life is not worth living. All of these books are, for me, just part of the large scope of examining my life in the reflection of what others have written about theirs. Rather than try to find their flaws, I try to find their value, try to find how they reflect my own life, my own actions, thoughts and beliefs.

Socrates also commented that, “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing…” (Plato’s Republic, Book I), which is why we need to examine ourselves: to know about who and what we are. To challenge ourselves, to take apart our most cherished and deeply-held beliefs and ideas, and reconstruct them through skeptical eyes. Especially in the information age, we have to explore and evaluate ourselves constantly because we are bombarded by so many ideas and so much information that it becomes difficult to determine the reality, the relevance of any of it without such critical analysis. After all, online all information has the same value, same gravity.

Simon Longstaff wrote in the New Philosopher magazine:

Socrates obviously knows the burden of being free – especially in conditions of radical uncertainty where values and principles might compete with equal ‘weight’. If he cannot convincingly claim that an examined life is necessarily more pleasurable (or even useful) then he is left to suggest that is, in fact, the only life worth living if to be fully human.

Socrates’ notion is subversive, too: when you start questioning, when you start examining your life, where do you stop? You can’t, really. Everything is open to being examined: religion, politics, food, moral and ethical notions, government… but that will challenge and eventually confront others who hold fixed ideas – faith and ideologies on which their world is built. When you question authority, you draw political lines and establish divisions and you shake the foundations of their structures.

But it is equally rewarding: exploring your most cherished beliefs helps keep your ideas and your views refreshed and vital. And if you are honest in your examination, it might allow new ideas, new beliefs to change you, to remake your ideas. If we are not to stagnate, we must always be open to new ideas and challenges. You wake yourself up by questioning yourself.

And to do this, we need tools, just as we need tools to dig the earth or build a house. Philosophers provide them, or at least they open the door for us. It is up to ourselves to enter and find the tools within.Writers like Smith help guide us up the metaphorical path to those philosopher’s doors.

Socrates took his own life in accordance with the sentence passed on him. That seems a somewhat extreme response but I imagine he would have taken the same route today. Would you rather live a life, I imagine the judge asking him, not questioning life, but instead watching TV, playing video games, reading inane bloggers, eating frozen pizza and drinking beer on the sofa, or would you rather drink this hemlock?

~~~~~
* From Plato’s Apology, translation by Benjamin Jowett, in the Internet Classics Archive:

Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you. Moreover, I am not accustomed to think that I deserve any punishment. Had I money I might have proposed to give you what I had, and have been none the worse. But you see that I have none, and can only ask you to proportion the fine to my means. However, I think that I could afford a minae, and therefore I propose that penalty; Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, my friends here, bid me say thirty minae, and they will be the sureties. Well then, say thirty minae, let that be the penalty; for that they will be ample security to you.

** Similarly, the Buddha taught his followers to question their beliefs and their traditions in his famous Kalama Sutra, the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry. Here’s one version of one portion of that text:

The people of Kalama asked the Buddha who to believe out of all the ascetics, sages, venerables, and holy ones who, like himself, passed through their town. They complained that they were confused by the many contradictions they discovered in what they heard. The Kalama Sutta is the Buddha’s reply.

  • Do not believe anything on mere hearsay.
  • Do not believe in traditions merely because they are old and have been handed down for many generations and in many places.
  • Do not believe anything on account of rumors or because people talk a a great deal about it.
  • Do not believe anything because you are shown the written testimony of some ancient sage.
  • Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that, because it is extraordinary, it must have been inspired by a god or other wonderful being.
  • Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor, or because the custom of many years inclines you to take it as true.
  • Do not believe anything merely on the authority of your teachers and priests.
  • But, whatever, after thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it.

The same text, said the Buddha, must be applied to his own teachings.

  • Do not accept any doctrine from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire.

*** For me, Smith’s greatest failing is in taking at face value the pseudoscientific “experiments” of Dr. Masuro Emoto with water crystals, which threatened to turn a philosophical inquiry into daily life into New Age bunkum. I wrote about that claptrap in an earlier post.

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