Is The Unexamined Life Worth Living?
Presented on January 30, 2000
Super Bowl Sunday at the
By William S Jamison
are two reasons I thought this was a good question for the Forum. This is the
first semester our Introduction to Philosophy course at UAA is being offered via
TV. The series that is being shown is titled: “The Examined Life.” So in a
way, this is an advertisement for the course. I hope it runs lots of semesters.
The second reason, is the interest expressed by many in the Forum to find ways
of interesting more people to come to the Forum. I enjoy the Forum and agree we
should try to interest more people to come, but I also think it should not be a
surprise to find most people not interested.
would like to answer this question in the affirmative. Not only is the
unexamined life worth living, but most people should live the unexamined life.
Since I would include Unitarians as included in those that live the examined
life, I would also argue that most people should not be Unitarians.
is the Examined Life?
trace the tradition to Socrates. At the temple of Apollo in Delphi
the entrance was inscribed, “Know Yourself.” Prior to Socrates this most
likely meant that people should know their place. That is, each of us should
understand our place in the status quo and act as our place requires.
Socrates changed the interpretation of “Know Yourself.”
to his speech recorded in Plato’s Apology,
Socrates explained: His friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi to say if
anyone was wiser than Socrates. The Pythian priestess said, "No one was
thought this was unbelievable. He decided to find a wiser person so he could go
to the God and say, "So here is someone wiser than me even though you said
no one was wiser!" He began examining those in Athens that thought
themselves wise. What he discovered was that there were a lot of men that were
wise in their own specialties, say, as craftsmen or poets, but being experts in
one thing led them to mistakenly think they were wise in everything. His
examining process we call Socratic dialogue, or dialectic, or Socratic method,
but the technique was sure to convince anyone that thought they knew all the
answers that they were mistaken. He came to conclude, “The truth is my fellow
Athenians, that only God is wise. What the oracle meant was that what we know is
little or nothing. Apollo didn't just mean me; I am just an example. What God
means is, "The wise know their own wisdom is worth no more than
killed Socrates for his efforts. Perhaps some of this was political
but they charged him with atheism and corrupting the youth. He defends himself
against the atheism charge very well. In fact, since most of the Platonic
dialogues are named after a person that participates in it, I thought it
interesting that the trial is called the Apology. After all, the God that
virtually acts as Socrates’ demon (or conscience – with knowledge) is
Apollo. The name “Apollo” is “apo” meaning “of, or from” and
“llo” or the root for “Logos” which means “reason.”
I have not found an earlier text named “Apology” but the definition
since is “defense.” Since this is called the defense of Socrates, I wonder
if that is how Apollo became associated with rational defense in a trial, or
even the rational explanation for something we are sorry about. So it seems
clear that the charge of atheism was ill founded, though the point they may have
had was that priests found questions Socrates asked, such as, “Is the pious,
pious because the Gods love it or do the Gods love the pious because it is
pious?” To give you an idea of how annoying that question can be, update it a
little and ask the same thing this way: If Jesus were to come to you and tell
you what you should do, and you were sure it was Jesus
and that He was God, would you question his authority to tell you what was
right? Would you argue with Jesus over what was pious?
was the charge of corrupting the youth on target? I think it was. Socrates was
inspiring the youth to become critical thinkers. He was showing them how to
examine others and themselves by questioning the definitions of the virtues.
This becomes an infinite loop since one definition is defined by others, which
in turn need to be defined. You eventually end up drawing a circle that may show
the use of a word or idea, but not the justification for using it. But something
happens to a person when you first start doing this. You feel a sense of
enthusiasm, or excitement. Interesting enough, if you use the Perseus
project you can read the English and Greek together, and the word for “examined”[i]
strikes me as remarkably like the later Latin expression “ecstasy.” So if
there is a word for the feeling a person has when dialectically examining the
meaning of something important, we may certainly be right in thinking enthusiasm
is a good way to describe it. Once
you get a taste of this kind of thing, you do not want to give it up. When
Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living”[iii]
it seems to me he is not only voicing an unwillingness to stop his way of life,
but can not imagine giving up the ecstasy he has come to feel living that way.
think this is exactly the kind of feeling that has so often been discussed here
at the Forum. We have called it a spiritual uplift that gets us through the
know just how ecstatic you can feel when you are on such a quest and even think
of it as a religious experience myself. I suppose it is the daemon of Apollo
that Socrates was talking about. Aristotle would later even describe the “Good
Life” as “Eudaemonia” or “The Good Demon.” This stuff was better than
physical pleasures, or social ones.
remember how excited I felt when I realized I did not know what Socrates meant
when he said, “Well, although I do not suppose that either
of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better
off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I
neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I
seem to have slightly the advantage of him.”[iv]
I played with the Greek and came up with my own translation: “So I went to
someone who everyone thought was wise, a politician, and look what happened:
while we talked it dawned on me that he was no wiser than me, even though
everyone thought he was so intelligent. He even thought of himself as incredibly
wise. I tried to explain to him that he wasn't as smart as he thought and this
made him mad at me. So I walked off thinking that neither of us were so smart,
but I thought I was better off than he was because he doesn't really know
anything, but thinks he does. I don't know anything, but don't think that I do.
In this I am better off than he is.” But Socrates says he does know things. He
also says that many know a lot about their various crafts. So how could he be
saying no one knows anything in this most famous section? I was positively
elated! I knew I didn’t know something that so many other people thought they
knew! Here was something else I didn’t know! I was excited because I knew I
knew less than everyone else!
is no doubt in my mind that it is important for a community to have members that
engage in critical thinking, and the examined life, but I also think it
important to point out that it is no good for a community to have too many
members doing this.
was enough for them to kill Socrates for corrupting the youth. This was a lesson
not lost on his student Plato who argues in Book 8 of the Republic:
That those who enjoy critical thinking should be very careful how they teach
dialectic to those old enough to start learning it (around thirty!) Because, he
says. “There is a danger lest they should taste the dear delight too early; for
youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in
their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting
others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy-dogs, they
rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them.”
Glaucon replies, “Yes, there is nothing which they like better.”
Socrates, (actually Plato) continues: “And when they have
made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of
many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything
which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy and
all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world.”
too many people in a community enjoyed the examined life the kind of consensus
they would come to would essentially result in no decisions being made at all or
practically none. They enjoy disagreeing with one another and would rather
disagree with one another even when they might have agreed before the other
person said what they thought.
a look at how this evolves into principles that essentially are abstract to the
point of uselessness:
inherent worth and dignity of every
equity and compassion in human relations;
of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
and responsible search for truth and meaning;
of conscience & the use of the democratic process within our congregations
and in society at large;
of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
have to go back to teach “Know Yourself” in the sense of “Know your
place.” Don’t teach critical thinking, or encourage the young to lead an
examined life until they have led a productive life knowing what is good and
right to do, instead of enjoying knowing that no one knows what is good and
would agree with Plato
fact, the condition of most men's souls in respect of learning and of what are
termed [7.344a] "morals" is either naturally bad or else
corrupted,--then not even Lynceus1
himself could make such folk see. In one word, neither receptivity nor memory
will ever produce knowledge in him who has no affinity with the object, since it
does not germinate to start with in alien states of mind; consequently neither
those who have no natural connection or affinity with things just, and all else
that is fair, although they are both receptive and retentive in various ways of
other things, nor yet those who possess such affinity but are unreceptive and
unretentive--none, I say, of these will ever learn to the utmost possible extent
[7.344b] the truth of virtue nor yet of vice. For in learning these objects it
is necessary to learn at the same time both what is false and what is true of
the whole of Existence,1
and that through the most diligent and prolonged investigation, as I said at the
and it is by means of the examination of each of these objects, comparing one
with another--names and definitions, visions and sense-perceptions,--proving
them by kindly proofs and employing questionings and answerings that are void of
envy--it is by such means, and hardly so, that there bursts out the light of
intelligence and reason regarding each object in the mind of him who uses every
effort of which mankind is capable.
suppose I may not even get to this point on Sunday, but we shall see.
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