“…the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates in The Apology by Plato
These words of Socrates are notoriously provocative. Perhaps they should provoke us.
One implication of course is that an examined life is indeed worth living. But just what is an examined life? Presumably it is a life in which asking questions has a central place.
I sometimes say to my students that there are no bad questions. But to tell the truth, I say that because I know the people in my classroom, and my statement is more an expression of hope.
I think there are bad questions, and also bad reasons to ask questions. At the heart of a well-examined life are good questions, that are asked for good reasons.
The other day I was speaking to a young man who said to me in a rather serious tone, “I really like to think about things.” In context, it was clear that he meant something like this: “Already in my young life I’ve seen that there are deep things at stake, and I realize that I’d better attend to them because life is serious; and it takes effort to figure things out.”
It is heartening to see this in a young man. There are significant forces at work, both within us and around us, that militate against our living a recollected and examined life. We are probably not asking certain questions, including about our own life, that really should be asked. One of the first objects of examination should be just what we need to do in order to establish habits of good examination. Then we can set about discerning what questions to ask. And how and where to seek answers.
A husband sometimes find himself asking, “Why does my wife insist on acting like that?” This need not necessarily be a bad question. But in comparison with: “Do my actions elicit the very thing that I find so hurtful?” the first question might well be a bad question.
Some of the best questions might have answers which we would rather not consider. Learning to live an examined life entails, at least in part, learning to ask hard questions, and to reckon with answers we did not expect.
Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Apology is his account of the trial of Socrates, at which he was present.
Image: A fisherman.
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