1 The unexamined life is not worth living does not seem true. We can be very hurt in friendships and relationships; we can fall to pieces when goals, large or small, can’t be met. When we try to isolate our disappointment, we find it complex. There’s lots of self-blame, some of it warranted. Lots of indicators passed over because of hoping for and fighting for a greater good. Lots of things and events we couldn’t conceive, much less control.
The “examined” life asks us to find knowledge in moments where we have been especially ignorant. Even if this is not a superhuman task, does it make sense? Can’t wisdom be accumulated on a practical level, with painful memories put aside? Why do we have to face the prospect of tearing ourselves down to build ourselves back up?
2 There’s another complaint about the examined life I should outline. Julian Baggini in “Wisdom’s Folly” argues that it is hopelessly elitist: “though almost everyone questions the way they live at some point, it is probably only a minority who subject it to Socratic scrutiny.” He sees a great injustice in implying the labor required for survival does not have the value of seriously thinking through things: “The bulk of humankind, today and in history, has been far too busy struggling for survival to engage in lengthy philosophical analyses.”
This sounds like a fair complaint. I don’t really want my value to depend on how smart I am or the rigor of my thought. But it would be nice if the dignity of my life were evaluated relative to my efforts. The trouble with such a sentiment is that if life does demand some reflection, then one wants to have engaged in the best reflection possible. This is non-negotiable: plenty of people labor because they have made serious decisions about their lives, decisions made with a real appreciation for “Socratic scrutiny.” People who don’t do this—people who get their opinions from whatever is before the commercial break—we call “tools.” They play at reflection and get played; they have answers which break apart when the smallest question is asked; many have very strong opinions about what everyone else ought to do.
Baggini’s argument that self-examination leads to dismissive elitism has another component. He holds that the “examined life,” for Plato and Socrates, is “noble.” It is “an encouragement to be fully human, to use our highly developed faculty of thought to raise our existence above that of mere beasts.” However, this implies that there are “human beings who do not [think properly], and so have valueless, bestial lives. The noble ideal has a harsh implication: some in the herd of humankind may as well be animals, or dead.”
I have two arguments with Baggini on this point. First, you can argue that philosophy is a noble endeavor—I spent a dissertation doing that—but you must actually engage what “nobility” was in Socrates’ time. You can find ambitious young men, like Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, saying that acquiring necessary and proper knowledge is noble, but too much knowledge and too many questions are only detrimental to individuals and society. People will praise the arts a sophist can teach, but they will still find association with a sophist disreputable. The safe argument is that philosophy itself is not generally considered noble. If one does argue that it is noble, this is in opposition to a notion of nobility which exists to generate a political elite, an elite which at times tries to rule people as if they were a herd.
Second, some people become worse than useless. Some people embrace evil. They have not engaged in serious reflection, they’ve allowed themselves to be swallowed up by a cult or their own anger. Calling them animals is an insult to animals, but the heart of the matter is this: instead of acting in, say, the service of the Reich, those people should have been doing anything else, including pouring over the books and learning how to question themselves and their own capacities. Baggini neglects the importance of “moderation” regarding the Socratic character, and I almost forgot it myself. Socrates is moderate to comical extremes. In Xenophon’s Apology, Socrates deals with the pain of an Athens cut off from its food supply better than most because he’s been starving himself his whole life. Moderation, though, is why a true philosopher would never demean the labor of another because it was manual labor. Moderation is why intellectual labors are necessary—a “mean” must be identified—and why tolerance, ironically enough, comes to an end. I can’t take credit for this quote—“first they came for the Nazis, and then the problem ended because the problem was the Nazis”—but I can’t recommend it highly enough.
3 So: the unexamined life is not worth living has a power not immediately obvious. Serious self-examination isn’t necessarily about our personal happiness or what is best for us. It’s really about avoiding our worst outcome: becoming a person we detest, becoming someone who harms others with no regard for the pain they cause. One might say this makes philosophy useless, as religion and most systems of laws can show one plenty of ways to not hurt others. I’ll just whistle as that’s being said and keep talking to the large number of people serious about religion and politics who desperately want to know more about philosophy because they want to know how best to challenge their own thinking.
But if I make philosophy sound like another religion or regime, I’m not telling the truth. Love of wisdom is a way of life, and it’s a way of life which requires especial effort to achieve. It’s not even clear that Socrates himself always achieves it—when does he know, truly, that he loves wisdom? Speaking about intellectual labor versus manual labor, the few versus the many, is not the central issue. The central issue is the character of eros: if we are to love, how does love of wisdom work?
When one thinks about self-examination and love of wisdom, a number of complications arise. On the one hand, self-examination is a tough, frightful, painful process. On the other, it’s something that can be an addiction. It is possible to think too much and paralyze oneself, to pretend to pursue self-knowledge but not pursue anything at all. What Plato seems to hold as a rough anchor for philosophic eros is “the beautiful:” an object of beauty to be desired and questioned can help us communicate what we’re experiencing and trying to achieve. But this only brings us back to the beginning, when I wondered about tearing oneself down to build oneself up again. Must philosophy be pain?
I don’t know the answer. The unexamined life is not worth living is dark comedy—Socrates says it in a specific context, that of not accepting exile as a punishment. He says this expressly to the jury so they condemn him to death. “Not worth living” is not a throwaway phrase. For ourselves, on an everyday level, I’ll just add this: some things are hard to let go because they really were beautiful, and we’re still not sure how. Some ideas and ideals won’t go away because they can’t go away. Tearing oneself down and building oneself up again is the wrong metaphor, though it describes the feeling. The process is turning answers back into questions, but I don’t think any of us have ever been fully aware how much pain—how much history—that entails.