“the unexamined life is not worth living” — Socrates
I was moved by this statement when I first heard it about a year or so ago. It felt like common sense to me. I am not too proud to say this in hindsight. I have debated with many a person, though most of those people are imagined instead of real, that the pursuit of knowledge is among the most worthy goals to pursue and perhaps subconsciously looked down upon those unable to appreciate this understanding. And yet, although I have staunchly defended this view, I sort of knew it was not a popular one and not one I should voice too loudly. Also, I had a sense that something about it was probably not true and I hate being wrong or looking like a fool. Yes, my insecurities abound. Well, I feel a fool now. I started down a path of philosophy recently while reading a book about genius. Genius, being another thing that I probably had and maybe still have many wrong ideas about, which I will have to discuss another time. This book, The Geography of Genius, (Weiner, 2016) which starts its journey in Ancient Athens prompted me to brush on philosophy, a subject I knew very little about. I started googling facts about the Ancient Greeks specifically the big three philosophers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It dawned on me how little I know of them except for the stray quote. In reading about these ancient philosophers I began to ask myself the question is philosophy still relevant today which led me to an even more fascinating book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy won’t go away (Goldstein, 2014) which tipped me on to the influential A History of Western Philosophy (Russell, 1945). I have spent the weekend reading both these books and I’ve realized how my soul has ached for philosophy and it was precisely the kind of thing I was attempting to do many times during my general search for knowledge throughout the course of my life. How stupid I feel now! having been enlightened somewhat and yet I sense I have a long way to go. What I did learn through my readings, a point that has been pointed out again and again by Goldstein is that the statement “the unexamined life is not worth living” is quite elitist and ironically dim. Why should any other life be less worth living? And certainly many people have done interesting things with their life without explicitly setting out to discover knowledge. Further, doesn’t every life matter, whether interesting or not? It’s perhaps common sense that knowledge does not necessarily equal wisdom, and unapplied knowledge is no better than having no knowledge. Such things have plagued my thinking, but yet I hung to my intuition that seeking knowledge was better than not seeking it. Now, I see more clearly that seeking knowledge is good for me. I, Alex Dennis, derive much pleasure from seeking knowledge and gaining wisdom and the extent that others should be like me is very much doubtful. I think I finally have this question resolved in my heart and I can finally see that non pursuit of knowledge at least to the level that I like to pursue it is not important to everyone and that is just fine. I must confess that even though I had some sense of this, I did not have it totally resolved in my heart to the extent that I do now. I feel a weight off my shoulders. I see much more clearly. I feel firstly, less guilty about my own pursuit of knowledge, seeing it more clearly for what it is, something I specifically enjoy and that by doing so I am not any better than the person who is not lit up the same way by such pursuits. I now feel less guilty that I am doing something of no value, since it is of value to me and that is good enough for me. And no longer will I unconsciously look down on those completely uninterested in either reading books or engaging with me in discussion, first proposed by Socrates though the dialectical method, to uncover universal truths. I don’t know if this is what Socrates meant as he stood trial for trying to inspire young people to think when he uttered this line in his defense. Perhaps he meant that all people, like him, should engage in the pursuit of knowledge as a foremost goal, as I once thought. I prefer to believe that Socrates just meant that they should at least pursue some knowledge and not just accept ignorance, but by the statement in question about the unexamined life, he meant it for himself. He meant that for him, he could not have been any other way. The state could not compel him to reign in his curiosity and his pursuit for knowledge which in the Socratic method involved engaging other minds and not just his own. He would rather die than have that taken from him.
I am sure many scholars have written on this subject throughout the thousands of years since Socrates was found guilty and executed. I know I am not saying anything original here but I thought I would chronicle my journey for the record. What I really should do is find someone with whom I can discuss this, but for now, I suppose a Medium article will do.