Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Evening Note for Wednesday, August 21

Thought for the Evening: The Unexamined Life

One of the many famous sayings that Plato attributes to Socrates is "The unexamined life is not worth living". It occurs in the Apology (37e-38):

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?” Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. This is as I say, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.

Socrates says four other things here that are important for understanding what he means:

(1) To let life be unexamined would be disobedience to the god. The god, of course, is Apollo, through the Oracle at Delphi; Socrates has argued that through the cryptic saying the Oracle gave his friend Chaerephon -- that there is none in Greece wiser than Socrates -- his philosophical mission of asking questions to determine what people know has divine sanction. Thus the unexamined life is in some sense opposed to philosophy as such. More than that, though, he has particularly associated philosophy as a mission of the god with a refusal to fear death -- to fear death requires believing yourself wiser than you could really be (29a).

(2) The examination that is opposite to the unexamined life is the greatest good for human beings. Earlier, Socrates had characterized himself as trying to give to each Athenian what he regarded as the greatest benefit: "to persuade each of you to care for himself and his own perfection in goodness and wisdom rather than for any of his belongings, and for the state itself rather than for its interests, and to follow the same method in his care for other things" (36c). Thus the examined life is one in which being as good and as wise as possible takes priority over other things. He also had previously characterized this as approaching each citizen like a father or brother to persuade each to care for virtue (31b) and the best state of the soul (30a). While he here focuses on the benefit to each citizen individually, he also at times describe it as a benefit for the city as a whole.

(3) The examination that is opposite to the unexamined life is an "every day" examination. To talk of the unexamined life and examination can make it sound like, having the unexamined life, you go away to do some examination, and then you come back to live the examined life. But the opposite of the unexamined life is not an episode of examination but a continuation in examination, to achieve the greatest good. The opposite of the unexamined life is not so much the examined life as the ever-examining one, because that it is what is involved in treating what is best and wisest as more important than other things.

(4) That the unexamined life is not worth living is hard to believe. The reason it is hard to believe is that no one can truly understand the superiority of the philosophical life over the unexamined life without examination. Those who refuse to examine their lives cannot see that there are higher pursuits than the ones in which they are daily mired. We see this in the Allegory of the Cave: the one who was freed from the Cave and returns cannot make the others understand what he has discovered because they still only think in terms of shadows. He tries to explain to them things that are more real and more fundamental than shadows, but all of his words are understood in terms of shadows. Thus they become more and more incredulous until, as the story goes, if they could catch him they would kill him. I've previously noted that in the Allegory of the Cave Plato is flipping the Homeric view of the underworld. Homer has Achilles say that it would be better to be the slave of a poor master than to be among the dead; Socrates earlier in the Republic had criticized this as teaching cowardice in the face of death. In the middle of the Allegory, though, he quotes the very passage he criticized: it would be better to be the slave of a poor master than to live as people live in the Cave. What has changed is that Achilles is saying it is better to be us alive than Achilles dead in the underworld; but Socrates has said that we are the people in the underworld, playing shadow games.

The unexamined life, then, is one of superficial chatter, of distraction, of confusing shadow and substance. This summer, I took an online seminar on Heidegger hosted by Brian Kemple, and one thing that struck me very strongly was that Heidegger identifies each of these three features in talking about 'inauthentic existence': idle talk (Gerede), in which discourse (Rede) is in some sense just a thing that happens to one, understanding only occurring by way of "groundless floating" as the words run on their own, so to speak; curiosity (Neugier), which is a seeing not in order to understand but simply in order to see, and thus restlessly moves from new thing to new thing; and ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit) which is the failure to distinguish between what everyone assumes and the way things are. Heidegger takes each of these to reveal a certain aspect of our potential, because each of these is just the inauthentic mode of some fundamental aspect of our existence. This, I think, is quite an important insight. But it's all left very undeveloped -- one might say dangerously undeveloped -- in Being and Time. A fundamental aspect is the serious lack here, as elsewhere in Heidegger, of any adequate respect for the ethical; when we look at what corresponds to these things in Plato, we see that the ethical is taken to be absolutely central.

But it is worth reminding ourselves of two things that are easy to miss in Plato but that can certainly be seen in comparing and contrasting the Platonic and the Heideggerean view. First, the unexamined life, the life in the Cave, is not something we ever shed, in this life at least. We are more or less always living the unexamined life. It does not matter how philosophical, how self-examining you are, there is always a chattering side to your discourse, although this may sometimes subside into the background. You are always seeing to see. You are always moving tokens around and drawing on 'what everybody knows'. Everybody is always starting with the shadows in the Cave. But, second, there is another side to this, because the relative worthlessness of the unexamined life is not in the life but in the lack of examination. The unexamined life, left to itself, is potential left to rot; one is not merely not being one's best and wisest self, one is not even treating this as something important. But the things of the unexamined life, the shadows in the Cave, are not detached from a greater reality; they are not pure phantasms or fictions. They are starting points that imply something higher and better. They are the defective version of a potential that can, so to speak, be transformed -- can be constantly being transformed -- into what it is supposed to be: not chatter or idle talk but 'talking every day about virtue', participation in the discourse concerned with wisdom; not curiosity but love of wisdom and virtue; not ambiguity or shadow-games but ascension out of the Cave. What we find in the unexamined life going to waste is in reality the bubbling material for the life of examination, the philosophical life.

Various Links of Interest

* Sabrina Imbler discusses the vast fossil collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

* Cody Delistraty, Fra Angelico's Divine Emotion

* A manuscript by John Locke has recently been discovered. Some background to the discovery here.

* Matias Slavov has a good discussion on exactly how Hume may have influenced Einstein (as Einstein always said he had) in the discovery of the theory of relativity.

* Daniel Everett discusses C. S. Peirce.

* If you like public domain ebooks, Standard Ebooks looks like a good source -- their explicit goal is to guarantee that the books are properly formatted.

* People sometimes ask me how I have the time to read all the books I do. I usually say that I mostly do it by opening them and reading through the words. I should just send them to this Pearls Before Swine comic.

* Jeremy Holmes, What a metaphor really means

Currently Reading

Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine
Isidore of Seville, Etymologies
Peter Damian, Peter Damian: Letters 31-60
C. S. Lewis, Poems

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.