A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

The Examined Life

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on February 13, 2013 at 6:00 am
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Okay, fine. It took only two weeks to fall off the theme-day thing. As two tribe members noted, Thursday Theme Day flew in the face of the spontaneity that defines “…the house…” Regardless, in short order it became a chore, self-imposed at that, and there is little reason to accept such discipline.

With that bit of housekeeping completed, let’s talk about the death of Socrates and the examined life. The examined life is a frequent theme  here: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. It occurs to me that perhaps you are not aware of the tradition behind this ancient saying. Please allow me to tell you the story (a bit editorialized, thank you very much.) (And in that spirit, this is a long post. I understand if you aren’t interested in spending the time on it. Frankly, if I were you, I doubt I would spend that much time with me. If that’s the case, I invite you to scroll to the bottom for a brief summary, as well as some reading recommendations.)

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Ruins of the Agora

Ruins of the Agora

Socrates held truth a thing to be pursued, not discovered, an idea that takes it off the mount and puts it in the streets. (Oliver Wendall Holmes, a pragmatist, echoed the notion when he remarked to a friend, “All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.”) And that is where he spent his time, in the streets, talking to anyone who would listen. Xenophon wrote that he “was always on public view.” He continues, “Socrates used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.” * His student, Plato, recorded him referring to himself, fittingly, as a gadfly. (It is important to know that Socrates left no written record. Most of what we know of him was recorded by his student and younger friend, Plato. Plato, by the way, was the teacher of Aristotle, who, in case you are not aware, was the teacher of Alexander the Great, Alex making a cameo here at “…the house…” just a couple of weeks ago.)

He was well known in Athens for years prior to his trial. Aristophanes mentions him in his comedy The Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portraying Socrates as a sophist. There is no historical evidence that Socrates was associated with the sophists, His recorded sayings do not support this account. The sophists had a dicey reputation in Athens at the time. The historian G.B. Kerferd described the sophists of this period as : “…a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”

The climate at the time was tense. The year was 399 B.C. The city (Athens) guardians were being pressed for reform and the youth were restless. So it came to be that Socrates, a pain in the backside to those holding to the status quo, was arrested on charges of “corruption of youth” and “impiety.” Specifically, the impious acts were: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”  (“Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all?” asks Nietzsche. “And did he deserve his hemlock?”)

He was brought to trial. The law in Athens dictated that such cases not exceed a day’s length and the old philosopher knew that he could not make his case in just a day. Instead he began to challenge the jurors.

“Some will say: Yes, Socrates, but you cannot you hold your tongue….Now, I have great difficulty in making you understand my

Socrates on trial.

Socrates on trial.

answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true….”

In essence, he claimed that the jurors (citizens of Athens selected by lottery) could hardly be expected to be sympathetic, as they had little appreciation for philosophy. His tone, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia, was reprimanding and unapologetic. If Plato and Xenophon are to be believed, Socrates sought not to persuade, but to lecture and provoke.

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give account of your lives But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring lives your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves.”

The law held that the guilty party had to kill himself, hence the hemlock. It was expected, and suggested by his followers, that he would flee.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Most hold that he did not flee on moral grounds, that seeing the sentence through to completion was his moral obligation. And so it was, indeed.

* Fittingly, my first trip abroad, over thirty years ago, found me in Athens. Surprisingly, my travel journal from that trip has survived the years. The young man (me) wrote: “The Agora left little impression upon me; it once housed such great thoughts as those proclaimed by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, yet one feels no inclination to think more profoundly because of common ground crossed.”  (I was painfully ponderous even then.)

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Editorial Manifesto:

Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. I disagree with the fundamental premiss, the notion of a life not worth living; but that’s not the point. Inverted to the positive, Socrates’s admonition might be understood to read: The examined life is (more) worth(y of) living. He did not say, What is the meaning of life?; rather he made a value statement on existence. He did not suggest developing a flow chart, or creating a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. No Powerpoint. No life coach. He exhorted, in my shorthand, simply: Examine. Accept nothing less than an adequate accounting. It is an open and expansive thought. Conversely, drilled into us from childhood: seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

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Although I’ve not read it, I understand that I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, is an excellent read if you’re interested in the history.

9781250002327If you are curious to read the thoughts of a working philosopher on the matter of living fully the examined life, I suggest the late Robert Nozick‘s (1938-2002),  The Examined Life, Philosophical Meditations. Along similar lines, but more historical, you might enjoy James Miller’s Examined Lives, From Socrates to Nietzsche. It was a 2011 New York Times Notable Book and is imminently readable.  Lastly, if you wish to urlwade deep into these waters, consider Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, specifically the last chapter, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.”

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it interesting.

d

My breakfast with Michael.

In Creativity, Mythology, Philosophy, The Examined Life on January 21, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’m away from home, back in Maryland, where I used to live, and have just finished breakfast with one of my oldest and best of friends, Michael. I’ve written before about Michael, specifically our climbing life together, as well as the question he once put to me, “Is that all there is?” He is, to state it candidly, a constant source of interest. He has a keen mind that is curious to exhaustive degrees. Too, he exhibits a natural and uncanny ability to make unique and surprising observations. This from a man without  a lot book reading or higher education. He is one of those rare raw individuals that addresses life without the pretense most of us, for one reason or another, construct around our existence.

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Socrates, instigator of “the examined life.”

Upon sitting he declared that he was keenly pursuing “the examined life.” I was not aware that he was a member of “…the house…” and he smiled broadly at the declaration. An hour into our conversation he had a revelation. Our conversation had roamed widely: tribalism, religion, Stoicism, biology, creativity, evolution, Zen. We were off and running when he had a unique and creative thought.

I saw the idea unfold in front of me. “Like you,” he said, “I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason.” He said he found this notion, though comforting to so many, to be nothing more that a self-imposed fashion of mind-control. “I don’t believe in the mystical either,” he declared. “Yet,” he continued, “there is a place not mystical but beyond irony. I don’t have a name for it.” I put up my finger. “Wait,” I said. I thought out loud: “Beyond irony?” I was captivated by that idea, though I had no inkling of what it meant. “…but short of mysticism.” He smiled. I smiled. I asked if he could give me an example. There was a long silence, accompanied by head holding.

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Sisyphus

We had been talking about Camus’s take on the story of Sisyphus. Was it beyond irony, I asked, that Camus, the saint of the absurd was killed in a car crash after declaring that he was afraid of cars? We didn’t think so. That was just coincidence too close to simple irony. Perhaps it was like a Zen koan, I suggested: a thing that cannot be explained with the rational mind, but yet can be known intuitively? We agreed that that was closer. And so the conversation continued without resolution. We parted ways with Michael promising to come up with an example.

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In search of the land north of irony, south of mysticism.

An example–what is beyond irony but short of mystical?– would be nice and I will be thinking toward one as well. But more I like the notion that the thing is ineffable–which is not to be mistaken with the mystical. Although I want to explore this territory beyond the land of irony that stops at the foothills of mysticism, I was more energized by the process of our discussion than the construction of a new idea.

We began our conversation bemoaning the atrophy of creativity in our lives, then launched into one of the most creative of dialogues, resulting in a thing or two worth pondering. The point is, at least as it settled on me, that the things we value–in this instance creativity–do not exist without our effort to sustain them. To sit and moan over a loss that can be, indeed was, reversed–is that not perhaps a thing “beyond irony?”

Sunday Repost: Decide to Live

In Books, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Writers on January 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
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The Razor’s Edge

A friend recently loaned me his well-read copy of Somerset Maugham‘s 1944 classic The Razor’s Edge. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to get back to since first reading it in college. (It needs a re-reading if for no other reason than to get the Bill Murray movie out of my head.) Last night I finished Ruth Franklin’s review of Selina Hastings new Maugham biography, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” found in the May 31st issue of The New Yorker. If I were to subscribe to the popular notion that everything happens for a reason, I would think the universe was sending me a message. But I don’t subscribe to that notion, nor do I think the universe is singling me out for inspiration. Rather, I chalk it up to a happy coincidence and the fact that my antenna are tuned to a certain frequency right now.

The book, as I recall, is the tale of one man’s quest for authenticity, and authenticity is a subject I’m spending a good bit of time researching lately. I am trying to trace the idea back to Socrate’s observation that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s a big subject and I will save the conversation for a different forum.  But back to Maugham. Wikipedia summarizes the plot of the book this way: “The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American fighter pilot (Larry Darrell) traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life…” That pretty well fills the bill. It’s what the antenna are testing for.

This theme was again played out this morning by that sage of common wisdom, Ben Stein, on CBS Sunday

Ben Stein

Ben Stein

Morning. If you missed it, here’s a link: “How to Live: Follow Your Heart…” Ben was addressing the graduates in the audience and he ends his essay with this advice: Decide to Live. As with most of Ben’s advice it is spot on. It again brings me around to my subject of authenticity, the examined life, and the Razor’s Edge. Two sentences from Ben’s short essay stand out. He is talking about people who are happy, and this is what he says:  “They decided to do what their hearts told them to do, to do what was in them to do. They took risks and they took chances, and they tried a lot of different things until they got to where they wanted to be.”

I’m not sure how happiness, the examined life, “transcendent meaning” and all that square precisely, if they indeed do. I think they do, and I’m looking into it.

Lastly, a bit of advice, parallel to the theme, from William James. From a letter to his son, James said simply: “Live hard.”

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A NOTE ON HOUSEKEEPING

I’ve added a resource that I hope you’ll find helpful. Check out the “Bookshelf” link just below the header. A click will launch a shelf of books we’ve discussed here at “…the house…” An additional click will launch additional information about the book, author, and so forth.

I’m hoping to add categories–biography, memoir, fiction, etc. But that requires a degree of expertise still under development by your humble host.

Thanks for reading,

d

Existential Origins

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on August 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Socrates famously declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Twenty-five hundred years later Albert Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus with the assertion that, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Cynically, one might ask if Socrates, by drinking the hemlock–the death sentence imposed by the state, rather than arguing for clemency–presaged Camus’s existential challenge? Might he have failed in the examined life he sought? We know the factors leading up to his sentence. And we recognize the virtue–as he defined it, arete, an informed moral knowledge that sees with clarity–motivating the course he took. Yet, they are curious bookend observations.

I am again reminded of Camus’s notebook fragment: “…That wild longing for clarity.”

The Limit of Anything is not a Natural Place

In Books, Reading, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on May 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I’m told the key to writing a good blog is to know a subject and stick to it. A blog should be focused and appeal to an audience interested in the subject. Well, that’s two strikes against me.

What am I doing here–here being the blog (although “here” being life is also under consideration)–and why am I doing it? I’ve been toying with these questions. It’s my way of sorting things out, toying with them. I go to other blogs and they are about something. Politics, culture, travel, finance, and so on. I have nothing so sexy going for me as all that. This blog is about me writing about me. That is, recursively–it’s about writing (not the explicit discussion of, but the practice), and the reading behind the writing. Secondly, and thoroughly intertwined, it’s about a life, my life. Together they make something of which I am unsure. I am the student of that something, trying to be more sure.

On the writing side of the quest–and it is a quest–I have been enamored with the idea of writing fiction, the novel specifically, all my life. Being enamored of a thing does not make it so. Despite attempting to train for the long haul, as Hemingway admonished, I have no endurance. If a gene for genre exists, mine would be inherited from Montaigne, albeit in such a diluted form as hardly perceptible. I am an essayist. And to make matters worse, in this day and age of the navel-gazing memoirist, I, if pushed for a confession, am most guilty of committing the crime of the personal essay. There, I said it and feel better for it.

The reading behind the writing is found throughout the postings here. I’ve said it elsewhere, I am–and have been–a lot of things over the years. The one thing that remains, and steadily so, is me the reader.

If this were simple math, the denominator in this quest fraction, is my life. Can I understand it better? How? Here’s the framework I like to use: Socrates’s admonition: The unexamined life is not worth living. He did not  say, Answer the question of life; rather question it, examine it. He didn’t say, Develop a flow chart,  or create a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. He exhorted, simply: Examine life. Accept nothing less than an adequate account. It is an open and expansive thought. Contrariwise, it is drilled into us from childhood, seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

Often, for me, to examine is simply to be awake to life. If nature instills a sense of wonder, it is a function of examination to be aware of wonderment. Just as often, the notion of the examined life is less effortless and more grinding, a struggle to be more authentic. Authenticity is, in my math, the result of life multiplied by examination. Authenticity is the anthesis of complexity, I think, and is, as Sartre, said, at the limits of language. That is the grind. The limit of anything is not a natural place.

So, back to where I started, the nature of this blog. To summarize, it–the blog, “…the house…“–is the notebook in which I work out my quest to examine a life wishing to be authentic. My tools are ancient and simple: the words I cobble together.

What now?

“What I am, I am by myself.”

In Life, Music, Religion, Thinkers, Travel on April 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Do you ever ask yourself what is the best we have to offer? The “we” here is the species, homo sapiens. I will pass completely on the who or what to whom we offer (the verb implying such: O.E., ofrian, from L. offerre “to present, bestow, bring before”). Not bringing this before anybody/-thing but myself, and I am the project here. Back to subject: What is the best we have to offer? I’ve been asking myself this lately and, assuming there is an answer, wondering why I’m not intent, no, hell-bent, on knowing better what that might be exactly. If you spend half your life living, maybe the second half, gods willing, should be spent trying to understand at least one true thing.

I speak as a Westerner, Norther Hemisphere. I think Confucius and the Buddha rank among the best, but, try as I might, I cannot connect there with a sense of well-intentioned synchronicity, if that makes any sense. And to a grown up kid from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, it makes sense to me, even if it doesn’t to you. (I have studied their work some, the Buddha in particular, gone to Deer Park at Varanasi, where he spent forty-years teaching. But there is a sense, synaptic probably, that inhabits the young mind grown old(er) that cannot readily adapt to new neural pathways.) So, travel aside (I’ve also walked the Via Dolorosa. That works no better, really. And ultimately we settle for what works–that is the nature of pragmaticism.), what settles and feels right? What makes sense. But I digress.

I’m coming to some conclusions and they are rudimentary. But they are a start. Socrates. Montaigne. Nietzsche. Beethoven. Mahler. Certainly Bach. Don’t you seek resonance with what preceded you? The big stuff, in particular? I want to connect with someone who got it. And I don’t accept mysticism. I think these guys got it. And many others.

“What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself,” said Beethoven. “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” What I am, I am by myself. That declaration gives me great consolation. But what is this thing, myself? I have failed the Greeks in their first and most important admonition, Know thyself. So, that said and done, plot a course and take coordinates. Set out and discover. If we indeed stand on the shoulders of those who proceeded, us, shoulders of the giants–should we choose to climb upon them–we must not take for granted the view. That for starters. The rest will follow.