Wisdom and the unexamined life

Is the unexained life worth living?

Philosophy, from the Greek words philo (love) and sophia (wisdom) means love of wisdom. A lover of wisdom from ancient Greece once said "The unexamined life is not worth living". That man was Socrates. According to legend, his friend once asked the Oracle at Delphi "Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?" The Oracle replied "There is none wiser than Socrates". Let’s take the Oracle at its word for a moment and ask ourselves what this wise man meant by "The unexamined life is not worth living".

Einstein reportedly defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Many of us may recognize a fair amount of this going on in our daily lives. Getting annoyed about things that you know are not worth it. Worrying about future events that you cannot predict. Saying or doing things that you know-- even at the time-- are not in your own best interest or the interests of others.

Why do we do this? Perhaps it is connected with an unexamined life?

Successful businesses spend a lot of time and effort in examining their operations and strategic direction. What works and what doesn't, what are their goals, are they heading the right direction to achieve these goals, what are the proof points for this assessment?

Most of us don’t apply such rigor to our own lives. We don’t ask ourselves what is this life for? Do I have any sense of a particular direction? Are my actions congruent with this direction (if I have one)? Yet we are surprised to find ourselves getting caught up in the same undesirable situations again and again.

If we are to examine our lives, where do we start?

Knowing Thyself

Using the business model, we would start with - what is the aim or purpose of my life? Everything else should flow from this.

This is not a question we are used to asking ourselves. Our instinct may be to turn away from it as an unanswerable question. Or to give it a glib response. But if Socrates is right and an unexamined life is not worth living, then maybe we owe it to ourselves to take this question more seriously. Even to give it the time and space to look at it deeply, as if our very lives depended on it.

Inscribed on the entrance to the temple at Delphi were the words "Know thyself". Perhaps this implies that in knowing yourself all else would flow. Messages from the Oracle were often in the form of a riddle and wrong interpretation would lead one astray. A famous example of this was a King who in response to a question on whether to attack the Persians was advised that if he were to do so, a great empire would fall. He wrongly took this to be the enemy empire and led his army to a war which ended his own empire.

Socrates respected the words of the Oracle, but not being sure of his own understanding, set off on a quest that would take the rest of his life. He sought out wise people and questioned them on their wisdom. On close examination he found all, without fail, had assumptions they could not justify, beliefs they could not account for, and behaviors that were not in accord with their stated positions. The logic of their arguments broke down-- often under the smallest of challenges. Socrates was famous for claiming that he did not know anything. Perhaps this could also be understood to mean he was always open to changing his view given new knowledge or an uncovering of false knowledge. In this quest to know thyself, it seems such an attitude is necessary. We must be prepared to let go of what we think we know in order to truly know.

Seeing Our Beliefs

Examining and understanding where our beliefs and assumptions are coming from is not a small task. We take them so much for granted that we cannot even see them as a set of beliefs or assumptions. They are ingrained in our culture, inherited from ideas born in past generations and past times. Some of them are connected with ideas of what it means to be human or ideas about the nature of the world we live in. And though we might not even be able to articulate what they are exactly, we are strongly bound to and by them. We won’t give them up easily.

It is difficult to examine that which we cannot even see. So the first step must be in seeing more clearly. Our beliefs and assumptions become evident in our behaviours. Though we are often oblivious to our own behaviours, with some effort and practice we can start to see some patterns.

What stops us seeing?

We seem to live much of the time in auto-pilot mode, acting in the moment based on habit. Our minds are engaged in past reminiscing or future prophesying as we go about our daily lives. If we are to examine our lives we must be present for them. Given that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results-- if we want to have different results, we had better try something different. Something new.

So let’s try being present as the first step in examining our lives.

To be present in a moment is to give it attention. Given that we are not used to doing this, it may not be easy to start with. Our minds may resist it as too much effort with questionable results. However, we must consider the cost of an unexamined life when weighting this effort. Do we want to continue a life that has perhaps not been worth living? None of us would willingly sign up to that, but if we are not present and attentive, that might be where we will end up! Let’s be willing to try something different, to start this process.

The writer Marianne Williamson once said - "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is out light, not our darkness that most frightens us".

Socrates’s quest disturbed and angered many of the "wise" who he questioned along his path. They didn’t appreciate having their beliefs and assumptions undermined and shown as insubstantial. Having managed to collect some powerful enemies over a 30-year period, he was sentenced to death on trumped up charges. In the dialog “The Phaedo”, Plato describes the last days of Socrates, his friend and teacher. According to this account, Socrates, the man who had lived an examined life, went to his death with no fear or regret, comforting his friends who were there with him. His legacy-- two and a half thousand years later-- attests to a life that had been worth living.

For nearly 50 years, students of the School of Philosophy have been engaged in an exploration into these larger questions of who and what we truly are and what is the purpose of this life. The discussion continues, following a spirit of enquiry that calls for a willingness to question what we think we know. It also requires us to allow this investigation to have a practical effect in our daily lives. If you are willing to examine your life, if you recognize the futility of doing the same thing over and over and if you are prepared to face the truth of your own inner light, join us in this journey of discovery to know thyself.