The Examined Life

1. The Road Not Taken

 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

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Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

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And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

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I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In Plato’s “Apology” Socrates tells us that the “unexamined life is not worth living as he defends himself from the accusations that he has corrupted the young of Athens.  When I ask my students what they believe Socrates means by this quote they inevitably respond by saying that he means that one should ask questions.  I don’t think this is a wrong answer; it just does not seem to capture the depth of what Socrates is saying.   Read the passage that contains the quote and I think you will concur (Jowett translation):

“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe.”

Socrates is clearly saying that learning and philosophy consists of asking questions but he is also saying that the daily investigation of virtue or morality is a central aspect of the examined life. Of course, he expects his judges to be incredulous and I am inclined to believe that little has changed.  My interpretation of this passage suggests that Socrates is saying that one needs to search for the ethical basis of one’s life.  And that that search is a lonely one. This is ultimately what leads to his well-known equation that wisdom=virtue. To know the good is to be wise; to be wise is to be virtuous.

The Greek” ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ” may be translated as a life lacking inquiry is not a human life and this is the part that usually disturbs students. Is Socrates saying that some people are not human?  Well, yes.  Socrates is saying, I believe, that, to be human is to learn, to inquire and to not exercise those faculties is to fall short of realizing your humanity. In a manner of speaking it is not enough to be merely born human, one need to earn it by living the philosophical life. One may be a member of Homo sapiens sapiens but one needs to grow into one’s humanity. One achieves this by daily reflection, inquiry, searching for knowledge, learning and examining ones-self and others.   This is what Aristotle would come to realize it means to be human and to come closest to the divine in realizing our true human capabilities. This sentiment is also echoed later by Thoreau when in “Walden” he writes of life’s necessaries:

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically…”

We hear Thoreau affirming Socrates insistence that the VITA PHILOSOPHICA starts with ascertaining one’s practical moral outlook, to love wisdom, and turn it  into a practical life. This is what Thoreau knew would help prevent each of us from “leading lives of quiet desperation” and what Socrates warned his accusers about when they spent their  lives accruing wealth, seeking power and  celebrity. It is so much more than merely asking questions. It is also living an ethical life.   Vernon Parrington eloquently writes of Thoreau in his 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning book,” Main Currents in American Thought”:

“His life seems to have been a persistent experiment in values. A philosopher of the open air who kept his mind clear and his nerves robust by daily contact with wind and weather; a mystic who pried curiously into the meaning of nature and was familiar with Hellenic and Oriental systems of thought; a Yankee, skilled in various homely crafts, yet rather interested in proving for himself what things were excellent and taking nothing on hearsay — Thoreau’s chief business would seem to have been with life itself, and how it might best be lived by Henry Thoreau; how a rational being, in short, might enjoy the faculties God has given him, following the higher economy and not enslaving himself to the lower, so that when he came to die he might honestly say, I have lived.”

Echoing Both Socrates and Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi was once asked what was the ideal life and he is reputed to have said, “simple living and high thinking.” I think this is what Socrates is telling his judges, namely that it is the best of the human condition to “persistently experiment with values” or to live an examined life daily conversing about virtue and live the life of the road less taken… I take it in a strange way this is this why the late Steve Jobs said in the October 29 2001 issue of “Newsweek” that,

“I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

 

 

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