On Being Human & the Unexamined Life

Wicked men are unkind to the thoughtful.  Even the shortest historical survey reveals great hatred and violence aimed at the virtuous, at those who call upon men to examine their way.  Jesus was “taken, and by wicked hands…crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23), a sentence encouraged by the Pharisees, the experts in the Law, ones we might have expected to embrace His coming.

John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod simply because his wife, Herodias, did not like having their unlawful marriage questioned (Matthew 14:1-12).

Then there is Cicero whose gifted, and perhaps too well-used, tongue shielded the Roman Empire from Cataline’s treason, yet was cut out of his severed head by Marc Antony’s wife.  Cicero questioned authority too much for Marc Antony’s taste.

Of course, Socrates predates the above murders, having been killed by order of the Athenian court in 399 B.C.  Accused of corrupting the young, having no fear of the gods, crimes against the state, and serving as a general “gadfly,” Socrates was sentenced to death.  In the final words of the Apology, Socrates says, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live.  Which is better God only knows.”

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those words seem to echo his earlier statement, “If I say again that the greatest good of 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.  And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.”  Socrates preferred death to a “life” lived in thoughtlessness and, thus, without virtue.  In fact, the literal rendering of Socrates’ familiar statement in Greek is something like this: “The unexamined life is not worth living for men” or “is not worthy of men.”

In other words, to Socrates, living a thoughtless life meant living a sub-human life.  Examination and conversation lead to knowledge of the truth; and knowledge of the truth leads to virtue.

In response to the charges of corrupting Athenian youth, Socrates argued, “But either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally, so that on either view of the case you lie.  If my offense is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional offenses: you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me; for if I had been better advised, I should have left off doing what I only did unintentionally” (emphasis mine).

Socrates claims that evil is done unwillingly or, better, unknowingly.  Perhaps that is why the serpent had to deceive Eve in the garden and why man, in his fallen condition, must “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18ff.) if he is to continue in unrighteousness.  When man gives thought to his ways, his guilt is ever before him and the law of God, which is written upon his heart, screams.  Man, fallen though he is, still bears the inescapable image of God.

With this in mind, we need not marvel that man so occupies himself with “amusements” (literally, to not think), gadgets, increased speed of life, and persistent noise.  After all, silence and slowness lead to reflection.

We need not wonder why modern education must be geared to the job market, the acquisition of facts, and specialization, rather than the pursuit of knowledge and virtue, which should lead man to repentance.  While education does not replace the work of the Holy Spirit in man, it is intended to work in harmony with the Spirit.  As J.R.R. Tolkien said, true education should be a kind of perpetual repentance, a turning from the path of ignorance and sin to knowledge of the truth and virtue.

Republished from my column for the Circe Institute.

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