Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Philosophy: The Examined Life is Worth Writing About

How does one write an introduction to the topic of Philosophy? It is not too hard to do the same thing for travel, or for creative writing or for metaphor, because those topics are both narrower than Philosophy, and occur at a lower level. By the first of those properties I mean that they are smaller in scope than Philosophy, that they take in less of the world, in much the same way that the topic of “tennis” takes in less than the topic of “sport.” By the second of those properties I mean something that is a little harder to describe. Perhaps I can get at this hard-to-describe thing by saying that Philosophy not only has something to say about the content of those other topics, but also about the form in which that content must appear. It is three-quarters plausible to say that, if we wish to say anything seriously true or interesting about travel or metaphor, and even (perhaps) about creative writing, we not only must say something that adds to Philosophical knowledge; we also must arrive at the things we say in a Philosophical manner, using the methods of Philosophy.

It is a commonplace that Philosophy is not really a collection of doctrines, but a collection of methods; or perhaps a collection of doctrines about methods. I do not just want to repeat that commonplace here (though I think I am in danger of doing so). I want to add to this commonplace the thought that the methods peculiar to Philosophy are not really peculiar to Philosophy: though Philosophy gives them greater emphasis than they are given by other fields of interest, these methods are present in any field of study that is worthy of the name. It is not too hard to elucidate and justify the activity of metaphor, or the activity of travel or of History. But how should we go about elucidating and justifying the activity of Philosophy, when Philosophy is the thing that is meant to disclose what it means to elucidate or justify something? One could just apply Philosophy to Philosophy, I suppose, but that means that the account turns in on itself in a wholly unsatisfying fashion. In elucidating and justifying an activity, one wants to get back from it somehow, to get a good outside view.

So instead of waffling on in this semi-comprehensible way about the difficult nature of describing the nature of Philosophy, I am going to do what any human blogger is bound to do every now and then do, and post an old essay of mine. The essay is a response to the question: If, as Socrates declared, the unexamined life is not worth living, what are the implications for the modern day? Strictly speaking, this essay does not really follow the method of inquiry that Philosophers, or at least one large group of the current species, would probably not regard as real Philosophy. There is just too little sustained and detailed argument here, and too many cute metaphors. This is the sort of essay that you submit for competitions that are put out collaboratively by the English and Philosophy departments; not the sort of essay you would use as the basis for a talk at the annual Philosophy conference. Nevertheless, I am confident that it captures something of the Philosophical spirit (with a bit of History thrown in as well), even if it does not give a very exact imitation of its method.

No worthwhile activity generates freedoms without admitting constraints of some kind, and the most worthwhile activities make use of their constraints to give their freedoms their most rich and liberating form. These ideas are easy to state, but they are hard to fully understand. Socrates, as he appears in the works of Plato, presents one way of understanding them, one system of thought and action that applies its constraints to the advantage of its freedoms, and his understanding is in most respects as relevant to modern times as it was to his own. Socrates advises us to recognise that freedoms and constraints will always pull and push upon eachother; it is not worth trying to escape this interplay, and to have one without the other, but there is great worth in trying to bring this interplay into a more satisfactory form, to let it proceed less in the manner of two fighters, who drag eachother out in a series of fierce and increasingly reluctant attacks, and more in the manner of two dancers, who each achieve, through their contact with one another, a lasting harmony and energy that they could not achieve on their own.

To say, as Socrates said, that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” is to recommend a particular system of freedoms and constraints. Socrates articulated that system in his action and conversation, and through it he recommended a number of qualities, such as humility, honesty, courage, mildness of manner, clarity of speech, a measured scepticism, and a sense of humour. These are all important Socratic virtues, and a full account of the “examined life” would consider all of them, but here it will suffice to consider just three of the defining qualities of the Socratic life: universality, independence, and unity. This account is rendered incomplete by the absence of those minor qualities listed above; and it is also slightly warped, as any account of Socrates is bound to be, by the brilliant heat of Plato. But these effects should not be too misleading, and an account of the three qualities just mentioned is enough to bring into the current century the ideals of a man who lived four hundred years before Christ. This is a long way to move a collection of ideals, and some of them have worn out on the way, or become unrecognisable. But they are a very carefully crafted set of ideals, designed to endure long journeys and changes of climate. Most of them can be easily applied to modern life, both as warnings and as sources of inspiration, and where some of their parts have worn away it is easy to find new parts to fit into the old place. And Socrates gives us every chance of making whatever repairs are needed: the central part of this collection of ideas, the most carefully crafted part, is the part that tells us how to craft our own, and how to do it carefully and well.

To begin with, Socrates tells us that in order to craft ideas with any success, it is necessary to achieve some measure of universality. Although Socrates was a distinctively practical philosopher, a man of the court and the party and the marketplace, he was also a distinctively abstracted philosopher, one who wished in some sense to get above the world of particulars, of courts and parties and marketplaces, and contemplate the world at a level of greater generality. For Plato, and for most philosophers who have come after him, this means not only that he spent his time working with highly general concepts, like justice, knowledge and beauty, but also that he wished to have an awareness of those concepts that was universally valid, an awareness that was free from the peculiar illusions and contingencies of his own condition, or of anyone else’s condition.

The idea that such universality is possible, and that it can be achieved through rational inquiry, has of course been challenged. Those who are fond of discovering portentous correspondences between science and culture will note that one of the most famous scientific theories of our century was called the “Theory of Relativity”, suggestive of the “alterity” present in the modern world, the “decline of centres”, the “eclipse of the grand narratives”, and other ideas that are associated with “postmodernism.” And it is hard to deny that the postmodernist thinkers have responded sensitively to real features of the world (even if they deny that such a thing exists). That is, it is hard to deny that the world is larger, more diverse, and (justifiably) less willing to prostrate itself before the shrine of Western rationality, than some people once thought. Truth, moral legitimacy, correct modes of reasoning: all of these can seem, by virtue of our new sensitivity to this largeness and diverseness, to be relative to each person’s and each culture’s peculiar “way of seeing things.” But it does not follow from our current inability to discern any constancy in the flux, that no such constancy exists. Perhaps it just means that we are currently a little confused about things, or that our theory needs to take more things into account. Socrates would remind us that Einstein’s preferred name for his theory was the “Theory of Invariance”, and that if this theory has something to say to the modern world, it is this: the fact of variety and fragmentation is no good reason to abandon the search from some new constant that can draw the fragments together.

It is easy to feel that this search for universality is just a kind of abstract game, one that satisfies a narrow intellectual need rather than anything more moral or humane. Some might even sympathise with those who claim that the outside world is just our invention, and that the “rationality” of those people who strain towards universals is just one more invention, one more “discourse.” Hence there is no truth, falsity, or even any clear meaning, in the statement “I am wearing a white shirt”, nor in the statement “three hundred people died in a massacre yesterday.” The first statement, however, suggests that the theory is bizarre. The second statement suggests not only that the theory is bizarre but also that it is inhuman and immoral, because it shows how the theory turns the most brutal crimes into trivialities. The theorist has no reason to do anything about the place where three hundred people were atrociously killed, because noone was really atrociously killed: they were murdered in our discourse, and nothing more. Extreme relativism lends great support to universal apathy, and to seek out those constraints on belief and action which are universally compelling is not only to satisfy an intellectual desire, but also to satisfy a human need.

This is not to deny that the search for universality can be harmful if it is carried out in the wrong way. Indeed, one lesson that our times teach those people who hope to fit everyone into the same framework, is that there is a danger of crushing a lot of people in the process. Hence, for example, the New Zealand historian Margaret Orbell writes about the mistake that Western observers make of trying to explain Maori myths in Western terms, and especially of those who try to match Maori myths up to historical fact, and who in doing so ignore some of the richer and more relevant meanings of those myths. Orbell understands those myths in what we would call a more “tolerant” or “sympathetic” or “culturally sensitive” manner, and in doing so she avoids what she calls a “rationalisation”[1] of those myths. Orbell’s understanding of the myths seems correct, but it is misleading to call hers an “unrational” understanding, as long as that suggests that there is something futile and misguided at trying to fit these mythical creations into Western patterns of thought. Orbell’s new understanding is not achieved by abandoning rational thought, but by applying it with greater rigour and sensitivity, and it is just the reasonableness of her thought that convinces the reader that her account of Maori myths is better than the former, narrowminded account. There is no harm in trying to find a fit between our conceptual framework and others, provided we are rational and reasonable enough to fit our framework around them.

Socrates also saw that it was difficult to craft anything of universal value unless one achieved some sort of independence, a critical detachment from the things that everyone else does and believes. This attitude gains a very clear expression in the Crito, a dialogue in which Socrates considers whether it is better for him to escape from jail, or to stay there and accept his death sentence. Eventually he decides upon the latter course, and in doing so it is necessary for him to distance himself from the pleadings of his friends and from his knowledge that any normal person would probably choose to escape. He wishes to constrain his actions to his understanding of what is really right, and in order to do so he must free himself from the constraints of instinct and expectation.

The Crito is of course the ultimate expression of Socrates’ devotion to the philosophical ideal: he was willing to die in order to live an examined life. It is not necessary for modern people to go quite so far; but there is just as much reason now, as there was in ancient times, for people to get outside the jails of common practices and commonly held beliefs. This does not mean adopting an attitude of complete scepticism, or of responding to all forms of authority in a spirit of mindless rebellion. Complete scepticism is little better than complete relativism, and mindless rebellion is adopted so often that it is itself a convention, and one to be challenged as much as any other. What it does mean is that one should be sceptical insofar as scepticism is justified by good reasons, and that one should rebel against anything that is mindless, as one should rebel against anything that is brutal, petty or inhuman.

This advice is not very original, perhaps no more original than mindlessness and brutality are original. To give it more force, it is worth considering one element of modern life that is not only distinctive of our times, but which may also be regarded as a modern equivalent of elements of ancient Greek life that Plato wished to challenge. There were no billboards in ancient Greece, but there were advertisements and advertisers, and they came in the form of rhetoric and rhetoricians, two features of his times that Socrates set himself squarely against. The rhetorician was successful largely because he appealed to the unexamined instincts of the people. In terms of the metaphor that Socrates carries right through the dialogue Gorgias, the rhetorician fed the people on rich and charming foods, foods that caress the palate and disable the brain. Modern advertisers do much the same thing. For example, one current television advertisement exhorts viewers to “Make the most of now”, advice that is sumptuously preceded by a sparkling story of sunsets and mayflies and set to an appropriately languid soundtrack, all of which is meant to invite people into some brand or other of cellular paradise. This colourful rhetoric also invites some interesting questions. Where is this “now” that is so seductive to mayflies? Is it this one, or this one, or some other one that I have not reached yet? And what about all the other “nows”: surely I should make something of them as well? And why should I believe that humans are the same as mayflies? Perhaps some people are inclined to think like mayflies, but am I obliged to do the same? These questions, of course, are beside the point: the point is to dull the mind by ravishing the senses. Hence to live an examined life is not just to set oneself apart from the instinctive beliefs and activities of the day, but also to set oneself apart from one’s own instinctive beliefs and activities, to become freer from the constraints of self as from the constraints of society. This does not mean becoming free from all constraints; it means making oneself free to recognise, and act upon, the constraints that are imposed by reason.

This prescription does not sound very appetising. It is easier to digest when one has read Plato’s writings, because he shows his independence not only in his ability to detach himself from instinct and expectation, but also in the courage and eloquence and passion with which articulates a new ideal. To be sure, it is hard to imagine Socrates lending his eloquence to an ideal that was not fully supported by sound reasoning; but it is also hard to imagine the writings of Plato without recalling the eloquence of the Symposium and the Phaedrus, and the halo of shining imagery that surrounds his arguments. There is rhetoric in these writings, but it is not the rhetoric of the sophist or the political orator: it is the kind that springs not from a base or fleeting desire to impose oneself on others, or from some unreflective passion, but from a deep and sincere feeling for the worth of his peculiar enthusiasms, a feeling that has been constrained as far as possible by the results of rational inquiry. This suggests a lesson, one which Socrates might not entirely approve of, but which makes his ideas easier to swallow: it is well worth letting one’s actions be guided by rational inquiry, but rational inquiry can only guide us so far towards illuminating the activities that make individual lives most rich and fulfilling; to take us further we sometimes need to fall back on other guides, such as the sincere feeling that comes from long and meaningful devotion to an art or a cause or a mental or physical discipline. It is tempting to say, in response to Socrates, that the unlived life is not worth examining. This is too strong, but it does point towards an important truth: the question of what is worthwhile is most fully answered by living a life out, and not merely by thinking it through.

Another enthusiasm that comes out in Plato’s writings, and in the actions of Socrates, is his desire to achieve unity. He tries, firstly, to bring unity to belief. At the most elementary level, this means bringing into view the beliefs of his interlocutors that are incompatible with eachother, and suggesting (sometimes) a way of removing the incompatibility. On a higher level, it means that Socrates tries to draw together all the diverse and unruly elements of human thought and action, and set them down into a clear and simple pattern. Even if we do not agree with his results, we can admire the grandeur of his ambition and the value of the project. And we can value it all the more, and share his ambitions, when we contemplate (or read other people’s contemplations of) the narrowness and specialisation of the modern career, the proliferation of books that are filled with disconnected trivia of the snappiest and least satisfying sort[2], and the admirable but ultimately depressing books that try to discover profound correspondences between ancient Vedic texts and quantum physics. The kind of unity that Socrates sought needs to be rationally warranted to have any worth. It also needs to be something more than a bland homogenisation, a commitment to reducing everything to the confusion of a single idea, to saying that “all is discourse”, or “all is power” or “everything is metaphor”; and it would need to be more than a commitment to “blurring the boundaries” between as many things as possible, a commitment to “fusion”, whether it be of food or music or intellectual pursuits. It would unite different elements not by conflating them but by connecting them, by placing them in clear relations to one another.

Perhaps this ambition is too grand to ever be reached. Nevertheless, it is always possible to make more modest advances in the direction of that ambition, and one way in which such an advance could benefit the modern world, is if it helped to connect technological brilliance more closely with ethical reflection. If those two qualities are not set into a proper relation, there is always a danger that any new scientific triumph will be turned by some passing idiocy into an instrument of vice or brutality. Hence the internet is not only a vast and intricate product of scientific and mathematical craftsmanship, but a heaven for pornographers; the machinery of war, a splendid tribute to the skill of many good people, is a hell for many others. A cellphone, whose speed and sophistication is unfathomable to most of its users, can just as easily be used as a purveyor of threats or unsavoury images, or as rather feeble medium for a generic, impersonal sort of information delivery, as it can be used for speeding up and smoothing out the services that make real improvements in peoples’ lives. The Republic reminds us that mere quickness of mind is not enough to guarantee wisdom: the people who dwell in the cave are very quick and clever in their apprehension of the shadows. Scientific expertise offers the modern world many advantages, many powers of prediction and organisation, but these can easily become disadvantages if they are not constrained by the advice that is given out by other kinds of reflection.

Socrates also tried to unite thought and action, to bring the products of intellection to the problems of everyday life. For Socrates, to think was to act, because his thinking took the form of conversations, sincere concrete engagements with other human beings that arose naturally in the course of his day, springing up vividly at the party, the courthouse, the prison, the river on a summers day, the marketplace. It is easy to feel that the modern world is hostile to this sort of unity, encouraging people as it does to devote their mental energies to problems of a technical and specialised kind, and leave free their parties and summer days for more palatable amusements. It is also easy to press the current state of universities to the service of this point, and in particular to mention the creeping transformation of some universities, from places in which to contemplate the more human parts of human affairs, into training centres for technical disciplines such as accounting and engineering: and surely it is not too fanciful to see this condition as the institutional expression of a disunity that exists in the lives of individuals. But the actuality of this condition does not make it necessary, any more than the condition of Athens made it necessary for Socrates to live a confined and ordinary life, and to resign himself to the indifference or obstinacy of his interlocutors.

Plato’s most elementary effect is to set in the reader’s mind the image of a great upwards sweep, a climbing arc. At the bottom there is dirt and confusion and darkness, and at the top there is light and order. The way up is slow and difficult, and perhaps one never gets to the top at all; but any progress towards the apex is an improvement, and brings its rewards. It is a simple image, and by now it is perhaps a little trite. It is also simple, and a little trite, to talk about universality, independence and unity. But Plato’s images are saved from triteness and from simple-mindedness by the consistency of his vision, and his abstractions are saved from the same fate by the skill and eagerness and honesty with which he makes them concrete. The most concrete expression of those values is Socrates, and Plato uses the concreteness of Socrates to show the worth, the pressing, human worth, of finding something universal among particulars, of being independent of others and of oneself, and of looking for unity, even if the only available unity is the blending of thought and action. Living an examined life in Socrates’ day meant putting reason to the service of these pursuits. In the modern day it means much the same thing, with a nod towards cultural diversity and a wince towards advertising, self-help books, Jacques Derrida, narrow specialisation, and blind science. It means moving away from easy freedoms and towards better ones, and making a more liberating choice of constraints. It means doing as Socrates asks, which is not that we accept his beliefs without question and then live them out, but that we examine them carefully and act on the results.

[1] Margaret Orbell, Hawaiki: A New Approach to Maori Tradition, Christchurch: University of Canterbury Press, 1991
[2] J. Peder Zane,

All references to Plato's works are drawn from:
Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (ed.), Princeton, 1989