‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (II)

‘[For Socrates,] A successful life of reason and philosophy will therefore also be a life of moral virtue at its highest. The truest philosopher will also be the most morally, socially virtuous person—precisely because only a philosopher can have achieved the reasoned, argued understanding of just why those (or rather, some philosophically improved version of them) really are part of the good condition of the soul.’

–John M. Cooper, ‘Socrates and Philosophy as a Way of Life’

The examined life is a life devoted to the search for wisdom. Uncontroversially, wisdom–whatever it turns out to be–must be a kind of knowledge governing what we believe and what is the right thing to do. It must guide us in determining what is true and in coming to right action. Whatever more can be said about it–and this more is what is very much in question–will be the subject of ongoing philosophical inquiry.

To know what wisdom is, we must examine the human values and human goods of which it is comprised. Socrates is of the view that this search for the true nature of wisdom begins with a philosophical discussion of the concepts of our human values and human goods. An examination of the concepts of friendship, justice, piety, and virtue holds the promise of telling us what each of these is and so also of acting in accordance with this knowledge. If we knew what friendship was, then, the reasoning goes, we would also be able to act on our understanding of friendship when we are engaged with our friends. In ways that may seem counterintuitive to us moderns, investigating the nature of F (where F is some human value or human good) is of a piece with living F-ly. This idea is brought out in Socrates’s discussion with Euthyphro. If Socrates knew what piety was, then he would also know how to act out of piety and thus would be able to contest the charges of impiety brought against him by Meletus in Apology.

Yet in the early Socratic dialogues, plainly Socrates and his answerer do not achieve knowledge of piety, courage, friendship, or of other human virtues. In light of this, is there anything to be said in defense of this special way of investigating the subject (the Socratic elenchus) that might shine some light on the cultivation of one’s moral and intellectual character? I think so.

In his incessant pursuit of the truth, Socrates invites us to turn on its head our very idea of ‘having’ or ‘living from’ a philosophy or even, and especially, of what we take a philosophy (or a philosophy of life) to be. Manifestly, he does not mean that a philosophy establishes for good some set of core beliefs, values, or basic principles that we can then hold fast to and live by in whatever it is that we do. Quite the contrary, Socrates urges us to constantly test and examine whatever beliefs we have, assumptions we make, or proposals we advance with a view to modifying, adjusting, revising, or–quite possibly–jettisoning them. Never so far, in Socrates’ view, has a conclusion been ‘final’ since it has been, so far, open to further inquiry and possible refutation; not so far has our base of knowledge proved to be ‘complete’ since it may be, and so often has been, shown to be implausible or contradictory. Were we to follow Socrates’ beautiful example, then, we would learn to make each statement openly, to test it exhaustively and thoroughly, and to hold onto it lightly for as long as it is reasonable to do so.

Each day we begin to inquire again; each day we submit ourselves to the question or, in the role of the questioner, put others to the question. What, on such an approach, would be deepened would not be some ‘hard doctrine,’ ‘unshakeable foundation,’ or ‘final answer’ but rather some fuller, richer, more expansive understanding of what we are about for as long as we are about it. Aware of our lack of wisdom yet ever in search of wisdom so that we can determinedly live well, we all the while cultivate openness, inquisitiveness, detachment and learn to live with views that are firmer and more robust because so tested yet also, and equally so, as tender as the night.