One man has gone so far as to say that ‘all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.’ I’ve read about Socrates’ last days and his defense of his own life. I’ve read about his life from Kierkegaard and many others he’s inspired. Behind his thought stands one driving desire: to live the good life. For Socrates this was the unexamined life. And it would be the same life that he would give his up for. Rather than escape to exile or face his accusers in an execution, Socrates would choose to drink hemlock and die. His crime? Corrupting the youth of Athens by persuading them that the unexamined life really wasn’t worth living.
I want to explore why this man was willing to die for such a belief. After all, not many people die for any beliefs. It happens a lot less than we think. Whoever died for the ontological argument for God? Or whoever died to over whether God and evil could co-exist? It seems to me that our lives can extend no farther than our actions. There and there only, lays what we truly believe.
That’s where the problem begins. When I think about a life of self-awareness and examination, I find that it’s hard to tell what I’m willing to stake my life on. Are the values I hold something I believe or just what the crowd tells me? Some people say fruit is good for you. Others say it’s too sugary. I haven’t made up my mind. But I just ate a banana. The most obvious difficulty of the examined life is during high school. Critiquing everyone AND trying to fit it? You’ll have a better chance of scratching your belly… with your foot. This is okay for small matters like the color of your shoes or the lunch you’ll eat (for most at least. Others may need a psychologist). But this applies all the way up to the meaning of our lives.
This is a dangerous game. By living the unexamined life, our identity will be inevitably determined by the masses – ‘Christians’, or ‘Doctors’, or ‘Family’ eventually makes the unique YOU not so unique at all. You’ll just be the clone of whoever or whatever people want you to be. This means that at the end, there’ll be nothing particularly valuable about you. There exists only the amorphous blob ‘Christian’. No one wants to be just a face in the crowd. Everyone wants to be known and loved as themselves. But what we trade off individually we gain communally. Money, status, security and even power. ‘Oh you’re a doctor??? Tell me more.’ At least that’s how I imagine how some doctors expect people to respond.
Is the reward of fitting in worth the cost of meaning and identity and truth? Man’s search for meaning is as unquenchable as the thirst for $10 McNuggets on a midnight drive. All of my life has been a search for meaning. If I just knew my purpose in the grand scheme of schemes, then somehow even the dishes I wash with my little hands would have some value. But for an authentic individual, meaning can never come from the crowd. So the value of the examined life is first revealing who we truly are and if our thoughts and actions align. But Christians know that the examined life can’t provide the truth we need to live by. Only Christ can. But as the early church fathers saw it, it seems like Christ and Socrates can be pretty good friends.