The Gadfly and the Unexamined Life

In an earlier post, I claimed that we are all philosophers—there is not choice in the matter—the only choice is whether we are good or bad philosophers. In this post, I want to consider the cost of being good philosophers (that is, lovers of wisdom and passionate, relentless pursuers of the good, the true, and the beautiful) in this broken world. What might that cost be? If Socrates is our guide, it is being misunderstood, unjustly accused, and perhaps (gulp), a bit of hemlock.

This week in the History of Ideas class I teach at the College of Southeastern, we are reading Plato’s Apology. In the dialogue we read of Socrates defense in the face of unjust and false accusations—he was “officially” accused of corrupting the youth and of atheism.  The real charge, the “unofficial” slander was that he had offended the “wise” and “learned” of Athens for years by showing them that they were really foolish in claiming to be wise. This kind of action doesn’t go over well—then or now. Socrates described himself as a “gadfly” whose irritation of the state, “a great and noble steed,” was an attempt to guide it in the right direction (30e).

No one likes to be exposed—and Socrates, in his pursuit of the truth, exposed the Sophists and charlatans of his day. And he ended up paying for it with his life. In our day and age, the pursuit of truth isn’t (at least in this country) going to result in our untimely end (it does in other countries), but it is considered “unfashionable”, “intolerant”, and “arrogant” to tell someone that their views are wrong.

Socrates urged us to live an “examined life”—a kind of self-critical life that is unpopular in our day and age.  “There is no time to examine our life,” the Contemporary Self might say, “with the constant boom and buzz of noise and information, self-reflection can be unprofitable—the world might pass me by.” The result is that we (in my estimation) have become a sensate and shortsighted culture, incapable of sustained intellectual inquiry, delayed gratification, and moral progress. And in such a world, those who desire to conform their lives to reality (as opposed to creating their own fanciful world of sensual pleasure and Nietzschean values) are viewed as “old fashion”, “annoying”, and “road-blocks” to freedom.

But what if Socrates was right and “the unexamined life is not worth living” (38b)? Or at least, partly right (I think all lives are worth living since they are gifts from God)? What if there is a reality to conform to and a failure to do so only results in disintegration? Well, if Socrates is right, then we ought to slow down and consider what we believe and why—do your beliefs make sense? Do you have good reason to think them true? And, finally, if Socrates is right, we ought to be prepared to be unjustly and falsely accused or maligned by those who are challenged by our words and life. Can this be done in the right way? If Socrates is our guide, it will be done with modesty, charity, courage, and good humor.

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