“The unexamined life is not worth living.” So said Socrates, according to Plato. Socrates would rather die than live without philosophy; and because of his philosophy, that’s exactly what befell him. In 399 BC, he was forced to drink poison for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens with his ideas. Perhaps more philosophers should be brought to account for their hideous crimes.
For all my university years, I was convinced Socrates was right. You had to be examining life to make it truly worthwhile. It was the express duty and pleasure of humanity to dig into life’s mysteries, to submit the self and world to scrutiny, to be more than an animal, to be an animal that perceives itself and wonders what a marvellous thing life is.
Anyone who didn’t sit back and ponder where they had come from and why was being lazy and subhuman. Their life wasn’t worth its unexamined is-ness. They were a waste of time and space.
Now I’m not so sure.
So, if examining life isn’t the key to living well, what is?
The more life goes on, the less valuable this whole “examination” business seems. The teacher in Ecclesiastes was spot-on: “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!” (Ecc 1:13)
And this heavy burden of examination leads not to mental liberation, as educators suggest, but to something more like imprisonment: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (v.18)
Discovering the world in science, literature, maths or philosophy can be a peculiar pleasure. I get great enjoyment out of learning something new, or progressing my understanding of one subject or another. It’s a joy. Except when it’s not, and the intractable problems of life overwhelm the fun. Fires destroy sunsets; evil and suffering oblate happiness; disease beats medicine in the end. And philosophy, well that’s a maze within a maze.
So, if examining life isn’t the key to living well, what is? Perhaps it is being grateful. Gratitude is possible in almost any situation, even when reflecting on life brings too much sorrow.
Life’s worth is not found in endless examination of its meaning, but in grateful acceptance of its gift.
There is so much to be grateful for. Take my morning for instance: I enjoyed a banana for breakfast, I watched the wind in the trees, I stroked the cat. I wrestled my young son, I admired my wife, I listened to a classic pop song on the radio and my feet got tapping. I’m so grateful for each of these experiences, and I know not everyone has the chance to enjoy them. I’m grateful that I do.
But meanwhile, while my tastebuds were enjoying that banana, my troubled mind was elsewhere, pondering refugees and crime and illness and the impending climate catastrophes.
The unexamined bit of my morning was enjoyable, appreciative and calm. The examined bit was depressing. The unexamined bit reminded me of God’s goodness; the examined bit made me feel like questioning God’s very existence.
Alain de Botton, the popular philosopher, famously said that one of the disappointments of atheism is that there is no one to say thank you to. For Christians, we are drawn to give praise and thanks to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. The target of our grateful affections is clear.
Ecclesiastes teaches that when God gives us what we need – food, drink, friendships, work to do –along with the chance to enjoy it, we have a better chance of living well than burying our minds in the universe’s imponderables. These pleasures are actually a coping mechanism for human beings trapped in the tragedy of the fallen world. The person who can focus on gratitude for the good things will be happier than the philosophically minded: “They seldom reflect on the days of their life,” says Ecclesiastes, “because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecc 5:20).
As more of a ponderer myself, I find this teaching challenging to accept. But it does also offer hope. Life’s worth is not found in endless examination of its meaning, but in grateful acceptance of its gift. It also means that God is not so easily found in the realm of the philosophers, but in the pleasures of the family dining table, the cat on the stool, and the feeling that you did a decent day’s work.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.More