While I am somewhat leaping from the original progression I had planned for this particular blog category or “part,” it still plays on the matter of thinking for ourselves in terms of what we know or don’t know and so I figured now was as good a time as any. I don’t know how much you or anyone else may know about Socrates, because I will never really know what you know or don’t know and perhaps, to some, he’s just that So-crates guy Bill and Ted brought into the future for their final project, but I’ll give you a brief overview anyway.
Despite debate about whether or not Socrates really existed or was merely a character Plato created, Socrates was considered a wise man by some and an extremely annoying smartass by others. Those who held disdain for him felt as though he mocked their intelligence by performing Socratic irony (plainly, it’s essentially asking questions you already know the answer to just to bait an argument and make the other look stupid).
In addition to infuriating most of society, Socrates taught Athenian youth to think for themselves and to seek out what they did not understand—to essentially examine life. Unfortunately, most Athenians did not care for his lessons or their children questioning authority; thus, he was accused of, put on trial for, and ultimately put to death by Hemlock for, amongst other things, corrupting their youth.
Now, if corrupting the young is teaching them to question authority and think for themselves, then I would have to say Socrates was guilty as charged—he did teach Athenian youth to think for themselves. This is not to say I think he ought to have been executed, or that he should have been tried or punished. Whether the charge of wrongdoing for this particular “offense” was just or unjust is something I won’t delve into; however, I do think that thinking for self (if we truly can as often as we think we can) and questioning certain authority is a wise thing to do (though it certainly can and often will land you in a lot of trouble, such as the case with Socrates).
With that being said, I’ve laid some background for where I will lead you now. That is, into the unexamined life and a paradoxical irony. I am posting a revised version of a paper I wrote on this subject. Unfortunately, it is a lengthy summary and analysis to get to my ultimate conclusion. Because, technically, to do the subject any justice one must walk through a forest of long-windedness to see where the path has led them. Good luck. If you make it all the way through, sleep tight for me—I’m gone.
THE UNEXAMINED LIFE
Crito, an old friend and student, believed Socrates was unjustly convicted by the Athenian jury because they merely wanted to remove an annoying old man whom they felt insulted their intelligence. Because he did not believe Socrates was guilty of the charges against him, Crito visited him in his cell to convince him to escape, offering him a place to stay with his friends at Thessaly—essentially in exile. Crito, among other supporters, paid off the guards to grant his escape. Knowing Socrates was an ethical man who would resist, Crito appealed to him to save his life by being more just than the jury and by not subjecting his sons to the loss of their father by remaining alive so he could raise and educate them properly. Socrates agreed to entertain a debate to determine if escape was indeed the right thing for him to do and if so he would go with Crito as he asked, but if not he would remain and face his death.
Socrates held that a good life is most important and to have a good life is to have “the good life, the beautiful life, and the just life.” (Plato, Crito, 2002), pg. 51. To live a just life one must not commit a wrong in response to a wrong committed against them (i.e. two wrongs do not make a right); thus, despite the Athenian court having unjustly convicted him (the wrong) it is unjust for Socrates to escape from prison (commit a wrong against the wrongdoers). Furthermore, if Socrates escaped from prison he would have to live somewhere outside of Athens so as not to get rearrested and new charges brought against him (an end to a beautiful life).
Near the end of Socrates’ defense in the Apology he discusses the various alternative remedies of punishment, one of them being exile. Exile does not seem like a reasonable remedy because history would surely repeat itself wherever he went. Socrates claimed others would say he should just stop his inquiries so as not to annoy others in whatever city he lives out in exile; however, he also claimed he could not keep quiet because “the unexamined life is not worth living for men.” (Plato, Apology, 2002), pg. 41, para 38. In other words, the unexamined life is a life without beauty and justness required for a “good life.” If he cannot examine life to live the good, just and beautiful life, then what’s the point?
To ask Socrates to cease his inquires would be to ask him to be someone else, to be more ignorant than he already thought, to be useless to a city and country he loves, and to disobey the Gods; thus it would be no different than death itself and if he disobeyed the Gods he would suffer a worse fate in Hades than death by the hands of men who “can’t handle the truth.” (A Few Good Men).
Living an unexamined life would be a life performing certain duties without truly understanding the meaning of what we do “…it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not,” whereas a person who lives an examined life would be able to admit that they do not know something when they, in fact, do not know, “…when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” (Plato, Apology, 2002), pg. 26, para. (d).
Furthermore, if one lives an unexamined life they would not have the power to reason whether some action is just or unjust—escaping from prison, for example. And so, he would not understand that, while he may feel wrongfully convicted he would ultimately be “destroying” a city upon escape by unknowingly proving that the City’s laws have no authority to keep him held in: “Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” Nor would they understand that by disobeying the city in his escape attempt he would be allowing others to think that if he is capable of shattering the city’s legal system and power he would most certainly be capable of the charges he thought unjustly made against him in the first place: “…for anyone who destroys the laws could easily be thought to corrupt the young and the ignorant?” (Plato, Crito, 2002), pg. 56, para. (c). In order to systematically annihilate a city’s laws, whether by escaping from prison or committing some other wrong, one would have no choice but to live in exile and by doing so would have to “avoid cities that are well governed and men who are civilized” which would also be a life not worth living if it is without good governments and civilization—otherwise you live a solitary life or one amongst chaos and perhaps brutality far worse than death for a very old man, at least in his case.
If one lives an unexamined life they would be considered, by Socrates, as ignorant. However, “ignorance is bliss,” to the extent that you do not know what you do not know and cannot therefore know that there is something greater, more or better for you to either do or know.
Ignorance can also be, in certain cases, deemed as “innocence,” as in the case of a child. For example, a small child will freely run around stark naked with zero inhibitions, no feelings of guilt or shame over their nakedness or others seeing them in such a state. They are just this way, and we call it “innocence” because they have not yet learned the lessons from their adult caretakers and/or society that their nakedness is something that should be hidden. In this case the “ignorance” is bliss because they are free from the chains of shame over something that is completely natural.
An unexamined life could also potentially be bliss in the sense that one would not know how much “evil” is in this world and committed by man himself. Without this knowledge they could potentially live a more peaceful life in that they would not question why. They would not be constantly bombarded with seeking answers to endless questions that just open doors to more questions and the realization that despite how wise you may be you may never really know anything at all. And, if you can’t ever truly know anything at all, then what is the point of bothering with an examined life?
Of course, the downside to the above is that if you never question anything due to ignorance in the matter, then you could potentially enable unjustness in the world by not realizing the “evil” being done. Furthermore, Socrates would explain that with an examined life one would at least be able to determine right from wrong and therefore live a good, just and beautiful life—these qualities being of the utmost importance to him; however, if we life an examined life then we ought to know that we know nothing of anything and therefore can’t possibly really know what it is to live a good/virtuous life.
Either way we look at it we are screwed. If we are ignorant we know nothing and don’t know it; if we examine life we still know nothing, the difference is that we should then realize that we know nothing and if we realize we know nothing we are still, by technicality, ignorant. However, we can’t possibly know what we do not know and so, we cannot fully realize how little we know. And, if we cannot realize that we know nothing, or at least far less than we think we do, then we are right back at the beginning—ignorant and don’t know it. This is the ironic paradox in the unexamined life.