This article was last modified on October 15, 2006.

Should We Examine Life?

Socrates felt that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, an observation shared almost universally by philosophers the world over ever since. Is there value in examining our lives and the world around us? Is there value in ignoring our selves and our world?

Philosophers are an inherently arrogant lot, and have often decided their view of things is the best, because of course they are wise. And while I am certainly not innocent of this, being a philosopher myself, perhaps through discourse we can arrive at some solid decision on the matter.

Ignorance is Bliss

The saying “ignorance is bliss” has been around so long that nobody knows where the proverb originated. Actually, some people realize the passage is a bastardization of “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise,” a passage from Thomas Gray’s eighteenth century poem “On a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” This one, along with “What you don’t know cannot hurt you” seem to express the belief that a lack of knowledge has some incredible benefits with regards to a person’s esteem and emotions.

I would not deny that ignorance and a lack of introspection does breed a sense of naive joy. Children are typically happier than adults, and the primary difference is that children have much less inside their heads to bog them down (and fewer bills to pay). In Danny Wallace’s memoir Join Me, his girlfriend Hanne comments that the only people who smile widely are complete simpletons.

And also, keeping your head placed firmly in the sand will be a sure-fire way to avoid knowing or caring about genocide, torture, prison rape, school shootings and other less than savory activities of this world. Not to mention all the ontological, metaphysical and epistemological issues that exist for those interested enough in religion or philosophy to explore them.

So yes, I would agree that the less you know, the more pleasure you are to retrieve from life.

Fulfillment or Happinesss?

The issue at hand is not so much what will bring you happiness, though. If this were the complete picture, we would have completed our endeavor and gone back to watching “Cops” or “Monday Night Raw”. Socrates is telling us that when we do not examine life, our life is not worth living. Perhaps simple happiness is not enough to make life worth living (though I would hardly suggest that happiness makes life not worth living).

We must ask ourselves: is the value of life grounded in happiness or fulfillment? Happiness will feed our carnal desires. Happiness stems from filling our gullets, being properly quenched and achieving the orgasm that is nothing if not infinitessimal in the grand scheme of things. Some things bring more happiness than others (better food, better drink and a sexual encounter that lasts longer than a few seconds).

Fulfillment comes from filling other desires: the desires of the mind and the soul. Our minds thirst for knowledge and our souls thirst for understanding our place in this world. We can ignore these desires and be happy, but we cannot ignore them and be fulfilled. And on top of this, a can of worms can be opened where fulfillment can be the end of simple happiness: because knowledge causes us to desire more knowledge, and like each episode of Lost we raise more questions than we answer.

But this lack of simple happiness is replaced with the potential for a deeper happiness, what Aristotle called eudaimonia and what Confucious called harmony (though the two were coming from very different perspectives). A better understanding of our place in the world creates a very special comfort, opening our eyes to grander things, both majestic and terrible.

How Best to Enter the Afterlife?

An interesting thought experiment: consider the afterlife for a moment, however you picture that afterlife to be. How would you best like to enter that afterlife?

For Christians, there is a benefit for fulfillment over happiness. If happiness relies on material goods, what purpose will this serve? We cannot bring our autombolies or houses to heaven. And Christians have been advised to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, with the emphasis being on charity rather than personal wealth (as we recall a camel can pass through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man can enter heaven according to Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25). But in theory, our souls can pass on to heaven, and it seems likely that an enriched soul would be more preferred than a malnourished soul.

For those who accept reincarnation, a similar scenario occurs. Our material goods will not be reborn, but our actions will determine where we return to the earth. A man who nourishes his mind and soul and is at peace should fare better if those who endorse reincarnation are correct.

The only toss-up is for atheists. In the event that no afterlife exists, many would consider life ultimately pointless, while others would then find life even more valuable because of its temporality. Should we use this limited time to amass pleasurable things or to become spiritually enriched? From the point of view of philosophers, clearly with limited time we ought to make the most of it and strive for the greatest personal achievement we can, both spiritually and mentally. Yet there is merit in the counterview that says if everything learned or gained could vanish overnight, why not live for the moment and be a hedonist?

Socrates, for the record, was not an atheist (despite the government declaring he denied the gods).

Examining Our Faith

Part of living an examined life is examing the faith we choose to have. Fulfillment can only come through a complete examination of our beliefs, while happiness involves basing religious or political views on the idea that “this is how I was raised and how I will raise my children”.

Although not a theologian nor a prophet, I suspect that God does not hold thoughtless faith in high regard. To accept Jesus or Allah without really understanding why is to not know what you are accepting. And like in high school when memorization guaranteed an easy grade on multiple choice, without comprehension how are supposed to pass the more critical essay section? (Pardon my cheesy analogies.)

Accepting a faith or a lack of faith is a daunting task and a bold conviction, but also a much stronger conviction. The first thing you need to realize is that no matter which faith you belong to, the majority of the world is against you. The majority is not Christian or Jewish or Muslim. The majority is not Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist. And the majority is not atheist. And all the people against you believe in their faith as much as you believe in yours and find the evidence they accept just as compelling as the evidence you choose to accept. In short, a blind faith guarantees that the odds are against us of choosing the correct faith.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of existentialism, was a Christian. But he made two observations: all religions are absurd and all religions require a leap of faith. No matter which religion we are in the beginning, other religions will be able to offer us evidence we are believing in a false cause, not to mention how much of religion is logically nonsensical.

With everyone against us and with no matter what we choose being absurd, we make the “leap of faith” across the canyon of the absurd into a realm of faith. Having made a conscious choice rather than simple acceptance we are ready to be faithful believers and not simply a head counted in a pew. (The same arguments can be made for politics since all sides assume they are correct.)

Even if we end up accepting the faith we started from (as Kierkegaard did and many others do), our faith is now more valuable as it is informed and enriched. One could argue our life is now more worth living, as what value is life if we use it to deny ourselves a relationship with God? (This applies to atheists, as well… an atheist might turn to God and save himself, while a Christian might turn atheist and free himself fro mthe shackles of Christianity, depending on the outcome.)

Should We Examine Life?

What happens is actually an incredible paradox: to know if you should examine life, you must examine life. In the event you decide you shouldn’t examine life, you already have. Though the examination will most likely lead you to conclude that you should examine more, thus setting off a chain reaction.

Would we have been better off not examining life at all, and advising others not to examine theirs before they begin? If we could realistically say that life is better with no introspection and a blind devotion to the gods of money and gluttony, then the answer is an examination of life is a waste of time. But can we say this? Most likely we cannot, knowing now that self-awareness and informed faith can provide much greater outcomes than base desires.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of a hierarchy of needs, and at the top was the goal of self-actualization, a realization of our potential as human beings. And two thousand years before Maslow, Aristotle spoke of potential and actualization. He also spoke of the difference between animate (animal) souls and rational (human) souls.

If we have the potential for a fully human and actualized existence, why squander our life in a purely animal lifestyle? Truly, an examined life is what makes life worth living.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “Should We Examine Life?”

  1. » Know thyself - or - On the examined life Says:

    […] In Gavin Schmitt’s 2006 essay Should We Examine Life?, Gavin attempts to arrive at some solid decision on the two following questions, “Is there value in examining our lives and the world around us? Is there value in ignoring our selves and our world?”, having come to this questions based upon Socrates’ claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. However, while Gavin attempts to answer these questions, and perhaps succeeds, he opens himself up to an even larger question, which will be the topic of this essay. […]

  2. The Framing Business » Further Thoughts on Fulfillment Says:

    […] In an earlier essay, Should We Examine Life?, I attempted to discuss the differences between happiness and fulfillment. I also took sides with Socrates, concluding that it is likely to lead a life that has been examined than a mindless existence without introspection. […]

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