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An Examined Life


I am reading the speech made by Socrates when he was tried by the Athenians with charges of ‘corrupting the youths’ and for which he was condemned to death by drinking the poison hemlock and I find it amazing how words spoken over two thousand millennia ago could still ring true today.  Here was a man put to death because he was a ‘gadfly’ to the state, an affront to the ‘polite’ society who were suspicious of teachings considered contrary to the norm and who was seen as a threat to mores and values of the day.

And what were those values?  Socrates was a philosopher whose life was dedicated to asking question and challenging assumptions people took for granted.  He was accused of godlessness and yet he was a great believer in the spirits and divine beings.  He dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and the improvement of the self and for this the young followed him as a man of wisdom and a teacher who taught them about the need to pursue a life of virtue.

‘Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens , care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this? And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care; I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less.’

For Socrates a life unexamined is a life not worth living. 

For the establishment of that time, and for any establishment interested only in maintaining the status quo, his constant questionings and criticisms were unwelcome and, as his influence was far and wide, a threat to the social order that valued wealth, honour and reputation than the search for truth and the pursuit of philosophy.  When his appeal fell on deaf ears and he was condemned to death, he said, ‘I made up my mind that I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death.’

Indeed, for the majority of people, in whatever century and in any society, life is so much easier when they could accept things as they are, unquestioned, unexamined and unchanging, even when those things are far from the truth or take them further from real understanding.  Life is more palatable when everything is in their proper place, when people conform to the same ideas, do the same things and share the same shallow values that normally revolve around personal comfort, social acceptance and material wealth.

To think, to reflect, to dig deep into the human heart and seek out the truth about existence and its meaning is just too hard for a lot of people, and for those in power and who wield influence, too dangerous to tolerate.  

Socrates was a dangerous threat for Athenians in power because he forced people to think, to examine their lives and not to accept truths unquestioningly.  He was seen as the corruptor of youth because he taught them to think for themselves and to question authority:  he was a ‘bad’ influence because he made the young critical of existing values.  

And yet, it was Socrates’ ideas and philosophy that endure throughout the millennia because what he tried to do was reveal the truth.  His was the force of enlightenment, answering the fundamental needs of human beings who thirst for knowledge and the improvement of the mind.   

Far from being dangerous, Socrates’ philosophy paved the way for the unveiling of the darkness of ignorance and the evolution of consciousness from a state of unconsciousness.  This evolution in consciousness a never-ending progress that continues up to this day and will continue in the future.  It is the constant struggle between the quest for enlightenment against the fear of ignorance, resistance and denial.  

For some the light of wisdom is too strong to bear, too fearful to contemplate and too difficult to attain.  For a small number of people it is easier to cling on to a blind belief and fight the encroaching light tooth and nail.  For the majority of the population however, it is more convenient to live an unexamined life of shallow values and lazy platitudes:  a life of petty comfort and little responsibility.

When finally Socrates was condemned to death, he accepted his fate gracefully and without regrets.  He lived and died remaining true to himself.  ‘The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways -- I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.’

(Desi Anwar)