A Short Piece

The Unexamined Life Isn’t Easy to Live

There’s better life insurance out there.

Socrates once said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living,” but I agree with Merold Westphal (who’s a genius, by the way) that Socrates is simply wrong. There are plenty of people who have never read Nietzsche or Plato who go on to live deep and fulfilling lives.

Still, I don’t think Socrates was totally off the mark (I’m biased and like philosophy, after all). Personally, I think it’s better to say, “the unexamined life is risker to live.”

Is that true? People who never worry about “the mind-body problem” don’t seem worse off because of it. Fair, and I won’t argue that exploring the technical details and distinctions between Derrida and Deleuze will necessarily help us feel like a million dollars, but if we take “examine” in a looser sense, I think we’ll start to unveil the wisdom Socrates tried to articulate.

If we never pay attention to how worry can negatively impact relationships, and if we never try to figure out the difference between “worry” and “care,” we might end up believing it’s loving to worry about our spouse, which might end up driving him and her crazy. Unhappiness could grow.

If we never sit down and ponder if there is a meaningful difference between “empathy” and “sympathy,” then we might never try to understand what it’s like to live a life other than our own. This could make us overconfident in ourselves and unable to understand others. Unhappiness could grow.

If we never examine the ways politicians and leaders talk and frame information, we might fail to avoid being manipulated into supporting a campaign that will ultimately hurt us. Unhappiness could grow.

And so on.

Yes, philosophy-lovers may take it a little far to claim “the unexamined life isn’t worth living,” but with a little adjustment, I think the phrase can hit the mark.

“The unexamined isn’t easy to live.”

As O.S. Guinness argues, it’s hard to imagine developing a purpose in our lives if we never examine it. If a life without purpose isn’t worth living, and purpose is impossible without examination, then perhaps it can be said that a life without examination isn’t worth living, but again, I’m not so sure I want to go that far. However, I do think it’s the case that purpose makes life easier at least, and that life can be more difficult without purpose. Purpose helps life feel directed versus random, enjoyable versus unstoppable (and not materialistic). (Of course, then we have to ask what is the best way to “get at” purpose…)

Could we get lucky and just happen to “get” the difference between “worry” and “care,” to recognize ways politicians try to exploit us, and so on? Perhaps, and perhaps then we might be better off than someone who spends a lot of time examining life. But even if we happen to get the difference between “worry” and “care” in one instance, without intellectually understanding the difference, in the very next instance, we might start getting it wrong again. Without examination, all our ideas, even our good ones, will probably prove fragile.

I think of “examination” and abstract thought in general as a kind of fire extinguisher. 99.9999% of the time, we don’t need it, but the .00001% we do (say because our oven is on fire), we really need it (not having a fire extinguisher can cost us everything). The same goes with thinking deeply: most of the time, we can get by fine without it, but when we need it, if we don’t think deeply, things can get bad fast.

So let’s not say “the unexamined life isn’t worth living” — that’s a little much (and might tempt us with the “autonomous rationality” that disturbed Hume), and ultimately, if the philosopher never stops thinking about life, he or she may end up like Nietzsche’s centipede, unable to function due to overthinking (“the constantly examined life isn’t lived”). At the same time, it’s risky to skip the examination part altogether. We’ll be fragile and likely make mistakes we’ll lack the tools to even recognize as errors.

So yes, the unexamined life can be worth living.

However, the examined life has better life insurance.

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