‘The unexamined life,’ and other subversive ideas

Yme Woensdregt

People today consider Socrates to be one of the world’s great philosophers. To the leaders of 5th century bce Athens however, he was annoying and dangerous. He was a problem because he challenged the status quo. So they got rid of him, condemning him to death for his subversive ideas.

Among his subversive ideas was his famous claim that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He roamed the public places of Athens asking relentless questions that challenged the assumptions and beliefs of people. His questions caused them to think about social justice and personal worthiness. Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. In order to grow, we need to take the time to examine and reflect on our lives.

He reportedly asked people, “Are you not embarrassed by caring so much for money, fame, and reputation and not thinking of wisdom and truth and how to make your character as good as possible?”

That questions sounds like to could be asked today. Socrates wasn’t just trying to make people feel bad. He was encouraging them to be better, to think on higher things, to reflect on their lives and see areas where they needed to improve.

Socrates believed that wickedness is the result of ignorance. Those with true knowledge will act rightly. So he asked questions about priorities and challenged people to be the best they can be.

We need that kind of approach today. The problem is that our world seems to be hard–wired to deprive us of opportunities to ponder, to discern, to make wiser choices. We are distracted in so many different ways — by phones and tablets and television programs and advertisers who appeal to our baser instincts.

Pondering and discerning is hard work, and it takes time. We need to build time into our lives so that we can think — not just “do”, but think. The common saying is “Don’t just sit there … do something.” I want to respond with my own mantra … “Don’t just do something … sit there and think first.” Ponder your life.

I suspect that part of the reason we see a failure of ethics and morality in business, in government, in the church, in private and public life is because we no longer take the time to discern. It takes courage and integrity to examine our motivations and goals and to measure our attitudes and conduct in relation to our principles.

We ought to be asking ourselves questions like these: Am I trying to make my character as good as possible? Am I as honest as I should be? Do I tell the truth, even when it’s not to my advantage? Do I treat everyone with respect, even those I don’t like, or those with whom I disagree? Do I accept responsibility for my choices? Am I fair? Am I doing what I can charitably, and am I doing my share as a good citizen?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the church’s celebration of All Saints’ Day. I wrote that we tend to think of saints as people who have lived particularly moral and virtuous lives. I also wrote that I disagreed with that characterization. A saint is someone who has learned to live more faithfully. They focus on building their character and they reach for the best within themselves and also for the best within others.

To be a saint is not beyond our reach. In fact, I stated rather boldly that you could call me St. Yme. I quoted Leonard Cohen’s wonderful lines from his song Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering; there is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”

In that sense, a saint is an ordinary person who has managed to reflect deeply on his or her life. They examine their lives honestly, and seek to grow to be more faithful people, people with a greater integrity.

That takes time. It takes effort. We will make mistakes as we do so … but those mistakes aren’t failures. They are experiences from which we can learn.

One of the things that troubles me most these days is that we have such very low expectations of human nature. If we are human, we think so often, we can’t be expected to withstand pressure or temptation. When there’s a conflict between self–interest and moral principles, self–interest will inevitably win. So, a politician lies to get elected; a student (or a parent) cheats to get into college; an executive commits fraud to save a job or earn a bonus. And we blame the system, rather than the individual who made the choice.

Both Socrates and the church which celebrates All Saints Day refute that low expectation. I affirm that people are capable of making the right choice, hard as it may be. I refuse to buy into that pessimistic and perverse perspective about human nature. We can expect the best of ourselves and each other. Integrity is possible. It just takes character.

Ask a saint … who has lived an examined life, and chosen to life with integrity and hope.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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