Socrates said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. I’m not a fan of the guy myself, but this idea has always intrigued me. I may not be interpreting it correctly since I’m not much of a reader. I don’t know where it came from or why he said it. And perhaps the context matters. But it doesn’t matter to me because I don’t care what Socrates thought about it. I care what I think, and I’ll tell you what I think.
To me, to examine life means to have a near obsession with an unreachable truth. I say that the truth is unreachable because, while it might be the goal, it isn’t the reward. Also, it probably is actually unreachable. But let’s say you could find The Truth. It likely wouldn’t be all that rewarding. “Now what?” you’d say, Truth in hand. And it would quickly get stale. So forget about that.
The important part, as corny as it sounds, is the journey. It’s the very act of examining life, of searching for answers and opening yourself up to an endless array of thoughts. I’m not suggesting some kind of spiritual journey here where you find joy and happiness in the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. No. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that happiness has little to do with truth-searching. Yet still that journey is a valid goal for a human being.
The goal of a species is to reproduce and survive. What is the goal of a single individual, then? Yes, they must play their part to help the species pursue its goal. But that drive is a programmed behavior due to the nature of the system. Ultimately, that individual will die, even if their genes live on. And what does that really matter to you? Do you think some Neanderthal sat around thinking that his life has meaning because years and years after he’s dead, some tiny part of his genetic code will be among 4% of my own? Yet we think like that and feel that we’re all doing our part for Humanity by working for a future we’ll never see and that may never exist.
Compared to us as a species, we as an individual don’t have a lot of time. We’re here for a few measly years, and the only real rules we have are “Try not to die” and “Try to have sex with something”. You can go around living and having sex, and that will certainly keep the species alive, but does that make it worth it? Is the value of an individual simply his contribution to society, including a society he may never see? There comes a point where you have to ask why are we bothering keeping the species alive in the first place? If what we have here is a system that’s only real purpose is to sustain itself, then what good is it? Surviving simply to exist is hardly worth surviving at all.
However, we can look at the individual. They have their lifetime to perceive and interact with the world, and then they’re gone. The repercussions of their doings hardly matter to them after that. They’re gone. They’re no more. They’re like the Monty Python parrot. So, working toward some goal past one’s lifetime seems futile. For all you know, nothing even exists after you’re dead.
To an individual, the only things that really matter are the now and what they’re doing with it. You can certainly go around searching for happiness, engaging in activities that bring you joy, riding a roller coaster, tripping your trigger or floating your boat. I’m not suggesting that this stuff be avoided, but I don’t think that it adds any real value to your life. That’s just simple fun. Having fun is hardly a reason to live.
This is where I think the Socrates quote comes into play. To me, it means that we only have a handful of decades here in order to try and figure it all out. An infinite number of sentient beings seem to be popping in and out of existence each for a tiny bit of time, each with a single mind, one awareness, against all of the Universe and its vast complexity. We shouldn’t run from it or try to simplify it into a dichotomy of good vs evil or some other easily digestible explanation. We should dive into the complexity, immerse ourselves in it and open our eyes.
Even asking the question, “Does my life have a purpose?” is part of that examination. It can be a very dark and depressing journey, and yet it’s somehow rewarding. Because of the harmful nature of it, though, I think people avoid it. We want to feel happy, not rewarded. We want to have fun, not purpose. So, it’s too easy to miss out, to live an unexamined life.
There are certainly side effects. This examination can have consequences, good and bad. Imagine someone who is anorexic, not out of vanity, but because they realize a truth of our society, that we value people by their physical appearance. Is she being vain, or is she just playing the game by the rules we rarely talk about? She isn’t deluded or crazy. She knows that she is worth more as a person by being thin than she would be otherwise. That is a fact that she faces, and that most will turn away. Who’s really deluded then? Yes, there’s probably a better answer than anorexia, but she’s not ignoring the negative aspects of this world. And that’s part of examining truthfully. You can’t ignore the negative, though that might make it easier to be happy. Or someone who contemplates suicide because they’re being bullied in school. We may say, “It gets better”, but does it? Bullying is a fact of life, and debating whether or not living is worth that pain is a valid question. The typical response to these kind of depressing, negative thoughts is to ignore them or fight them with positive platitudes because to examine them would be too painfully real. And happiness is often more important than reality to most.
When you really get in there and examine the complexity, not just of the Universe, but of your own existence, your own perception and Humanity, it can be overwhelming. It can be difficult. It can manifest as mental disorders, such as depression or Woody Allen. Yet despite that trouble and turmoil, or even because of it, that life is far more interesting than anything else going on in the world. There is a joy in the chaos, and I think it comes from the realization that your mind is being fully used. You’re not just washing it with endorphins. You’re flooring the pedal and really pushing your awareness and perception to their maximum potentials. That is why an examined life is worth living. It isn’t wasting the potential of the tiny, insignificant speck that is you in this Universe.