Saturday, October 23, 2004

Is an Unexamined Life Worth Living?

I recently read Norman PodhoretzEx-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (The Free Press, 1999). It is an enjoyable and stimulating analysis of friendship-breakdown in the crucible of political disagreement. I recommend it.

But a passage on p. 4 inspired me to fire up the old Pentium II. Describing "most people," Podhoretz says that "The ideas that underlie their way of life are mostly taken for granted and remain unexamined – luckily for them, since the biggest lie ever propagated by a philosopher was Socrates’ self-aggrandizing assertion that the unexamined life is not worth living."

Can a philosopher let this passage pass unexamined? The first thing that raises my critical hackles is the irresponsible use of the word ‘lie,’ a use that is unfortunately widespread these days. Does Podhoretz really mean to suggest that Socrates was lying when he made his famous statement at his trial? That the great Athenian knew the truth, but was bent on deceiving us? Of course not. Podhoretz knows that one can utter a falsehood without lying, as when one says what one believes to be true but is not true, and I am sure that he appreciates that Socrates was sincere in his belief that the unexamined life is not worth living. Charitably interpreted, Podhoretz is opining that Socrates was wrong in his belief, not that he was lying.

The distinction between lying and being wrong is very important, as important as the distinction between moral evaluation and description. Thus if I accused Podhoretz of lying about Socrates, he could rightly take umbrage: such an accusation would impugn his moral integrity, and would itself be open to moral censure. But if I say he is wrong about Socrates, I merely register our disagreement. Joe Conason on Free Speech TV (3 January 2004) stated that Bush lied about WMDs. How could Conason know that? Does he have a special ability to know the human heart and discern intentions to deceive? Indeed, Conason cannot even claim to know that Bush was wrong about WMDs. The nonfinding of Fs is no proof of the nonexistence of Fs -- especially in a place as big as California.

A second thing to question is whether the Socratic assertion is "self-aggrandizing." If I praise a certain way of life that happens to be my way of life, it does not follow that I praise this way of life simply because it happens to be mine. For there is also the possibility that I praise this way of life because I have objective reasons to believe that it is a good way of life, and that I have chosen it for these objective reasons. In the second case, the life is mine because I have objective grounds for praising it, not praised because it is mine. Only in the first case would we speak of Socrates’ assertion as self-aggrandizing. Given that Podhoretz has provided no evaluation of the Socratic reasons for the Socratic assertion, he is not justified in describing the latter as "self-aggrandizing."

But the main issue is this: Is an unexamined life worth living? If my way of life happens to be good, then one might argue that it is good whether I examine it or not, whether I can give objective reasons for its goodness or not. (Compare: if my roof is in good condition, it is so whether I examine it or not. It is no part of my roof’s being in good condition that it, or someone, know that it is in good condition or that it, or someone, raise the question of its condition.) In this sense, an unexamined life might be thought to be worth living. But a human life is not merely a biological process, but essentially involves the exercise of (not merely the capacity for) emotion, will, and reason. Thus no ‘fully human life’ (an unabashedly normative phrase used unabashedly!) is possible without the exercise of reason upon the ultimate objects, among which no doubt, is one’s own life, its whither and wherefore. A fully human life, as a life necessarily involving the exercise of reason, requires the examination of such questions as how we should live. To live thoughtlessly, uncritically, without consideration of ultimates – there is indeed something deeply contemptible about this. To that extent, Socrates was surely right, and Podhoretz is surely wrong.

But Socratic self-examination implies no rejection of traditional ways of life. Perhaps lurking in the background of Podhoretz’s mind is some such argument as this: (1) Socratic self-examination leads to the rejection of traditional mores; (2) traditional mores are sound; ergo, (3) Socratic self-examination is a mistake. I hope this is not the way Podhoretz is thinking, given the falsity of (1). Socratic examination may lead to the rejection of traditional mores, but it might also lead to their rational defense.