Unthinkable: Was Socrates right about the unexamined life?

A new weekly philosophy column begins with a Greek classic

In a bid to push beyond "common sense", The Irish Times explores important ideas of the past, present and future through conversations with different thinkers.

The new column starts today, on foot of World Philosophy Day, and continues each Friday.


"The unexamined life is not worth living" How better to start this celebration of thought than with a classic: Socrates's defiant statement at the trial that led to his execution. Recorded for posterity in Plato's Apology, it has become a treasured saying of idlers, bookworms and moody introspectives down the ages. But surely something some guy said in Greece 2,500 years ago has little relevance today? Dr Catherine Kavanagh, president of the Irish Philosophical Society, begs to differ.

So Catherine, what's Socrates on about? "This particular phrase is thrown out as a challenge. He was brought to trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, and what people expected was he'd come back and say: I will go into exile. But he refused and said: Look, if you want to execute me for this, go ahead, otherwise I will go on doing what I'm doing."

But as well as calling on people to think more deeply, wasn't he criticising the values of the time? "That's exactly right. The traditional, heroic ethic of Greeks was falling apart, and it was being replaced by quite an exclusive focus on money, power, position, and honour.

“People were charging an absolute fortune to educate the young – we call them sophists now – and the education they provided would be what we these days call skills-based. It really had very little to say about the overall purpose of life.”

Was he a bit of an anti-capitalist then? "We tend to go pro- or anti-money. He was neither. He could take it or leave it. His poverty was commented on but, on the other hand, he didn't really cultivate poverty. He's really asking people to examine what they value. One of the things that really annoyed the solid citizens of Athens was the fact that he said, really, you can't teach virtue and you can't legislate for everything."

Research in psychology suggests that some of our better decisions are instinctive rather than reflective; does this undermine his suggestion that we should be in a constant state of self-examination? "This business of deciding quickly and deciding slowly – he would have been extremely familiar with that because he fought. In a war situation, you have to decide in battle very quickly. I think the response there would have been that if you are the kind of person who has formed themselves in virtue, in honesty and courage, then if you have to make a decision quickly it will be the right decision."

But can you overanalyse? "The dialectic has two moments. One is analytic: taking things apart. If all you do is take things apart then, yes, you do end up in a situation of paralysis.

“But there is also this counter movement when you put things back together again – there is a synthesis. A continual exercise of this will make you quick at figuring things out.”

Do you think Socrates would be more likely to be persecuted or ignored if he came back today? "I can't see Socrates going out of his way to make a career in anything at all. On the other hand, all sorts of odd people do manage to get listened to. I think he'd find a way. I think he'd find a way to annoy us."

Is there a need for more annoyance in Irish society? "I think perhaps there is. I wonder what some of our financial wizards would say if you sat them down and asked them exactly Socrates's question: are you not ashamed to be so interested in money and position? Nobody has asked them that question. It would be interesting to get the answer.

“Part of it is we are now responding to certain crises in society with, ‘Oh we must legislate for this, we must legislate for that, we must legislate for the banks,’ and one of the things that emerge from the Socratic way of doing things is that unless you are the kind of person who values integrity, and the maintenance of a just legislation ‘where there is a law there’s a loophole’.

"It's a huge question: can we legislate to cover for a lack of personal integrity, and if we can't what are we going to do?"


I'm feeling swamped by social media. Should I drop my Facebook account, Google+ or Twitter?

Arthur Schopenhauer replies: "There is in the world only the choice between loneliness and vulgarity."

Send your intellectual dilemmas to philosophy@irishtimes.com

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