The unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates[1]

[This one is for Chris White, who got me to think about Socrates[2] the other day.]

Back when I went to college, many a moon ago, all freshmen had to take a two semester course in philosophy and religion. The idea was, before we could get on with the business of serious learning, each of us had to spend some time examining our basic beliefs, their foundations, and how they stacked up against what other people thought. Otherwise we might not understand what was to come.

Now, that was heavy work for a bunch of 18 year olds, so our kindly faculty provided the aforementioned course to help us along. And guess what? We started at the beginning, by reading Plato’s version of Socrates’ views, and moved on up the timeline to the present; which, of course, brings me to today’s quote. You see, at my school (and at others) Socrates was seen as a sort of hero-philosopher; he questioned the popular notions and people of his day and died because of it.

He said:

… a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad.[3]

Socrates’ home town was Athens, Greece; he lived there 2400 years ago and, one day, was hauled into court to answer charges that he .was a “doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and [did not] believe in the gods of the state.”[4]

He was in his 70’s at that time, and had been doing his philosophy gig for many, many years. So, he was a bit surprised; but, being an argumentative sort, he addressed the charges one by one; answered them plainly; and waited for a verdict.

His basic defense was that his job was to seek out those who claimed to be wise; find out why that was the case; and, if they weren’t really wise, point that out.[5] This practice, he said, “has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given rise also to many calumnies…”[6]Nevertheless, he had no choice; he was called to his task by a god and, of course, the unexamined life was not worth living.[7]

The Athenians put Socrates to death, so in that sense his defense was a failure. And today, no doubt, that’s the main thing our media would look at. The story is in the horse race – the process – not in any issues that might be debated. But it’s worth noting, even today, that many folks know of Socrates, but few know anything about his accusers. He predicted something like that, by the way.[8]

Nevertheless, today things are different. Back then, if students wanted to improve themselves, they had to do it on their own, or with the help and guidance of a teacher. Basically, self-improvement was a kind of cottage industry. Today, however, we have the mass media to rely on, editing and constructing reality for us, and issuing opinions for us to adopt. Freelance philosophers are obsolete. There are pundits and news presenters instead.

And, of course, the Government helps. It used to be that, if the Government wanted to correct our conduct, it had to catch us doing something wrong. In the future, that will be the easy part. Cellphones, ATMs, traffic lights, streets, doorways, terminals, buildings, stores, parking lots, police cars, regular automobiles, security systems, etc. all come equipped with video cameras. Tie all those pictures together, via phone and other computer networks; throw in some drones to cover the rural areas; and we could have a real time, video database of everything that goes on in the country. Turn the whole megillah[9] over to the Government and, presto, instant video omniscience!

How could that be? Well, it’s really quite simple. As we pointed out a while ago[10], §215 of the Patriot Act amended the law to allow the Government to access (and copy) “business records” of companies with only a minimal showing of need.[11]Apparently this allows the NSA to duplicate all of the billing records for every phone in the country. So why not simply extend that to video records generated by the private sector? The Government might have to subsidize the collection effort a bit, if companies don’t ordinarily retain such material, but hey! It’s only money, and will be spent in a good cause.

So what am I saying here? Well, simply that, even today. Socrates’ old maxim – that the unexamined life is not worth living – probably holds true. But in these modern times we don’t have to do that kind of work for ourselves. We can let the media mold us, and the Government correct us, without any effort on our part. Truly we will have a modern and progressive Babylon.[12]


[1] Plato, Dialogues, Apology. Socrates lived from 460 to 399 B.C. You can find the quote in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, (6th Edition, 2004) at Socrates p. 745. Of course, we’re dealing with a translation from the ancient Greek. We’ll reference this Dictionary as ODQ at __.

[2] Want to know more about Socrates? Currently our favorite reference is The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/ If you want something a bit less technical (i.e., more understandable) take a look at the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates

[3] Plato’s version of the story appears at Plato, Dialogues, Apology; there’s an online version of the 19th Century Jowett translation of the Apology at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html Henceforth we’ll cite it as Apology (Jowett) at __. (Page references will be to the pages as it prints out on my machine, i.e., to “p. __ of 17”) See Apology (Jowett) at p. 9 of 17.If you want to know more about Benjamin Jowett, check out Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Jowett

[4] See Apology (Jowett) at p. 5 of 17. [“And now I will try to defend myself against them: these new accusers must also have their affidavit read. What do they say? Something of this sort: – That Socrates is a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own.”] If you want a brief account of Socrates’ trial and death, check out the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, which is available online at http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Socrates_%28philosopher%29

[5] See Apology (Jowett) at p. 5 of 17. [“And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of  the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.”]

[6] See Apology (Jowett) at p. 4 of 17.

[7] See. Apology (Jowett) at p. 15 of17. [“For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you. Moreover, I am not accustomed to think that I deserve any punishment.”]

[8] See Apology (Jowett) at p. 16 of 17.[“For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing
others, but to be improving yourselves. This is the prophecy which I utter before my departure, to the judges who have condemned me.”]

[9] For purists who want a definition of this bit of slang, check out http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Megilla

[10] See the blog of 06/13/2013, Cats Scratching at the Door, at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/cats-scratching-at-the-door-2/

[11] This particular section is codified at 50 U.S.C. §1861. You can get a copy from the Cornell University Legal Information Institute at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/50/1861

[12] See ODQ at Benjamin Disraeli, p. 277, n. 30: “London is a modern Babylon.”

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