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  • ENA

    The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

    Excerpted from
    Character Is Destiny: The Value of Personal Ethics in Everyday Life
    By Russell W. Gough, Ph.D.

    For, the title of this chapter, I quote an immortal sentiment expressed by one of the most well known and revered of all philosophers.

    Socrates made provocative remarks like this famous one as part of his daily practice in Athens in the late fourth century B.C. (several years after Heraclitus' death). When he made these statements, he was invariably exhorting his fellow Greeks to avoid falling into the trap of what we might call "ethical complacency," the point at which an individual ceases trying to become a better person.

    People can become ethically complacent for varying reasons. They might, for example, have become so consumed in their daily lives with making money or gaining fame or enhancing their physical appearance that they are essentially left with no time and energy to think about improving themselves in any other respect. (Ironically, these particular reasons, all too familiar in the present day, were what concerned Socrates most about his fellow Greeks.) Or, people might have developed an "Oh well, I'm too set in my ways now" attitude. Or their attitude might have become one of "I'm content with the way I am, faults and all-so why bother trying to improve anymore?" Or, worst-case scenario, they may simply have come to believe that their character has no room for improvement.

    For Socrates, wise, conscientious, and forthright teacher that he was, these "reasons" are really nothing of the sort and are rather best described as excuses or self-deceiving falsehoods, or both. For him, the first and most important part of examining one's life from an ethical perspective-or of appreciating the importance of personal ethics in one's everyday life-is being honest about and taking responsibility for where and what one is as a free, moral, and adult human being.

    With his marked emphasis on honest, ethical self-examination, Socrates was also echoing a sacred two-word principle known to virtually every person in the ancient Greek world: "Know yourself." He was not, however, merely echoing this sacred principle; he was deeply transforming its meaning. And herein lies not only the brilliance of Socrates' teaching and example but also an essential starting point for our looking-in-the-mirror discussion.

    "Know yourself" was one of two sacred mottoes inscribed over the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi-regarded by the ancient Greeks as the holiest of sites. (The second motto, by the way, was "Nothing in excess," emphasizing the importance of moderation and balance in one's life.)

    Prior to Socrates, the conventional interpretation of "Know yourself" was something along these lines: "Know your place, your status, and your duties in society, and be true to them. Do not try to usurp a position in society not yours by right of birth or divine command." Undoubtedly, the greatest impact of such an interpretation was felt by those in possession of neither political power nor wealth-that is, the "underclass," which in ancient Athens meant everyone except a relatively small group of aristocratic families. Thus, if you were, for example, a blacksmith or a farmer, much less a slave, you were expected to be the best blacksmith, farmer, or slave that you could be-but no more.

    One of Socrates' greatest and most enduring legacies, one for which he ultimately gave his life, was to fundamentally transform the meaning of "Know yourself" by turning it inward. In other words, when Socrates advised his fellow Athenians-the aristocrats, more often than not-to examine their lives, to "know themselves," he was exhorting them to give far less time and attention to external circumstances like social status and wealth and to give much more time and attention to the things that matter most: internal goals, like wisdom, truth, and ethical character.

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