May 28th, 2020

"The examined life is not worth living"

I recently read this article from the New Yorker by Ian Crouch about an evening shared by a group of "professional philosophers". The article is fairly short and, like the discussions it documents, doesn't really seem to go anywhere, but it summarizes itself in a line near the beginning: "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but at the close of the public portion of the evening, the examined one didn't have much going for it either."

The evening in question began with a panel discussion tasked with addressing the question: "Does Philosophy Still Matter?", and in an open forum, with several "professional philosophers" assigned the basic task of defending their chosen livelihood, or at least describing why it is relevant to anyone or anything, the people came up empty: James Miller, whose book Examined Lives was the impetus for the discussion, is described by Crouch as concluding that "those who seek rarely seem to find": If you search for wisdom or meaning, you are not likely to find it. A plausible theory for this failed search might be simply that what people are looking for doesn't actually exist, i.e. perhaps there simply is no wisdom or meaning anywhere in the universe.

Yet despite this failure to provide a basic reason why philosophy should exist, why these people should be getting paid a salary to do whatever it is they do all day, they promptly forgot about the discussion and went to a private residence to spend the rest of the evening drinking and having idle discussions where they appeared to be more interested in entertaining each other than in reaching any real truths. The parallels with Plato's Symposium are obvious. As much as I appreciate the writings of Plato, a shameful shadow is cast on his culture by the boozing, raucous atmosphere which was cultivated in ancient Greece, the environment where people who were supposedly some of history's wisest thinkers supposedly did some of their greatest thinking. The real role of the people who attend such gatherings is clear: They are self-important parasites who imagine and claim that they are bringing great wisdom to the world, when in fact that world would be better off if they were exterminated like the vermin they are.

Philosophy is like art: It cannot be meaningfully done as a full-time job, because it only works when it is backed by the perspective of real-world experience; people who try to do either philosophy or art as a full-time job, with no other useful activity to support themselves, lose sight of how real people live or how real life works, and they end up producing nothing but irrelevant fantasies that might sound good in their heads but have nothing to impart to the world, other than how damaged a person's brain becomes when they separate themselves from reality.

So, is the examined life not worth living? In a world where all of the old things that used to bring value to people's lives have been devalued, it's no wonder that people are on a search for meaning, value, and purpose in life. The idea of family has nearly vanished from our world. The value of useful work has disappeared with the development of machines that are stronger and smarter than humans. Art, literature, and every other form of creativity exist in such copious quantities that there is more than enough of every imaginable kind of art to be had for free on the Internet to last any human being several times their possible life span. Is it any wonder that people are asking themselves what they live for? And yet at the end of all this soul-searching and world-exploring, the only answer we can arrive at is that there is no purpose or meaning to any of it, no reason for it all to exist.

It would be fair, then, to say that the over-examined life is not worth living, a life spent merely examining itself, because that would be as useless as a toaster which can only heat itself but not any food, a car which can only propel itself but not any cargo or passengers, or a computer which can only process information about itself but not information that a user might want to put in. Basic self-awareness is important: Cars and computers contain sensors so that they can detect when they experience technical trouble, but in order to justify their existence, they must do more than just report on themselves.

There is also a connection here with the failure of "professional philosophers" to find value or meaning in life or practical applications in philosophy: If they don't experience real life, if they don't know how to live, then of course they won't know how to apply anything to it or in it; it's like asking someone who doesn't know anything about physics what practical application the Large Hadron Collider might have. Just because someone doesn't know the value of something, that doesn't mean it has no value.

So it's easy to fall into the ideological trap of "Damned if you do, damned if you don't": You might think that the unexamined life has no value, but the examined life doesn't either, leading to the conclusion that life is utterly lacking in value, but this is not necessarily the truth, because between mindless, hedonistic ignorance and rigidly logical, soul-destroying rationalism is a middle ground, the concept of a balanced person who can actually retain their physical and mental health while still living a happy, meaningful life. This ideal is very difficult to realize in our world, but that's not to say it's impossible. You can do it. You just need to avoid wasting your life on things that don't matter and people who'll just waste your time.