A look at the unexamined life

The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.

The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.            Plato

I have been thinking about beauty and truth and what it means to live a good life, perhaps because I have been reading Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, a book I would highly recommend. Goldstein’s book essentially outlines why philosophy is as relevant today as it ever was in the time of Socrates and Plato, particularly when dealing with complex moral, political, religious and scientific issues that seem to defy consensus, challenging our cultural norms and compromising the fabric of our social institutions.

The book’s philosophical underpinnings can be difficult to understand at times, but Goldstein’s style and wit allow the average reader ample opportunity to grapple with the fundamental questions to which we all seek answers. Already I am given pause, however, because I assume, as does Socrates and Plato, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Perhaps everyone does not share this belief.

I assume that beauty and truth and virtue are all connected, and that one does not live a good life without striving for them. I believe in the power of questions and the likelihood of there never being final answers, but trust that the quest for those answers is its own reward. I believe that too often in our decision making we are swayed by public opinion and the media, movie stars and celebrities, imposters of all kinds, tyrants and sycophants who appeal to our passions and insecurities rather than to our reason or our understanding of the greater good. I suspect anyone who wants to “sell” me something I don’t need or whose appeal plays upon my fears or desires. I question those whose authority or moral ground is based upon some higher power or intuition rather than reasons that can stand the test of full and open scrutiny.

I believe we are often fooled by illusion and subjectivity, by self-evident truths that have no real basis in fact, by senses that have limited scope and reliability. I try not to be swayed by quick answers or the need to be accepted, by the false sense of identity that comes from being a part of a group. I have seen hints of beauty and have had glimpses of truth. In every case they have taken me out of myself in some way to feel as though I am part of something larger and more meaningful, something transcendent and yet whole. In their light, I become selfless, more giving, more capable of love. I begin to see that the questions are themselves part of the solution. I have no need to impose my answers on others. They will find beauty and truth in places I will miss, and, like Socrates, I am well aware of how little I know.

I believe in education, particularly of young people, whose instincts for beauty and order can provide a basis for understanding the world outside them. It is not enough to learn a set of skills, to have a bag of tricks, to pass a multiple-choice test or cultivate some technical knowhow that will guarantee a job in a sterile cubicle. It is not enough to engage in some self-indulgent exploration of individual needs. We have a responsibility to see and act beyond ourselves. We would do well to teach our children strategies for recognizing bias and illusion. We would do well to ask them to resist gut reactions and to account for their moral decisions, to subject themselves to questions willingly and as a matter of principle.

Of course they need to be trained for meaningful work, to have a firm grasp of basic skills, to be steeped in a knowledge of math and science. There are great mysteries to be explored and solved with these tools. But we cannot ignore the power and efficacy of the humanities and arts. We would do well to have our children read and write and talk about books as a matter of course. To learn to draw or paint or build something with their hands. To put on plays and write down histories. To argue for a bill or create solutions for real world problems. To learn to cook and share meals, to celebrate victories and profit from defeats. To test their physical stamina and know the joy of being out of breath. The best doctor I ever knew had an undergraduate degree in philosophy. I admired his breadth of knowledge, his ability to engage the world from many directions.

If all this speculation seems esoteric and impractical, forgive me. I must be on the right track. Arête, Plato tells me, rarely is achieved on the road well-traveled. I have always chosen back-alleys and unfamiliar pathways as more interesting and productive. Whether at Stony Brook or in your own back yard, I would urge you to do the same.