An Examined Life

Categories 1 Virtues

Socrates famously said that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’. Today we live in a world where there is frequent examination of life. Our performance and capability are often examined, whether in educational examinations, or professional reviews. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions are regularly reviewed and open to public scrutiny.  Transparency and accountability are key concepts.

When it comes to our personal lives, however, life is much less examined. Our reaction to criticism is immediately defensive, triggered by the release of adrenaline whenever we feel threatened. There is a tendency to expect perfection of others and of the institutions providing for us, but to resist a similar challenge to ourselves. Ultimately this doesn’t add up, since the only final point of accountability is the individual, ie ourselves. Achievement is one aspect of examining life. It’s helpful to have some goals and to review our progress against them, and it’s not too difficult to do this. Even in practical matters, occasionally asking ourselves whether we have got it wrong will improve our outcomes.

But moral examination of our own lives is more difficult. Religion used to provide a forum for self-examination, with its practices of reflection, confession, repentance and forgiveness. Secular society has no such practice or forum. Our management of self tends more readily to self-interest than it does to self-examination.

How could we retrieve the value and worth Socrates claimed an examined life would yield? Some level of spiritual discipline would be needed. Considering the virtues of life, and checking ourselves against them would be a starting point. How kind am I, and how kind are my actions? Do I show moral courage and mercy? Could I be more generous? Perhaps I could forgive and trust more? Developing and deepening a friendship to allow the friend access to check or challenge our nature or specific behaviour is also cathartic. Asking ourselves whether we might be at least partly in the wrong in some argument or dispute would lead to greater harmony and resolution in life generally. Self-examination of this sort is rare. Self-assertion is more the norm, and inevitably increases conflict.

A rediscovery of spiritual discipline in a secular atheist world should not be condemning, but creative and restorative. Communities where people did aspire to virtue, and where we did examine our own lives against those virtues, would almost certainly be worthy places to live out our lives. Terry Eagleton wrote in his ‘Reason, Faith and Revolution’, ‘there has been no human culture to date in which virtue has been predominant’. This is a very substantial moral challenge and one which self-examination might begin to address.

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