The unexamined life is not worth living

The past two months have sucked ass. Week after week, I’ve been getting a steady stream of bad news from loved ones. Feeling useless when your people tell you terrible, horrible, very bad, and no good things fucking sucks.

I can’t recall exactly how, but this week, I stumbled upon a talk titled “Philosophy and Life” by the polymath and philosopher A. C. Grayling, based on a book of the same title. It could be because I was watching another one of his talks on the history of philosophy at the same venue, and the sneaky YouTube algorithm that knows me so well didn’t have to work hard to bewitch me.

I was watching his videos because I had been reading From Socrates to Sartrewhich has a section on Hegel, one of the most influential philosophers of all time. He’s maddeningly hard to understand, so I turned to AC Grayling because his book on the history of philosophy lies solemnly on my bookshelf, waiting for me to show it some love.

Anyway, I paused watching the video on the history of philosophy, and instead I began watching the video on philosophy and life. As soon as Grayling uttered the first words, it felt like he knew about my shitty couple of months and was talking directly to me. I also felt an instant urge to start writing about what he was saying.

The idea that you need a philosophy of life, and have to spend time thinking about it might seem like an act of indulgence and mental masturbation for rich people. But the truth is, we all have a philosophy of life, whether we know it or not. poo

In computing, the kernel is a core part of the operating system that acts as an interface between the hardware and software. In the same way, a philosophy for living life is at the core of our being. Our philosophies are the result of the constant interactions between our mental and physical worlds. Being intentional about the philosophy that orchestrates our actions makes our lives all the richer.

There are a few people in my life that I consider bulletproof. They have this remarkable ability to smile despite being mercilessly pummeled by life. They have this magical ability to keep going forward. It’s as though they’ve figured out what they must do and where they should go in life. The more I think about these people, the more it seems obvious to me that their resilience in the face of the unending horrors of life is because of their belief system. In other words, a strong philosophy of life.

Now on to the talk.

Here’s what AC Grayling says right at the beginning:

So, philosophy and life, um, allow me to begin by telling you what the motivation was for writing this. Some of you may have come across collections of essays and, uh, some other things that I’ve written which bear on the same subject. In those essays, what I was attempting to do was to hint and suggest and smuggle in, uh, to people, uh, a motive for going and finding out for themselves what a philosophy of life might be.

And I noticed that, um, the, uh, fact that over the last 50 years, more perhaps since the end of the Second World War, the kind of default grasp that religious ideas, even for people who are not religious but nevertheless, the idea of, um, vaguely Christian values or the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament counted as a kind of default view as to what was right or wrong in life and what kind of handrail of a moral kind is available for how we act and how we relate to others.

But the grip of that has, of course, weakened over the last half-century and more, and therefore more people have, uh, been looking around for something that might take the place of those sorts of suggestions and prescriptions.

The second and third paragraphs may remind me of Frederick Nietzsche’s famous quote, “God is dead.”

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche didn’t mean it literally, of course. What he meant was that the traditional role that God played in grounding the existence of mankind had diminished due to enlightenment values like equality, reason, rationality, science, and secularism. What replaced God? Well, we’ve been searching for something, anything, to replace God ever since we killed him, as Grayling points out. We’ve conjured cults and godmen to replace God, but this usually ends with gruesome murders and Netflix documentaries.

Idea 1: The unexamined life is not worth living

Grayling starts by talking about Socrates’s famous exhortation to his fellow Athenians to live an examined life. By that, he meant that it is our duty to reflect and think critically about the life we are living and to contemplate our values, beliefs, and choices. In doing so, strive to live ethical and virtuous life.

Socrates, in his day, challenged his fellow Athenians to try to answer the question: what sort of person should I be? How should I live? What matters in life enough that it should shape how I live and help me to choose the goals towards which I act? And he found when he asked his fellow Athenians these questions – what matters? How should we live? How should you live? – but they hadn’t really thought about it very deeply at all. He discovered then what many, many centuries later Bertrand Russell wonderfully encapsulated by saying, “Most people would rather die than think, and most people do.”

In the early dialogues of Plato, we do hear the authentic voice of Socrates, and therefore we know this one thing about what he did say: what he did say was that the life truly worth living is the considered life, the life chosen, the life thought about. In fact, he put the point negatively; he said the unconsidered life is not worth living because if you haven’t thought about your life, your values, your goals, then you’re living somebody else’s idea of what a worthwhile life.

But, of course, we may spend our entire lives thinking about how we are living. Grayling quotes the legendary Bertrand Russell to make this point:

“Most people would rather die than think and many of them do!”

What a brilliant quote, and it’s true for many people. This reminds me of something the amazing Tom Morgan said on a podcast that I shared in the previous post:

So what happens in my experience, having been in a lot of institutions, particularly around middle management is that people don’t want slack in their day because it will leave them time to think about their choices. And I was that person, so I’m not looking down on anyone else. But you want to be distracted from that increasingly uncomfortable sense of dissonance that maybe it’s time for you to go and do something else.

Examining one’s life is a pain in the ass because it requires deep reflection about our choices and identities. This is about as enjoyable as standing naked in the sun on a midsummer’s day with an empty water bottle in hand. Such reflections about the life one has lived often lead to a lot of guilt and shame and may dredge up painful things buried deep in our unconscious. If we’ve lived a life that society considers normal—childhood, education, graduation, 9-5 job, wife, kids, secret Playboy subscription, dog, Netflix, beer belly—then examining our lives will shatter not just the comfortable delusions that directed our lives but our very identity.

In that examined moment, you are all alone, feeling like a driver in a car with its brakes cut off, navigating down a winding road. It will take a miracle to come out unscathed. Existential crises at any stage of life, let alone in middle age, are about as enjoyable as paying to have a heavyweight boxer punch you for 10 minutes while you’re handcuffed.

But if we’ve lived an unexamined life, sometimes we need a metaphorical punch in the face—or perhaps even in the lower abdominal regions—to shake us out of our fantasies. The last thing we need is a guaranteed ticket to the grave, swaddled by our illusions. Reflecting on the life we’ve lived is a sacred duty we owe to ourselves and to the important people in our lives.”

Grayling emphasizes the point by referencing the fate that befell Socrates. He was sentenced to death, having been accused of “corrupting” the youth of Athens. In reality, all he did was to prod young Athenians to think by questioning everything and holding nothing sacred:

Socrates was a very significant figure; this is why we remember him. Because of what he attempted to do, indeed to the irritation eventually of his fellow citizens because they put him to death. He was such a gadfly. But his task was to make people think. It just shows you that making people think can be dangerous because they get very irritated. They don’t want to think, and they certainly don’t want to have their normal conceptions upset too much. But Socrates did it, and he left us with this great and very profound challenge: to think, to think about how we live and what we’re to do well.

The other problem that gets in the way of looking inward is that we no longer have time for ourselves. Solitude is no longer a part of the good life but a problem to be solved. We abhor being alone and doing nothing. Instead, screens have gentrified the idle moments in our lives. They are always with us, constantly calling us to take them out of our pockets and shower them with attention while they suck ours. When was the last time you went on a long walk or spent time lost in the mental currents of your mind?

Idea 2: It’s never too late to start living an examined life

I loved this idea.

Epictetus used to say to his pupils every day, after their discourses and discussions, as they were leaving, ‘Tell me, how long will you delay to be wise? How long will you delay before you really think about this challenge and come up with some views about how you might live and what you might be?’ Then, of course, among those who attended his discourses, there were folks whose 31st birthdays were a bit of a faded memory, who were a bit superannuated. They would say, ‘Well, I mean, you know, what’s the point now?’

And he would say, ‘No, no, even in the last hour of a very, very long life, you could become wise. Even in the very last hour of a long life, you could make that choice. And indeed, in reflecting on what you really do value and what you really want to be, even in the moment that you begin doing that, as Aristotle long before Epictetus said, the minute that you begin this process of reflection, you are already living the worthwhile life.

Listening to Grayling talk about Epictetus’s admonishment of his pupils reminded me of this brilliant quote I heard from a colleague:

“Wisdom is wasted on the old, and youth is wasted on the young.” ―George Bernard Shaw

My boss said this simple yet profound thing: the older you grow, the less you take. I mean, being in finance, I knew that, but as often as it happens, something only hits you when you hear it from other people. This applies to how we think as well.

When we are young, one side effect of our empty brains is that we’re remarkably good at discarding old opinions. As we grow older, we tend to lose this ability. We become conservative, not only in our choices and decisions but also in our thoughts. We stubbornly hold onto flawed opinions and become slaves to dogmatism. We tremble at the mere thought of saying, “I don’t know.” We also create comfortable fantasies and delusions to create the illusion of comfort and stability.

This is a side effect of the social pressures, identities, and statuses that build up like sediment as we grow older. Changing anything could result in a social penalty or having to look foolish, which is as painful as being stabbed. To have the ability to accept that you don’t know something, no matter how old, is a gift because it’s an opportunity to learn.

But the way our brains evolved makes questioning, changing ourselves, and embarking on a hero’s journey hard. Our brains were not designed to think or help you understand Christopher Nolan’s movies, but to keep us alive. That’s their only job. The way our brain functions is in service of that objective. Since pain and uncertainty are problematic for ensuring our survival, our brains, through natural selection, are hardwired to avoid them at any cost. Our preference for stability and the known is a result of this deep-seated evolutionary imperative.

This naturally leads to questions about the role of suffering in life. As Grayling points out, religious beliefs have grounded us since time immemorial, but they started withering away with the dawn of modernity. In Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian beliefs, suffering was a punishment for the sins in your past life, the price of our worldly attachment to, or the price we pay for eternal bliss and getting closer to god. The notion that suffering is central to personal and spiritual growth is a key tenet of many religions.

But our modern lives are characterized by the avoidance of pain and the maximization of pleasure. To my mind, this is a symptom of the corrosive effects of bastardized versions of utilitarianism and individualism. It stems from our inability to see and be a part of the whole. While we are built to avoid suffering, paradoxically, it is the catalyst for our growth. Even John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of utilitarianism, had to suffer through a crisis to continue his life’s work.

This reminds me of the brilliant Simone Weil’s meditation on suffering that I read on Maria Popova’s blog:

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, fear, and of everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever. Then it is that the soul is as if divided by a two-edged sword. To make use in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.

Idea 3: We’re as free as we can be

There’s a wonderful part in the talk where Grayling talks about the idea of free will. If you’ve read my previous posts, you may remember that most physicists reject the notion of free will. Many of them have beliefs similar to those of author and physicist Brian Greene: that we are just a collection of particles dancing to the tunes of the fundamental laws of physics. Grayling rejects the notion of determinism:

Firstly, we have to accept that the possibility of change exists, the possibility that we could do things differently from the way we’ve been channeled so far. That has to be a possibility because if we thought of ourselves as we’re now told by the neurologists we should, as kind of an automaton, that all our actions are determined by what happened billions of years ago in the history of the universe, then of course the entire conception we have of ourselves as thinkers, as choosers, as feelers, as moral beings, and most importantly as ethical beings, would just be a massive error, just a huge mistake about ourselves.

And that’s just not… then it’s not possible that we could really change and do things differently. And that way of thinking, of course, is an impossibility. You can’t think in those terms. We have to think it’s an undischarged assumption of our lives that we are free.

Now, of course, the freedom in question is a metaphysical freedom, not a social freedom. Freedom, I mean, you could, if you wanted to, rip off all your clothes and run down to the Christmas Market now screaming. Um, that’s something that you could do, but you’re extremely unlikely to do it because, of course, we are like flies caught in the spiderweb of law and expectations and society and normal behavior.

Uh, so in that sense, we’re not free; we’re constrained. We’re constrained by our obligations, our commitments, our promises, the fact that we have to pay tax and drive on the left-hand side of the road. These are things that constrain us all the time.

And yet, within that, within that metaphysically, within ourselves, we are free. And each one of us, even though we live in a society among others and we have to yield up to others some degree of our personal liberty so that we can get along with them and they can have some degree of personal liberty too, nevertheless, within ourselves, in the great universe of our minds, we are sovereign.

That last line is poetry.

Even though we’re constrained by the ties that bind us and burdened by the expectations that have been heaped on us, we are free to make choices and change. If we don’t believe this, what’s the point of life? This is why, beyond a point, debates about free will seem like mental masturbation to me. Whether you think you have free will or don’t, you still have to make your own meaning. That’s the essence of an examined life.

Idea 4: We have an eternity to live a good life

I loved this story of King Croesus and Solon.

[Lydian King Croesus] He was by far the richest individual of ancient times, very proud of it. He used to have his visitors shown the great panoply of wealth in his Treasury, and then when they came to have dinner with him afterwards, he would say, “Who in your opinion is the happiest man in the world?” And Solon said, “Well, I know some people back in Athens I would,” and was very cross, “What, you choose a commoner over me? I’m a king, and I’m so rich!” So Solon said, “I don’t know whether you’re happy, but I do know you should think about what would make you so.”

And the reason why is the brevity of life, that human life is less than a thousand months long on average. Do the math, suppose you live to 80, what’s 12 times 80? 960 months. And unless you party a lot, you’re asleep for a third of them, another third you’re in a queue in Waitrose, if you’re lucky, or Tesco, or somewhere like that. So you think, “Oh God, I’ve got about a third of 960 months, 300 odd months really, to live with all the passion and vividness of a human life.” It’s a very depressing thought until I point out two things to you. The minor thing is that 300 odd months is about 25 years.

Grayling goes on to explain the finitude of human life with another beautiful anecdote from a philosophy professor. He says that there is no such thing as time, but only experience. In other words, time is elastic. He gives the example of spending a Sunday in Paris with a person you love. As long as you are in Paris, the day will feel like an eternity, but as soon as Monday dawns, time contracts. He says that if you live to 80, that’s just 960 months. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a blip. But he goes on to say that if we live a meaningful life, those 960 months will feel like 960 lifetimes.

There is no such thing as time; there’s only experience. And therefore, the more richly you experience, the more lifetimes you live. Not 960 months but 960 lifetimes.

In the interest of keeping this less long, I’ll end the post here. But make no mistake, I have but picked 1% of the ideas in the talk. It’s a beautiful talk packed with insights from some of the greatest thinkers to have thunk about the question of living a meaningful life across thousands of years. I can’t recommend listening to this enough. I’ve added the book to my list of regrets—I mean, my list of books to read. If I do get around to reading it, you can expect an even more delicious and richer post of ideas. For now, I leave you to think about your own winding path in life.

Existential reads

Suffering, not just happiness, weighs in the utilitarian calculus

Mill tries philosophically to resolve the paradox of suffering by arguing that higher goods such as love and literature are ultimately more satisfying than basic forms of pleasure. In some sense, that’s true. But the terms of this satisfaction are no longer utilitarian; they have more to do with adventure, beauty, even holiness. As the political philosopher Michael Sandel puts it in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009): ‘Mill saves utilitarianism from the charge that it reduces everything to a crude calculus of pleasure and pain, but only by invoking a moral ideal of human dignity and personality independent of utility itself.’

The semi-satisfied life

as Schopenhauer puts it with his keen eye for an analogy: ‘we do not feel the health of our entire body but only the small place where the shoe pinches’. If we do manage to resolve whatever is bothering us, we tend quickly to take it for granted and shift our focus to the next problem: ‘it is like a bite of food we have enjoyed, which stops existing for our feeling the moment it is swallowed.’ Moreover, however small the next problem, we tend to magnify it to match the previous one: ‘it still knows how to puff itself up so that it seems to equal it in size, and so it can fill the whole throne as the main worry of the day.’ Consequently, we rarely feel the benefit of the things we have while we still have them: ‘We do not become aware of the three greatest goods in life as such – that is, health, youth and freedom – so long as we possess them, but only after we have lost them.’

Simone Weil on How to Make Use of Your Suffering

The way to make use of physical pain. When suffering no matter what degree of pain, when almost the entire soul is inwardly crying “Make it stop, I can bear no more,” a part of the soul, even though it be an infinitesimally small part, should say: “I consent that this should continue throughout the whole of time, if the divine wisdom so ordains.”

Pair this with:A just and loving gaze

A Zen Buddhist priest voices the deep matters he usually ponders in silence

This was beautiful.

The Great Betrayal

The default response is that our incomprehensibly complex modern economy cannot support mass self-determination except for the blessed elites. But if the intelligence behind our reality can produce the endless miracles of existence, spontaneously reorganizing an economy around greater open-ended cooperation is child’s play. The idea that the capitalist market system is somehow isolated from the inexorable complexification of reality is just a weird cognitive limitation that we might need to shed. We could just focus on pursuing our own unique niche and let the rest sort itself out around us.

It’s Sunday. Why don’t you start thinking about your terrible and no-good life and start having an existential crisis?