One of the most cited quotes in the history of philosophy is a dictum attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates; that is, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.’
This statement borders on the obvious, yet quite often eluding us in life. Socrates took this idea too seriously that he is said to have adopted a teaching method whose major aim was not to provide his students with answers but to help them learn to think, not to take anything around them for granted.
Many times, much of what we are doing is to fit into social conventions/patterns that have already been drawn out for us in various intricate ways. And society is pretty good at beating us into lines of homogeneity/conformity, with many subtle penalties for choosing to live differently.
Clearly, as articulated by the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, “man is born free, but everywhere in chains.”
In many ways then, it is convenient to follow the herd, to read from society’s unwritten handbook of life, and not to disturb what the majority espouses. And maybe sometimes life is better lived this way, avoiding the many disturbing questions about the meaning of life itself and how we ought to live.
The counsel of the Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, comes in attractive at this idea. In his view, “the more you struggle to live, the less you live.
Give up the notion that you must be sure of what you are doing. Instead, surrender to what is real within you, for that alone is sure....you are above everything distressing.”
Yet, every now and again, life’s mysteries come banging naughtily against our doors, leaving us with no freedom to ignore them.
For instance, whereas we know that life is implicitly a journey towards death and that every celebration of a birthday is as well a mark of one year less our life account, death remains a mysterious phenomenon despite centuries of experiences and explanatory attempts.
Whereas thinkers such as Socrates have speculatively tried to console us that ‘death may be the greatest of all human blessings,’ it still scares the heaven out of us. Every time the several threats to our lives appear, we silently ask in a nervous panic, like the Zimbabwean poet, Dambudzo Marechera: “who of you bastards is death?”
It is partly the reason why many tend to become more religious as that dreadful hour appears to be getting closer. For religion attempts to provide answers to questions that defeat some of our human attempts at rationally explaining certain realities.
This way, it is suggested that faith begins where reason ends. St Augustine takes this view a notch higher in the theistic direction to summarise the purpose of life in one famous statement: ‘our hearts are restless until they rest in God.’
Augustine’s answer is triggered by questions that have preoccupied philosophers throughout the history of interrogation: ‘What is the purpose of life?’ ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What is the highest good for a human being?’ ‘After this life, what next?’
Unlike theistic thinkers such as Augustine, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger bluntly says we are thrown into this world and that we better realise that we are on our own to shape our destiny. We are “condemned to be free.” What we become is but the total sum of our decisions.
The life implication is that there is no common destiny/purpose for which we have to strive. This could be the basis of the jest that many of us fail life’s exam because we are too busy copying each other, forgetting that our questions are different.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle told us that for everything, there is a purpose, which is predetermined by its maker and that the best way to understand how a thing is to be/live is by discerning its ultimate purpose – the end for which it lives/exists. In the case of human beings, the ‘maker’ is the ‘uncaused cause’ (which Thomas Aquinas later Christianised as God).
Knowing the purpose would as well help us establish the highest good for that thing, sometimes done the other way round. Through elimination, Aristotle argues that the highest good cannot be money or pursuit of wealth – because money is simply a means to another end.
A life of pursuit (accumulation) of wealth as though it were an end in itself is a misguided one, not worth a human being. This is not to say that pursuit of wealth is bad, but that wealth is only good for what it can do towards the achievement of something other than it – which is ‘happiness.’ That is why some extremely wealthy people still live unhappily, even by their own definition of happiness.
Of course, happiness itself is an ambiguous concept, consisting different things for different people, and maybe legitimately so as long as we do not harm each other in pursuit of our own conception. But sometimes it appears like today many of us live for work, whose fruits we never even find time to enjoy.
You wake up very early for it, and return late when you are even too tired to be happy. You build a huge house with balconies that you can hardly ever find time to sit on. You become more available to your employers/businesses than to your wife/husband, children, friends, and community. ‘Busy’ becomes your everyday vocabulary, including being too busy for yourself.
Before you know it, if lucky, you start seeing signs that old age and death are reporting for duty. Norman Cousins’ words best capture this anti-climax: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live”.
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.