"The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates said this more than two thousand years ago. Yet how many of us really examine our lives, our beliefs, values and opinions? How many of us question why we believe what we believe from our morals and ethics to our prejudices and biases to our politics and religion? How many of us just parrot our cultural, familial, or generational party line without truly understanding the reasoning behind these ideologies? How many of us go through life like a leaf in the wind just going with the flow without once questioning why or where it is all leading. How many of us except what we hear on TV or read in the newspaper or a magazine or hear on the street or what we have been told all our lives growing up without once examining the reasons arguments and evidence supporting these beliefs? How many of us have convictions that we cannot even logically defend? I have heard many people get flustered and red-faced when asked the reasoning behind truths they hold to be "a priori" or true independent of evidence or critical evaluation. True just because they are true. You often get the: "I don't know why I believe it. I just do!" or the: "Everybody knows that!" reply. Meaning that they haven't thought about whether their beliefs are true or false and don't want to now. They want to believe not think. Racists, bigots, sexists, and homophobics all fit into this mold. They have their beliefs and they don't want to hear any evidence to contradict them. They are willfully ignorant. They want comfort and conformity not truth. As a result, no matter how many experiences they have in their lifetimes, they gain no further wisdom and no greater knowledge. They remain happy fools or as Schopenhauer called them "Happy animals." Except they are only happy so long as they are surrounded by like-minded people who won't challenge their beliefs. So, in order to preserve their happiness they isolate themselves in intellectual ghettos. The greatest tragedy of this mentality is that they will never know who they truly might have been were they not saddled with these dogmas. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said "Man has but two choices, to be a happy animal or a suffering God." I have long accepted that some people do not wish to know truths that might upset their world view and cause them distress. Some people want to remain happy animals. The problem is that these happy animals are often dangerous to the freedom and liberty of others. Let me explain.
You see all of our actions and our emotional responses correspond to our values. We cringe at death because we value life. Were this value not in place death would hold no sway over us. You go to any prison where the value of life has been minimized and meet individuals who value neither your life or theirs and you will find no fear of death. We pity the homeless because they are fellow humans and we value humanity. Where there is no love of humanity there is no pity for the suffering of others. We are outraged when someone attacks our country because we value it. If we did not we would care less if someone attacked it so long as it didn't interfere with anything else we valued. When our values are askew we find ourselves reacting to things that would otherwise be meaningless. Like the Black woman who scowls and is angered when she sees that the mother of my child is Caucasian. Why does she react this way? Because she values Blackmen and sees White women as a threat. Why does she see them as a threat? Because she has been taught to. Even though a moments indulgence in logic would tell her that even were I not with this woman the chances of me meeting and falling in love with her out of all the other women in the world are still minimal. Logically she should see all women as threats and scowl every time she sees a man with any woman that is not her because they are all threats. The woman who scowls even when she has her own man makes even less sense. She is reacting to a cultural bias that she has in all likelihood never took a moment to truly examine. The same goes to the White men who react similarly. The list goes on and on. The fat girl who hates skinny girls. The short guy who hates tall guys. The straight guy who scowls when he sees two men kissing. What possible harm could that do to him? It's because he has been taught to value heterosexuality. That's fine. How is someone else's sexual orientation a threat to his sexuality unless he has tendencies within him that he is battling with? It's just a result of someone failing to reason and merely excepting that the more gays that are open with their sexuality the more that lifestyle will prosper as if it's some type of disease you can catch. Pure idiocy. As a result of this willful ignorance you have the impediment of the rights of others because of the groundless fears of ignorant majority. That's why we can't always let the "Happy animals" remain happy, because maintaining their illusions often entail curtailing the freedom of others to live where, how, and with whom they desire.
"Know Thyself." It was said to have been written above the entrance to the temple of The Oracle of Delphi where Socrates went for guidance. "Know Thyself". How many of us really do however? The advice they gave Socrates was that he was the wisest among men because he did not think he knew what he did not know. There is many an old fool who could benefit from such self-knowledge.
Much of what we consider knowledge, strangely some of our most deeply held beliefs and convictions, were acquired through osmosis. We absorbed them from our surroundings. Assimilated it into our mental landscape from our peers, society, family, and culture, and then accepted them with fanatical conviction without ever once stopping to question the veracity of these beliefs. We accepted our parent's prejudices, our society's mores, our culture's traditions, our generation's aesthetics, the politics of our economic class, and whichever religion got to us first. Not once in all of this did the average fool ever ask "Why?". "Why do I believe this?" "Is it true?" "What is the evidence that supports it?" "What is the evidence against it?" "Can it be refuted?" "What do others believe?" "Why doesn't everyone believe as I do?" The old fool never asks these questions, never examines his experiences with a critical eye and so despite all the experiences of a lifetime he has gained no greater wisdom. His experiences have gained him no knowledge. He has not sought answers because he had already accepted the answers he'd been given. He did not seek knowledge because he believed that he already knew. Socrates was the wisest among men because he could admit his own ignorance. The old fool is a fool because he believes himself to be wise, because he thinks he knows all the answers. "The unexamined life is not worth living." said Socrates. How many of us examine our lives? How many of us question what we have held so long to be true? How many of us can admit our own ignorance?
In the last two years since my divorce from my wife I have questioned every aspect of who I am. A lot of this self-examination has happened right on this blog in full view of the world (or at least the dozen or so of you who are actually paying attention) This was nothing new. I have always questioned myself. I have never been comfortable believing anything. But there were truths that I was beginning to grow certain of. Ideas that I was beginning to think of as Truths with a capital "T". I have now however gone back to my original stance, the one I first held when I was seventeen years old and realized for the first time that the world I had believed in for most of my life, the "Knowledge" that I had acquired from my family, culture, and society was no more true than the fairy tales they had taught me. I have re-adopted Socrates' stance. I can admit that I don't know the meaning of life. I don't know why we are here. I don't know what's right for every person in every situation or even what is wrong. But I also know that no one else has these answers either. It ain't in any book I've ever read and I've read many. I've read the major books from the major religions. I've read the self-help books. I've read the psychiatry books, the sociology books, the philosophy books. I've sat in churches, temples, and mosques and listened to many different preachers and prophets. I've watched the self-serving ramblings of politicians on C-span. None of them have stood the test of "Why?". "Why should I believe you above the other religions, the other political movements, the other idealists, social scientists, and self-help Gurus?" They have all failed. So I am back at the temple of The Oracle of Delphi looking at the inscription chiseled into the stone above the entrance, "Know Thyself." And I am forced to turn inward for my answers. I examine my experiences and the values and ideas that have influenced them and I ask "Why?" And I am a better person for it. I am less likely to condemn then those who claim to have a direct path to truth. I am more accepting of my fellow man and woman. I am more open to their ideas and opinions although more apt to disagree with them. I am more open to their individuality and their right to be individuals so long as their individuality doesn't interfere with mine. I only get up in arms when they try to force me or anyone else to conform to their beliefs and their values. That's when the Wrath comes out. Otherwise it's live and let live or die or burnout or close down or explode or whatever the hell you want to do so long as it doesn't harm me or mine. Know Thyself. For better or for worse the man in the mirror is all you've really got. And all those people trying to force their ideas and opinions on you don't have to look you in the face every morning. Only you do.