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Considering the Unexamined Life

October 21, 2012

The famous statement of Socrates (as reported by Plato, and translated by somebody) that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is a puzzling statement.  Maybe Plato was just being grandios about his own profession, philosophy, and came up with the idea that people who weren’t thinking philosophically might as well be dead.  Then he could’ve attributed the idea to Socrates, to give it more weight?  It’s hard enough figuring out what people living in our own time really said, even when they’re speaking English.


Albert Camus had one of his characters comment, in his novel The Fall, that the life of a modern man could be summed up in the phrase “He fornicated and read the papers.”  Camus died long before the Internet came into being, so maybe he’d be more optimistic these days.  But maybe not. 😛


There does seem to be a lot of disdain in the western philosophical tradition for people who don’t engage with their lives in a philosophical way.  I’m not a fan of disdain — it seems too easily habit-forming — but I understand why people could be profoundly afraid of a world full of noncritical, newspaper-reading fornicators.  (Well, to be honest I don’t mind fornication so much.  They can put that part on Youtube and it won’t bother me.  But noncritical consumption of news is very creepy.)  There’s a quote I’ve heard attributed to Bertold Brecht: “After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, there could be no poetry.”  I suspect Brecht was taking an idea too far on purpose, in order to be provocative.  But maybe we do need to be more careful — less poetic and playful? — than people who lived before humanity had become so potentially destructive.  Might examining and critiquing the world around us make us safer?


(A note on the Bertold Brecht quote: I heard it in lecture 26 of Pamela Radcliff’s course “Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy”.  The title of the lecture is “Existentialism in Post-War Europe,” and the whole course is available for sale here.  But Google can’t find any such quote by Bertold Brecht.  Instead it finds many references to a similar quote from Theodor Adorno, writing a few decades after Brecht: “After Auschwitz there could be no poetry.”  Exactly the same quote, minus Hiroshima.  If the earlier Brecht quote given by Pamela Radcliff is accurate, it may be worth some effort to get it noticed.  I think including Hiroshima makes the thought much more relevant.)


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  1. The quote you reference here sums up exactly why I can never become truly absorbed in philosophy. Anything that completely glosses over emotion and spontaneous human reaction gives me pause. Now I’m not talking about all philosophers, of course, but certainly the brains behind this quote in whatever form it was said. The sentiment here suggests that poetry, for which I read art in general, is the frivolous pursuit of the uninformed masses. That may be true of, say, acrostics on the word “war,” but in my view the person who dismisses art is selling humanity short. To me, it seems perfectly natural that Auschwitz and/or Hiroshima should give rise to poetry and other forms of artistic expression. Meaningful art can be one of the most effective ways to cope with and make sense of trauma. Who’s to say that the artist is less intellectually engaged with his subject than the philosopher? I’d argue that’s not the case at all, only adding that the emotional connection the artist brings to the table could lead to an even deeper critical analysis and understanding. The quote you mention seems to discount this perspective entirely, which is a shame. Art has the capacity to offer solace to the less enlightened as well, and that, as they say, is worth a thousand words.

    • Is it easier to use art for propaganda purposes than philosophy, since art appeals to our emotions and slipps past the critical filters? Certainly the comercials on TV are more like art than like reasoned arguments for why you should buy a product. I think we have to assume they do it that way because it works better.

      Of course I don’t wholely buy the argument that the world has become too dangerous for us to indulge in art. I don’t think Brecht really did either — he was a playwrite himself. But he seems to’ve been a provocative SOB.

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