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“I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates, Apology
~The Simple Sophisticate podcast, Episode #10
Gaining knowledge and wisdom about life’s workings has always been a curiosity of mine, and as I discover new insights and truths, I am quickly reminded of how much I do not know. Oh, the list is infinite indeed. And so, I am constantly looking to those who are full of wisdom, experience and have a better understanding of life.
I was intrigued to learn that even the great Greek philosopher, Socrates, who is credited as the founder of western philosophy deemed himself unwise right up until his execution. A death that occurred for allegedly corrupting the youth – in this instance, prompting them to think for themselves and lead, as he encouraged in his defense, examined lives.
But what exactly is an examined life? Will mine be the same as yours? And if it is not, which one of ours is off the mark? Or could they possibly both be on the proper path?
With these questions on my mind recently, I was determined to resolve my quandary: What is the examined life and is it possible to simplify it to a quick list of “to-do”s?
I must first point out that immediately upon beginning my research, I found a pointed observation and definition that warned against pinpointing detailed specifics on defining an examined life:
The allure of those who offer to provide clear answers, simple directions, precise instructions, so that you may set aside examination and merely comply or unthinkingly follow custom and practice – perhaps living a conventionally moral life rather than an examined and ethical life [is to be avoided].
So, let me be clear, the goal today in sharing the 5 key components to living an examined life is not to parse out instructions to be blindly followed, but to share general over-arching ideas that regularly prompt you to live mindfully each and every day. So let’s dive in.
(In last week’s podcast (#9), ideas were shared on how to live a full life.)
1. Determine the Why
Whether it’s the biggest “why” question of them all “Why am I here?” or a seemingly small and insignificant “why” question such as “Why do I want to dye my hair red instead of blonde?”, we must get to the bottom of the motivation for making the decisions we make each day.
As you travel through life, proceed consciously, understanding your reasons for pursuing a certain career, marrying a particular person, taking or not taking a risk that others believe is a no-brainer, deciding whether or not to have kids, moving to a new destination or refusing to travel at all. Ask yourself: Is is fear or courage that motivates me? Certainty or doubt that comforts me? and even more importantly, Is it my own internal compass that points the way or it is society’s?
Most definitely with every life-altering decision that you make, ask “why?”. Now this may slow the pace of your journey down from time to time, but much like racing to the train station to hop on the first train that comes by only to discover that it’s going in the entirely wrong direction, you will actually save yourself valuable time and eliminate unnecessary stress along the way.
2. Determine Your Currency
“There is a moment in your life when you have some say as to what your currency is going to be. I decided early on it was not going to be my looks.” – Amy Poehler, Yes Please
Humorist Amy Poehler has a point. We determine what will be our fuel to carry us through life. And the only way to arrive at the answer that is the truth is to get to know ourselves, be truthful, be loving, but most importantly, be honest.
I have a feeling that most of us don’t realize how amazing we could be. I have a feeling, like Amy’s self-depreicating last point, we short change ourselves. There is truth in what she states, however. Her wit, her intelligence, her winsome charm and delivery far exceed her looks, and in fact, are what enhance her exterior presentation. But to really cultivate and polish the gifts that reside within each one of us is to honor what we’ve been given.
If you aren’t certain of what your currency should be, ask those you love and trust to point out what they see as your strengths and remind you of the weaknesses that you may be letting hold you back. Sometimes we can’t see ourselves clearly, and it isn’t until we see ourselves through others’ eyes (those who are compassionate, yet truthful) that we are reminded of how amazing we can be.
3. Exercise Self-Control
To understand and know the path we are choosing to embark on after careful self-examination, a realization of our true motivations and being honest with ourselves, is to also find the ability to have more self-control and discipline.
Now having self-control doesn’t mean living a life that is void of all pleasure, but what it does mean is incorporating the right pleasures and avoiding the wrong ones. So what’s the difference? After all, at the end of every podcast I share a petit plaisir. Am I contributing to the unexamined life or the examined life? Interestingly enough, it depends.
Let me explain. For philosophy purposes, there are two types of pleasures: higher pleasure and lower pleasure. As you might imagine, we want to pursue the higher and avoid the lower.
Lower pleasures, which some philosophers say aren’t really pleasures at all, are merely a result of avoiding or removing pain. For example, comfort food after a bad day, sex with anybody because you are lonely – while extreme, I hope the definition of lower pleasures is becoming clear. Yet another extreme – using drugs to avoid the realities of your life that aren’t going as planned.
Higher pleasures, on the other hand, are to pursue what you want but not because you have unfulfilled desires. For example, pursuing anything that will increase your overall or general happiness instead of pursing a fleeting “high” that will afterwards leave you with regret or worse off than you were initially.
So enjoying that chocolate truffle at the end of the day isn’t bad if it is enjoyed as a reward for eating well throughout the rest of your day or for unwinding and relaxing which provides part of the balance to a healthy life. The same can be said for intimate moments with a significant other. Such behavior is the opportunity to build a bond and establish trust. Similarly, enjoying a glass of wine with dinner – not to drown out the day, but to enjoy a meal punctuated with good company and conversation.
Yet additional higher pleasures are those that stimulate the intellect, and while often the “feel good” emotion doesn’t occur instantaneously, when it does eventually blossom down the road (all of the self-control has paid off), the pleasure and delight far exceeds any momentary pleasure a lower pleasure would have provided if pursued.
- hedonist – a person who believes that the pursuit of pleasure is the most important thing in life; a pleasure-seeker.
- eudaemonism – a theory that the highest ethical goal is happiness and personal well-being
4. Understand the Power of Money
With the idea of pleasure having just been discussed, so often, naively, many assume that more money equates to more happiness. Interestingly enough, it is not the money, but rather what we do with the money that actually determines our happiness. In other words, how we direct our money to be used – saving for the future, investing in experiences – rather than simply acquiring more stuff is what determines our happiness.
Much like how we choose to use our intelligence, our abilities, our looks, it is only when used wisely that good events and feelings follow.
5. Determine What is Truly Just
While the aphorism states “One must first learn the rules before one can break them,” the same can be true for living any examined life. We must first understand the context, or reason, for the laws, as well as unwritten rules society has imposed before we can stand up against them if they seem unjust or their reasoning unsound.
Martin Luther King Jr. reminds in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
The key is to examine closely and carefully first, and then find the courage to act with discipline and restraint if indeed the laws are just, or if they are not, to disobey in such a way that is responsible and allows for an improvement or progress.
Ultimately, by living an examined life, we are giving ourselves an amazing gift. We receive a sense of freedom, clarity and thus, peace. Again Socrates reiterates: “We must examine and understand the universe that dwells within [our] own soul.”
So today, make it a regular practice to converse with yourself, converse with others and accept that while we will never have all of the answers (after all, there are infinite questions), we can do ourselves a tremendous favor by refusing to live blindly.
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