Is ‘The Examined Life’ Worth It? | Philosophy, Theology and Death

by , under Philosophy, Theology

Through a good friend Barry Taylor I started reading some stuff on Simon Critchley, and was struck by this interview over at Full Stop, in which he talks about the roots of philosophy:

Philosophy begins with a death, but it doesn’t just begin with a death — it begins with a political execution.

He is talking, of course, about Socrates, who was made to drink poison because he refused to recant his ideas. Socrates himself said that:

‘to philosophize is to learn how to die.’

That really struck me when I read it, and Critchley goes on to expand a little on that in the piece, especially in relation to love, which draws the possibly selfish philosophical attitude to death out of itself and into relationship with another person. Critchley’s – and Socrates’ – point is this: by carefully considering what life is about, we are better able to consider what our own life means, so that when it comes to the end of our life, whenever that might be, we are better prepared to step into the void beyond.

Pete Rollins tweeted something on these lines yesterday too:

‘Coming to terms with the death that signals the end of life seems easier to me than coming 2 terms with the deaths that happen while we live…’

Musing on that today, I was reminded of Socrates’ other famous adage that

‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’

I have been thinking how that fits with the above, for it might seem that, while the unexamined life may be unenlightened or not well thought out, it at least doesn’t get forced to drink hemlock. The examined life, the one that is worth living, actually turns out to be a lot of trouble, because it throws up difficult questions about our place in the world and our relationship to those around us, and to our closely held beliefs too.

So perhaps Socrates should have continued: the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life may come at too high a price.

And I think that’s partly why I’ve been so interested in pirates, because they determined that life was worth challenging and changing – even if that meant that it was shortened. Their sailing under the ‘Jolly Roger’ – on which there is a long section in Mutiny! – was a statement that they were prepared to die. They had weighed up their options: remain as brutalised virtual slaves on the King’s ships, or rebel and live a free and merry life – knowing that they would be pursued by the powers that be and hung.

In this sense, Socrates’ death, his political execution for living a life that threatened the status quo of the powerful, is in parallel to the hanging of the pirates for daring to live as free men… and the execution of Christ for living out a radical religious liberty.

The final chapter of Mutiny! is entitled ‘Captain You’ – all the other chapters taking the names of pirate captains – and challenges us to consider ‘going on the account’ as pirates once did. This challenge is the challenge to live the ‘examined life.’ But we need to be clear that choosing to do so will mean ‘learning how to die.’

This, in a nut-shell, is the motivation behind the new book. Life under the Jolly Roger is not easy or simple… rewarding, yes, enriching, absolutely… but coming at a huge cost as the ‘powers that be’ – political, religious or simply within our social networks, find this radical liberty and unorthodoxy too threatening to the current arrangement.


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  1. Bruce Grindlay

    In my retirement years I have encountered Kester Brewin and that encounter has set me on a different path for the remainder of my life.