“The unexamined life is not worth living.”1-Plato’s Apology, 38a
This now famous line, which Socrates spoke at his trial, has rippled throughout Western Civilization. If I could sum up Socrates’ legacy in one maxim, it would be this quote. It is imperative that we know ourselves and by extension the reason why we are here.
Socrates may have gotten this idea from the phrase, “know thyself (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), that was inscribed on the temple of Delphi.2 Or he may have first learned it by reading the works of Heraclitus. Regardless, the important thing is that he burned this idea of self-examination into the collective conscience of Western Civilization by proclaiming it as a non-negotiable as he faced death by execution.
The famous inscription on the Temple of Delphi was more than a maxim, it was a warning for those who wished to be initiated into the higher mysteries of the divine nature. One could not proceed into the higher mysteries without a proper self-understanding. Knowing thyself then was the doorway into union with the divine. And union with the divine was the catalyst through which the mysteries of the universe, both divine and human, would eventually unfold.
Many Greeks gave lip service to this idea of self-examination, but Socrates lived it. Socrates taught that we need to start from a position of knowing that we are ignorant, rather than thinking we know more than we do. The first step is knowing that we don’t know. Humility is a prerequisite for wisdom. The modern West is characterized by a hubris that does not allow such an admission and therefore relegates us to not only an ignorance of our ignorance, but an ignorance of the wisdom necessary in order to build a vibrant and prosperous and God-centered civilization characterized by truth, beauty, and goodness.
Socrates not only embraced this idea of self-examination, but his goal was to have the city of Athens do the same. That was his purpose. He saw himself as one whose mission it was to raise Athens out of its stupor and to set its sights on the transcendent. Consider the following quote:
“I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the God’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me. I was attached to this city by the god as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city.”3-Plato’s Apology, 30 d-e
Notice that Socrates conveys a sense of purpose in regards to his mission, but also a sense of humility as well. He was charged by the gods to stir Athens up out of its sluggishness, but his role was that of merely a “gadfly.” What Socrates did not realize was that his legacy was not only to stir up Athens, for that would be too small of a thing, but to stir up Western Civilization as well. And that includes us. He is asking us to examine our lives to discover our particular God-given purpose. This, I claim, is his main legacy.
What gave credibility to this and what separated him from the Sophists is that he lived a life of virtue, rather than just telling others to do so. He practiced what he preached. He lived a life of poverty, refusing to get rich off of speaking fees like the Sophists. In other words, he didn’t “sell out.” Consider the following Socrates quote:
“That I am the kind of person to be a gift of god to this city, you might realize from the fact that it does not seem like human nature for me to have neglected all my own affairs and to have tolerated this neglect for so many years while I was always concerned with you, approaching each one of you like a father or an elder brother to persuade you to care for virtue.”4-Plato’s Apology, 31 a-c
We can hear echoes of St. Paul in this quote who, in his New Testament writings, said that he suffered much and was deprived in order that he could care for his spiritual children.5
The Art of Self-Examination – Personality
In regards to self-examination, many people do not even know where to begin. We don’t even realize that self-examination is essential for a fulfilled life. We sometimes equate self-examination with self-centeredness, morbid introspection, or even narcissism, when actually it is just the opposite. A self-centered person is too self focused to see himself or herself objectively. They are to lost in themselves, to see their purpose in relationship to other people people, their environment, and God. Proper and periodic self-examination is the mark of a healthy individual. But it takes a lifetime and it occurs on on various levels of complexity. We all have a sense of trying to find our purpose, where in the world we fit in.
It is always good to start with one’s temperament, with questions like – are you an introvert or an extrovert? The world need both types of people to make things work. But often in an extroverted society like ours in the United States, the introvert, who does not recognize himself or herself as an introvert, usually struggles. An introvert, who needs to think to come up with good ideas, will often find that his work environment does not provide for such practices Rather, it is full of “team building” practices and constant activity that can leave an introvert drained.
Likewise, spiritual “retreats” are often anything but. They are oftentimes filled with constant activities, leaving no room for contemplation and prayer. For introverts, a good first place to start in self-examination is to recognize that they are introverts and to adjust according. The same holds true for extroverts that find themselves in more contemplative societies or communities. We must understand our temperamental tendencies and what energizes us and adjust accordingly.
From Hippocrates to Myers-Briggs
One can go deeper into understanding oneself by considering the what the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) deemed the four temperaments – sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.6 The sanguine is outgoing, but can be diffuse. The choleric is goal driven, but can be angry. The melancholic is a deep thinker, but oftentimes depressed. And the phlegmatic is calm and stable, but can be sluggish and unproductive. Most people are a mixture of these in different proportions with usually one dominating. I used to attend a church that used these in counseling and found that they can be quite useful, but one can take it too far and start “pigeonholing” people. Like anything else, if used in moderation, it can be very helpful.
Finally, if you want to get real technical, you can use the the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®), also known as the 16 personality types.7 We all know this test by initials such as ISTJ, etc. For more information on this, please click the link below. This is the test most often used in large corporations. I took it myself and found it very useful.
The Art of Self-Examination – Human Nature
Temperament is just one aspect of self-examination, but we must go deeper still. Another aspect of self-examination is probing the mysteries of human nature. What does it mean to by human verses non-human? What makes us different? As a society, we have lost our way in understanding human nature. And if we don’t understand who we are, we will never know true happiness, the deep sense of well-being and blessedness that Aristotle termed eudaimonia.
This is unfortunate because there is so much confusion in the West in regards to things like race and sex, that our society is unraveling at an ever increasing speed. I remain optimistic that there will be a time in the not to distance future where philosophers, theologians, and scientists could all work together once again to develop an understanding of what it means to be human. Many modern intellectuals think they know, but the don’t. And like Socrates said, the starting point is admitting that we don’t know. That is a large barrier to surmount indeed.
We are in a bad place today wrought by much confusion and despair because, in recent times, understanding human nature has been left up to the scientists and psychologists only. By neglecting the spiritual and ontological aspects of human nature, we get a truncated view of what it means to be a human. This is why our leaders, academic, medical, and political, continually churn out, like a defective machine, woefully in adequate answers to life questions.
One organization doing yeoman’s work in this area is the Theology of the Body Institute.8 Please check out the link below that will take you to their website. The nucleus of the organization centers around a work by Pope John Paul, II called Man and Woman, He Created Them, A Theology of the Body.9
Talent and Virtue
Another aspect of self-examination is in evaluating our talents – the things of which we are naturally gifted. But specifically, one can drill down into his or her own proclivities, talents, etc., and to develop those over time. Since we Americans are so pragmatic, we have to be careful not to define our talents too narrowly in terms of what is “useful” or vocationally oriented. One might be good a writing poetry even though they will never earn a living by doing so. On the other hand, if God has given you the ability to make money or had given you a lot of money, then you have many opportunities to help the poor or to donate to worthy causes such as stopping modern day infanticide.
And then there is the component of morality or virtue. Aristotle would have us examine ourselves in relation to the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These virtues and separate yet unified. It is really impossible, if we are to live a life of integrity, to be doing very well in three of the four virtues and terrible in the fourth. For example, we can delude ourselves into thinking that we treat people with justice, are not governed by fear, make decisions with prudence, but are an alcoholic. It doesn’t work that way. Nevertheless, the prudent thing to do is to examine ourselves to find out which of the four virtues we need to work on the most and to work on that. We can set long term goals and short term objectives. For example, if we have a fear of social situations, we can learn over time to expose ourselves to those situations until we eventually overcome that fear.
The best definition of integrity that I know is William Shakespeare’s famous quote from Hamlet, “This above all – to thine own self be true.”10 And the corollary to that statement is – how can one know how to be true to oneself, if one does not know who they are.
Sun Tzu and the Art of War (and Business)
Sun Tzu (544-496 BC), was a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher. We know him as the author The Art of War, that world famous treatise on military strategy. I commonly apply his military wisdom to business competition. One of my favorite sayings of his is that you must know yourself and your enemy.11 If you do, then you will have victory one hundred times out of one hundred. If you know yourself and not your enemy, then you will have a defeat for every victory. And finally, if you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will never have victory. If you are in business, it helps to know what your strengths and weaknesses are juxtaposed to your competition’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t try to match your competition’s strength if that is your weakness. Usually, a certain strength will be accompanied by a specific weakness and vice versa. The best situation is where a specific strength that you have corresponds to your competition’s weakness.
Self-Examination and the Soul
This theme of self-examination has a rich history in Christian thought. St. Augustine picked up on this almost a thousand years later when he said in a beautiful poem, “Lord Jesus, let me know myself and know thee.”12 St. Augustine, along with many other saints, stressed this idea of examining our consciences in order to understand the sinful tendencies that hinder us from knowing God. It also works the other way as well. As we encounter God, we understand ourselves better. This comports with what the Hebrew Psalmist said,
“Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”-Psalm 139:23-24
With the presuppositions of evolutionary biology, then everything that we do is biologically or materially based including our rationality and mental faculties. If we accept these presuppositions, then we become severely limited in our understanding of the human person as we place ourselves in a materialistic prison. This leads to a very erroneous and misguided understanding of ourselves, not to mention dangerous and destructive political and cultural applications. For example, during the COVID outbreak of 2020, the only focus of safety by the powers that by was physical safety. There was no regard or concern by our incompetent overlords for mental and emotional wellbeing. This is because they saw bodies sans souls.
On the other hand, if we accept the true proposition that we are spiritual beings with a soul as well as a body, then suddenly everything changes as we are released from our materialistic and nihilistic prison. This enables us to flourish as we live according to our God-given potential. If it is indeed true that we are created in God’s image, then even though we are finite creatures, in reality we carry inside of us an infinite component of Deity. For those who are Christians and are united to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, this aspect is compounded to an even greater degree.
So rather than being in a materialistic prison, we are freed to explore our infinite selves. If this be the case, then we can never fully plumb the depths of who we are as creatures made in God’s image. There will always be more to learn about ourselves, our spouses, and those with whom we are in relationship. In addition, we now can come to grips with the high calling of reflecting the character of God. The implications of this are endless. We cannot and will not restore and renew the West unless we come to grips with this fundamental fact.
From Self-Examination to Self-Centeredness in Modernity
Socrates sought virtue and thus lived a life of virtue. Some 20th century philosophers like Aldous Huxley have gone in the opposite direction. They desired to live lives of sexual wantonness and therefore sought belief systems to justify their behavior. Rather than seeking a divine purpose, they sought their own pleasures. Modern man has sought his end, not in a higher calling, but in himself. He is turned inward upon himself into a nihilistic darkness. This is why he is so miserable. Consider the following abridged quote from Aldous Huxley, a 20th century philosopher:
“We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.”13
To deny the divine leads to nihilism. The god that we have created is one of nihilism as Huxley has stated above. It came to the fore in the West in the early to mid 20th century with the likes of Kafka, Camus, and Sartre. They didn’t invent this modern pessimistic philosophy from nothing, they simply tapped into the alienation and meaninglessness that proliferated in the West as a result of the prevailing secularism. Today, some people deal with their emptiness by adopting a frenetic lifestyle so that they don’t have time to think about their situation. Others deal with the emptiness by numbing their pain through things like pornography and substance abuse. Some even escape through suicide.
Like ancient Athens, we too need to be awakened out of our slumber and revived from our sluggishness. We too have sunk into the doldrums where we are only seeking the earthly and not the heavenly. Wisdom, according to Socrates, involves reorienting ourselves toward God, to examine ourselves and discover our purpose in light of the divine. Only then does life become meaningful and worth living. Maybe, like Socrates, we could act as gadflies within our culture to this end. Socrates knew his purpose for living. Do you know yours?
Aeschylus, a Greek Playwright, circa 500 B.C.14 said:
“Know Thyself.”-Prometheus Bound, v. 309
Finally, consider the following question:
It seems that narcissism has replaced healthy self examination. Why do you thing this is so? Please leave your comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
From Amazon: “Internationally renowned Biblical scholar Michael Waldstein offers a new critical translation of Pope John Paul IIs talks on the Theology of the Body, presenting his magnificent vision of the human person with meticulous scholarship and profound insight. A Preface by Cardinal Schönborn, a Foreword by Christopher West, a comprehensive index of words and phrases, a Scriptural index, and a reference table for other versions of the papal texts are included.”
- Plato, Apology, 38a, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, p. 41, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
- From the article “Delphi,” New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Delphi
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., 30 d-e, pp. 34-35
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., 31 a-c, pp. 35
- New Testament, 1 Corinthians 4:8-17
- McIntosh, Matthew A. Editor-in-Chief, “The ‘Four Temperaments’ in Ancient and Medieval Medicine,” A Bold Blend of News and Ideas, October 23, 2020, Please click this link for a thought provoking discussion of the four temperaments – https://brewminate.com/the-four-temperaments-in-ancient-and-medieval-medicine/
- Theology of the Body Institute – https://tobinstitute.org/
- Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by James Trapp, Michael Spilling, Project Editor, Designed by Rajdip Sanghera, p.21, Printed and bound in China, Chartwell Books, Inc., New York, 2012, copywrite by Amber Books Ltd., London, UK, 2011
- Kosloski, Philip, “‘Let me know myself’: A beautiful prayer written by St. Augustine,” Aleteia website, 2018, To see the complete prayer, please click the following link – https://aleteia.org/2018/09/16/let-me-know-myself-a-beautiful-prayer-written-by-st-augustine/
- Conner, Frederick W. “‘Attention’!: Aldous Huxley’s Epistemological Route to Salvation.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 81, no. 2, 1973, pp. 282–308. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27542724.
- Aeschylus, from the play Prometheus Bound, http://classics.mit.edu/Aeschylus/prometheus.html
- See Post 63 entitled “Plato’s Dialogues: Alcibiades and the Challenge of Self-Examination” to read one of Plato’s earliest dialogues where we encounter Socrates exploring how to properly examine oneself.
Sources and Bibliography:
Aeschylus; Vellacott, Philip, Prometheus Bound and Other Plays: Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, Penguin Classics, New York, 1961
Clayton, David, The Vision For You: How to Discover the Life You Were Made For, Independently Published, 2018
Coppleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985
Gerth, Holley, The Powerful Purpose of Introverts: Why the World Needs You to Be You, illustrated paperback, Revell Publishing Group, Ada, Michigan, 2020
Grayland, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Hock, Father Conrad, Know Yourself Through the Four Temperaments, Create Space Publishing, Scotts Valley, CA, 2018
Hughes, Bettany, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Paperback – Illustrated, Vintage Publishers, 2012, New York City
John Paul II, author; Michael Waldstein, translator, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Pauline Books & Media, Jamaica Plain, MA, Second Printing edition 2006
Laney, Marti Olsen, The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World, 1st paperback ed., Workman Publishing Company, New York, 2002
Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Revised Ed., Harold Tarrant (Editor, Translator, Introduction) and Hugh Tredennick (Translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 2003
Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by James Trapp, Michael Spilling, Project Editor, Designed by Rajdip Sanghera, Printed and bound in China, Chartwell Books, Inc., New York, 2012, copywrite by Amber Books Ltd., London, UK, 2011
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Wilson, Emily, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, Robin H, Editor and Translator; Tedennick, Hugh, Translator, Penguin Classics, Ney York, Revised ed., 1990
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Thank you! Will do. I appreciate the suggestion.
Hello, First I would like to congratulate you on the blog. I think it is an excellent way to delve into the Catholic religion and Platonic philosophy. I am writing to suggest that you put the bibliography in all Plato citations, Example: Criton 49e, to enrich the reading Regards
Your comments are very poignant, poetic, and heartfelt. It made me realize that the world redirects our natural yearnings away from the sublime to the material and temporal and thus misery and frustration ensues. Why do we let the world do this to us? We choose the misery of the temporal over the beauty of the eternal. Most people never realize that the goal of all existence is what is called the Beatific Vision, seeing God face to face. I would be interested to read other people’s responses to Ben’s insightful comments.
I feel that we have fallen from true self-reflection and self- examination in the Socratic fashion. The question has led me on an ongoing journey that is amazing and beautiful as it is terrifying. Though multifaceted, I believe that our obsession with science, material wealth and technology has driven us largely away from God. It’s now all about keeping up with the Joneses at the end of the block. No one is satisfied with nihilism and narcissism which leads to a downward spiral away from true self and towards material and egotistical vanity. I believe we need to look deep into ourselves and into the universe as we fathom eternity, this craving for higher purpose. My question to you and the collective, as existence is a shared experience, how do we stir these yearnings?