Does Life Have Meaning?
Modern science tells us that, in cosmic terms, earth is a grain of sand on an endless beach. Measured against eternity, a human life is merely the blink of an eye. Can something so seemingly inconsequential be said to have meaning?
My experience has been that most people - myself among them - answer this question with a resounding "Yes!". Human life does have meaning. What that meaning is, however, or where it can be found, are among life's hardest questions to answer. People often turn to such things as religion, heritage, duty and service to others in an attempt to find - or create - meaning in their lives.
One of history's greatest thinkers, the Greek philosopher Socrates, suggested another place we could look.
Socrates: The Unexamined Life
Faced with execution for "corrupting the youth" of Greece with his teachings, Socrates made it clear that he had no regrets regarding what he had done, nor would he change his ways if he were allowed to live, when he said that "the unexamined life is not worth living". It is perhaps Socrates' best-known quote, and one that remains relevant in the 21st century.
The Socratic Method
Socrates' method of using questions to point out flaws in an argument in an attempt to get at the truth has become known as the Socratic Method. It is still taught today in law schools, and is used in some forms of psychotherapy and counseling to help patients understand their own feelings and address their erroneous beliefs.
To Socrates, a worthwhile life was one in which we discard the answers that have been fed to us by others, and learn to think for ourselves. As we have no way of knowing if someone else actually understands what they are talking about (in Socrates' experience, they often didn't), wouldn't it be better to use our own powers of critical reasoning to discover the truth about our world - and about ourselves? Socrates believed so, and it was his encouraging people to do just this that got him into trouble with the Powers That Be, who had their own ready-made set of answers for their citizens to blindly accept.
Examination was at the very heart of Socrates' method of teaching. Rather than lecture on the subject of philosophy, Socrates would ask a series of questions designed to help a person understand his own beliefs, recognize contradictions and logical flaws in those beliefs, and then examine alternatives. This might ultimately lead a student to a better understanding and knowledge of the subject, but it could also lead to the discovery that he has no understanding of it at all. This realization is not a bad thing, however, as the biggest impediment to learning anything is the belief that you already know it.
Of course, it would be foolish to completely discard the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of mankind, and it would be a terrible mistake to disregard such things as heritage and tradition, but we shouldn't simply accept these without question, either. Nor should we expect these sources to completely answer life's important questions for us. For our lives to have meaning, we also have to look within. While the answers to life's questions may be different for each of us, surely some part of ourselves must be contained in those answers.
Poll: The Meaning of Life
Do you believe life has intrinsic meaning?
Socrates: Know Thyself
Socrates offered another bit of advice to his students: "know thyself". For those of us struggling to find meaning and purpose in our own lives, "know thyself" is worthwhile advice - and living an "examined life" may be the best way to do it.
Quiz: Philosophy Quotes - Who Said It?
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