Truth and the Unexamined Life

Have you set out on your educational odyssey yet? 

If you haven’t, you may be asking yourself some questions. Why should I seek additional education? Is it worth the time and effort? What do I hope to gain or change?

The Pursuit of Truth

Written on the front of each volume of The Harvard Classics is the word veritas, which means “truth.” A primary purpose for education and living is to find and employ truth for increased happiness. 

But what is truth? It’s time to ask an expert.

Socrates in Pursuit of Truth

The Harvard Classics, Volume II introduces us to Socrates and some of his friends in their collective quest for truth, justice, and virtue in finding the meaning of life.

Socrates was the son of an Athenian sculptor born in 469 B.C. He gave up becoming a sculptor himself to devote his time to the search of truth and virtue. He was most influential in teaching the youth, and others, employing conversation infused with reflective thinking built on discovered truth and virtuous actions surrounding that truth. His teachings and mentoring efforts resulted in accusations of being a corrupting influence against the young in Athens. Socrates was ultimately put on trial and sentenced to death for his teachings. 

In His Own Defense

So what does a great thinker like Socrates say at the end of his life? What would be his final lessons? Socrates’ defense takes up twenty short pages.

Volume II of The Harvard Classics deals with Socrates’ “apology” and defenses of his teachings. An apology in this case is not an admission of guilt but “an excuse; something said or written in defense or extenuation of what appears to others wrong, or unjustifiable…

The jury at his trial was cautioned not to be swayed by Socrates’ eloquence. His response was simple “unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth: for I do indeed admit that I am eloquent.” (The Harvard Classics, V. II, The Apology of Socrates, p. 5.) He invited his listeners “to think only of the justice of my cause and give heed to that: let the judge decide justly and the speaker speak truly.” He then lays out his case by saying the real danger is those who teach and take possession of the minds of children with falsehoods — and those who “warned” others of Socrates, a wise man who speculated about the heaven above and searched into the earth beneath, and who made the worse appear to be the better cause.

What were the truths Socrates taught and defended? 

Truth is “conformity to fact and reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.” Socrates was accused of not worshiping the Gods of Athens and of promoting nonbelief, especially in the young. He defends against the accusation of atheism by asking, “Can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demigods?” He then asks those of Athens why they cared so much about “laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? For virtue he said was not given by money, but from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private.” 

Virtue was known as moral excellence of character in the development of youth to become good citizens and great souls. “The greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living—that you are still less likely to believe.” There it stands, the famous exhortation! The unexamined life is not worth living. That is what reading great books invites us to do. Examine ourselves.

God Only Knows

Socrates goes on to say that, “The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.” This statement, in particular, seems to have echoes of our day. He laments that his accusers are keen and quick and have avoided the condemnation of truth by villainy and wrong. He reasons further by stating that “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death…. because he and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance.”

He ends his apology with this. “When my sons are grown up, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing—then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands. The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.” 

Open the Door

In a subsequent book written by Plato entitled Phaedo the famous student notes of Socrates, “There is a doctrine uttered in secret that man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door of his prison and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand.” (The Harvard Classics, V. II, Phaedo.)

Can we open the door of our prison? How? Perhaps we are the only ones that can! Reading reminds us that we are not alone and that others have previously faced similar challenges.

Another student, Crito, writes that Socrates was happy because he had prepared and spent his whole life searching for truth and wisdom in preparation for this moment of liberation provided by death and for his reunion with God.

A bold statement for an alleged atheist.

Image credit: Jacques-Louis David, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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