On the ‘unexamined life’

Starting a Philosophy course is a daunting challenge for both students and teachers. When asked why they have chosen this particular subject, students tend to reply that they are interested in new ideas or consider Philosophy as an important tool in the study of Literature or History. In my own experience, I never came across a student who wanted to study philosophy to become a ‘better’ person. And yet, ancient philosophers regarded self-examination as a prerequisite to achieve wisdom and lead a happier life. Virtue and Happiness were simply the inseparable conditions of the good life.

The first Philosophy lesson is generally dedicated to the study of Plato’s Myth of the Cave and its rich analogies contrasting the world of darkness and ignorance with the World of the Forms and true Knowledge. But why not take one step back from the famous myth and first engage students in a debate on what philosophy demands (or should demand) of its future practitioners. After Socrates, let’s ask ourselves whether a life devoid of any philosophical preoccupation could, indeed, prove far worse than an existence based on mundane pleasures and trivial pursuits (such as checking one’s text messages all day long). Students could be presented with the choice between a life of mindless, repetitive pleasures and, on the other hand, a more demanding critical approach of their own tastes, opinions and attitudes. After all, what is the catch in a life of endless questioning? Carrying out a quick survey among their non-‘philosophically’ inclined contemporaries, our budding philosophers would soon find themselves able to properly assess Bertrand Russell’s sardonic remark that ‘many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.’

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