We all know the story.
The greatest thinker of Western thought, put on trial for questioning the status quo and refusing to let others get deluded by Everyman thinking.
At his trial, Socrates refused to beg for his life. He didn’t believe that death would be the end of him, and he warned his hundreds of judges with a prophetic word that has yet to be extinguished: The unexamined life is not worth living.
We’ve had plenty of world-changing thinkers follow in Socrates’s footsteps: Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Rousseau. Even if you don’t know these thinkers, you know their ideas because we’re all still wading through the wake of their ideas.
Last week, journalist Nathan Heller wrote a piece for The New Yorker, “The End of The English Major.” In the last decade, enrollment in the humanities has declined by 17%. People are running towards all-things STEM because those careers feel like a sure line toward success and money, and as less funding gets funneled into education and more emphasis gets placed on whatever is quantifiable, the humanities lose more and more of their luster. It’s a trend, says Heller, that “brings little comfort to American scholars, who have begun to wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before.”
If you’ve been living anywhere besides 50 feet under the ground over the last few years, you’ve likely heard (and possibly wondered aloud yourself) why everything around us seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.
Everyone agrees that no one can agree.
We all fight more than we talk, we hate more than we love, and even our most beloved uncles have somehow turned into ghoulish nightmares thanks to their far-sided politics and old-fashioned ideologies.
No one likes each other anymore, we seem to be saying (unanimously). And in spite of this mass sing-along chorus that feels out of tune and ear-breaking discordant, few of us seem equipped (or willing) to fix the music.
In his own research, James Shapiro – an English professor at the acclaimed Columbia University, notes that the decline of enrollment in the humanities directly coincides with the oft-noted decline in democracy – more than hinting that somehow, somewhere, there’s a direct throughline in understanding how our past directly informs and influences our present and our future.
It’s here where you might start to ask, “Well that’s interesting, Lindsay. What might be that throughline?”
Let me defer to someone far smarter – prolific author, speaker, and social critic Os Guinness. In his book, The Great Quest, it’s as if he heard Shapiro’s wonderings and responded by pointing to The Thinker (Le Penseur) – that well-known piece of art created by famous sculptor Auguste Rodin.
“What makes my Thinker think,” said Rodin, “is that he thinks not only with his brain, but with his distended nostrils, and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”
Thinking, Rodin was saying, is a full-body experience – an active exercise of mind, body, and spirit, and it’s that very type of thinking (said Socrates, Guinness, Shapiro, and every other scholar who also happens to be worried about the death of thinking) that seems to be in high demand and low supply.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
More than two millennia later, the greatest thinkers are still in agreement with that great Socratic prophecy.
“The examined life is in fact demanding,” says Os Guinness. “It is the enemy of all mindless conventions, all tired cliches, and all foregone conclusions. It requires a curiosity and a type of creative thinking that is prepared to see things freshly and for the first time. . . . The pursuit of an examined life calls for a firm grasp of reason, an honest awareness of conscience, and a living sense of wonder.”
In today’s 2023 ideal of thinking, we seem to be in this pseudo-form of forced agreement that the only type of thinking worth pursuing = anything that can be proven and measured.
The modern thinker, it seems, is one where we kowtow to the opium of the masses and settle for binge-style exploration where any question worth asking is one that can be easily answered via Google or ChatGPT.
But thinking like this, says Guinness, locks us in a state of confusion where we “confuse the examined life with the opinions of [our] friends and the quick results of an internet search.”
Real thinking, the kind that has stood the test of time and has been used to shape (and even dismantle) entire nations – is the type of thinking that asks the types of questions that cannot be answered, the types of questions that demand a resorting and a rebuilding of current paradigms, and the type of thinking that convinced world-changers like Socrates that death was the better path over sanitized thought.
True thinkers aren’t afraid to ask questions that don’t appear to have quick, obvious answers. They don’t shy away from asking “But is that really true?” and “Is this really who we want to become?” or “Is this temporary good going to lead us to a fulfilling end?”
If the statistics on the dwindling humanities can be offered up as any sort of proof, we have grown into a people who no longer value thought. It’s as though Vonnegut left us a message in a bottle when all of the characters in Harrison Bergeron’s life somehow now stand vis-a-vis to the real-life characters in our own lives – satiated into silence by cheap entertainment and scrolling our way to our graves via the borrowed ideas of what a life well lived ought to look like.
True thinking produces prophetic enlightenment. It charts out the course of who we are now and leaves tiny hints for those who have yet to come. It reminds us that the soul of man will always be longing for purpose and meaning, that we will always be afraid of the ways others find that purpose and meaning, and that we will always be in need of Socratic gadflies who will continue to buzz about, pestering our spirits with questions that call us far beyond what’s easy or obvious.
The real question, now, is what kind of thinker do you want to be?
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