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Sunday, 7 December 2014





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‘Life unexamined, not worth living’

Sri Lanka has produced a number of world-renowned scientists, jurists, musicians, thespians, beauty queens and legal luminaries. However, we have still not produced an eminent philosopher who can be ranked with Socrates or Confucius. As one wag put it, this is due to our insular mentality. Being islanders most of us are afraid of thinking out of the box. We do not reinvent our thinking pattern. Instead we are satisfied with what we learn at schools and universities.

Anybody who wishes to be an independent thinker should turn to Socrates who lived in Greece. There were no universities for him to study philosophy. What is more, he was the son of a stonemason and a midwife. Probably he followed in his father’s footsteps for some time and took an interest in philosophy later in life.

I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.
- Socrates (469-399)

Philosophers are also humans who have to live according to the prevailing conditions of the country they live in. During the Peloponnesian War he was called up for military service. Thereafter, he was involved in the country’s politics for some time. On his father’s death, Socrates inherited some wealth to lead a comfortable life with his wife Xanthippe without having to work.


He decided to spend his time speaking to the people in Athens. He persistently asked questions that interested him. In the long run, without his knowledge, this led him to evolve a new way of thinking. Today we call it thinking out of the box. His way of thinking and asking questions appealed to the masses. Even young people were drawn to him in large numbers. They soon became his ardent pupils. He tried to get at the truth through a dialogue with them. As a result, his method of philosophy came to be known as “dialectical.”

Most people of his time did not want to change their way of thinking. Even today some of us do not like to change. We wish to cling on to traditions. Because of this lopsided mindset, Socrates earned many enemies in the establishment. He was roundly vilified as a Sophist who argued for the sake of argument. The main charge levelled against him was corrupting the young with ideas that undermined tradition.

The judges found him guilty and sentenced him to death. However, he was offered the choice of exile. Socrates willingly accepted the guilty verdict. He was eventually given a fatal dose of hemlock in 399 BCE putting an end to his illustrious life as a philosopher.

Natural philosophy

According to records, Socrates studied natural philosophy by examining the intricacies of nature and the universe. Later he paid more attention to mundane matters such as ethics, justice and politics. He wanted to know what is good, bad and just. This is because he believed that understanding what or who we are is the fundamental task of philosophy. As he had not been disciplined by a university, Socrates had to evolve his own method of getting at the truth.

Almost all philosophers cherish the idea of examining themselves. That is what is lacking in the modern world. Today most of us do not want to examine ourselves and understand who we are. But we want to follow various charlatans without questioning their credentials. India and Sri Lanka are two countries where most people believe in miracles, myths, and superstitions. In India there is a miracle man in every part of the country. This slavish mentality should change if we wish to become independent thinkers.

Socrates said that the most valuable possession of any man is arete or virtue. The Greek word arete meant excellence and fulfilment as well. Think of any modern man and his most valuable possession. Most people would say that their most valuable possession is a hybrid car, an expensive television set, a luxurious villa or a fat bank balance. With consumerism spreading its tentacles, virtue has left man probably never to return. Modern lifestyle shows that most of us want to amass wealth and we fight shy of thinking about virtue.


Socrates believed that anyone performing evil actions would be acting against their conscience and would, therefore, feel uncomfortable. Today how many fraudsters, murderers, thieves, rapists and terrorists would sit back and feel uncomfortable for what they are doing? This is perhaps due to their conditioning that they think what they are doing is correct. They have no conscience to prick.

An explanation offered by Socrates to this situation is that most men are ignorant of what virtue is. They are not willing to examine themselves or think what they are doing is wrong. This led Socrates to say, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

There is another reason to man’s unwillingness to examine himself. This is because most of us claim to know everything. In fact, when a friend of Socrates asked the priestess of Apollo at Delphi who the wisest man in the world was, the oracular reply was Socrates. An astounded Socrates consulted the most knowledgeable people at the time to verify the truth of the oracle.

To his dismay, he found that all of them thought that they knew a great deal. Under examination Socrates found that all of them had limited knowledge. This should be an eye opener to those who follow pseudo-prophets who claim to know everything under the sun.



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