Self-Knowledge, Secondary Talk
and The Examined Life
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If attentiveness is fundamental to all education and all willful living, to what ends and in what ways can the limited energy of human attentiveness be best cultivated and given? A human being does not have an infinite attention span. The attentive energy each of us has to give to our willful living is our most precious resource. Life provides us the daunting opportunity to give our attention to a great many things. Living in the information age is like being dropped naked into an ocean of information, with every drop demanding some of our attention. It is easy to drown. It is easy to lose our way.
The primary subject of knowledge we need to gain in service to living an examined life is self-knowledge. Giving the fullness of our vigorous attention to gaining self-knowledge over the course of a lifetime is an important key to living well and a proper outcome for a successfully educated human being. Our highest aspirations and our deepest failures are intimately related to our knowledge of self. The idea that self-knowledge is fundamentally important to living well has been generated in every culture and in every major religious and philosophical tradition that humanity has ever produced. From the inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Know Thyself) to the writings of the Apollo astronauts, from ancient Persian poets to modern physicians, from the psychological insights of Plato to Einstein's psychological contemplations of the universe, from the New Testament philosophy of "love your neighbor as yourself" to the philosophy of Bruce Lee, from the drama in Shakespeare's works to the dramatized lessons of Sesame Street, we cannot escape the idea that self-knowledge is fundamentally important to good living.
Plato has Socrates speak the following in the Apology:
SOCRATES: "I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living" (Plato. Apology. 38a)."
Socrates lived most of his life constantly examining his own ideas and character. He saw such self-examination, whether conducted by himself or in companionship with conversation partners, to be the greatest good of a life worth living. His constant habit of examining himself and others was not an obsession with idle philosophy games. Socrates' focus was to determine how to become a better human being. In this Socratic perspective, the quality and persistence of the attention we pay to living an examined life is at the heart of living well.
A fundamental truth found in all cultures and all times is that we seek to discover ourselves. Education can assist us and damage us in that quest. Education can encourage us to enthusiastically embrace the real work it takes to be highly and persistently attentive during a lifelong journey of self discovery. Education can also seduce and intimidate us to remain content with unquestioningly swallowing and regurgitating the pat answers, the popular theories, and current fashions of thought that we are fed, distracting us from giving our full attention to the important original work of discovering and understanding ourselves.
There is an extraordinarily damaging habit in the human species. It is a habit that contradicts our most creative and fertile aspirations. It diminishes us to the extent that our own originality, vision, and creative impulses are limited and even destroyed when we give this habit too much power to shape our lives. All that is best in us is cast into subjugation when this habit is allowed take the place of the expression of our own truth. It is the habit of being overly inclined to allow external authorities to have the only say. In contrast to a Socratic philosophy of education, which demands that we always do our own work, we have strong inclination to allow external sources to inform us in ways that go beyond the scope of their usefulness. At the same time, we allow ourselves to be lackadaisical in our own original and creative efforts.
Many religious persons spend more time memorizing the talk handed down to them about how they should live and understand than they spend working things out in their own lives. One may memorize a principle that their religion teaches, such as "love your neighbor as yourself", without spending much time at all working out what this means with their own neighbors. At this point the talk of others is internalized as an abstraction. With regard to this central principle of the Christian religion, people often hear it in the secondary form of their parent's talking about their interpretation of the grandparents talking about their interpretation of their priest's talking about his interpretation of Jesus' talking about life. They often hear and internalize such secondary talk without ever striving to work out their own understanding through a firsthand experience of living their own examined life.
This kind of secondary talk about life is expected to be internalized. Ideas, principles, values and personal attitudes are often mindlessly assimilated in the form of the secondary talk we receive from our religions, politics, educational institutions and pop culture. Religious and political leaders, teachers, parents, and others often fill us with too much focus on the secondary talk about other talk at the expense of our ability to make our own way with our own original thinking in the examination our own life. In such contexts, secondary talk has more importance than the daily need for people to observe and reason in their own efforts to create new understanding. Citizens in the U.S. reduce much of their political thinking to regurgitating the talk of pundits, who are talking about the talk of other pundits in an effort to repeat the talking points of their party leaders. Firsthand questioning and original thinking takes a back seat to assimilating the secondary talk about talk.
This phenomenon is also rampant in academia. Students are fed ideas, frameworks of interpretations, and attitudes about life and subjects that they are expected to accept, memorize and use. In the U.S., this vastly overshadows the important reality of needing to have a capacity to do original thinking. Public education in the U.S. is about memorizing the talk of others. Far too little is done to lead students to enthusiastically embrace their own abilities to question, reason and create. This stands in sharp contrast to Socrates' view of the useful examination of ideas. Socrates never cared what secondary talk was floating about society. He only wanted to hear the original thinking of the individual he was speaking to regarding the ideas being discussed.
In many societies, relentless questioning, original thinking and creating are less favored than mindlessly repeating the fashion of the day. Abstract ideas and values are handed down to us through secondary talk, which is expected to take precedence over our own firsthand experiences of doing our own original and creative work. Self discovery and self knowledge must grow through our own firsthand experiences of life. We best gain a knowledge of self through examining life with our own capacities to observe, question, reason and create. The habit of abandoning our primary, firsthand examinations of life in favor of internalizing the talk of others is the greatest deficit of modern education.
In the context of living the examined life, Socrates placed great value on the possibility of refuting an idea. Persistence of inquiry and reasoning was valued by Socrates because of the possibility of destroying bad ideas and replacing them with better ideas. Discovering error always inspires and helps us to create new and better ideas. Socrates believed that taking an idea and examining it vigorously with our own creative capacities until the idea either broke or proved itself was the essence of living as an educated person. There is no shortage of people in our world who do not want us questioning and discarding their bad ideas. Much of the resources of modern societies are arranged to prevent people from doing this. Unfortunately, this kind of arrangement lobotomizes most of the creative power of any particular society.
What is most fundamental to all education is to cultivate a particular set of character traits. Unending thirst for knowledge, fearless questioning, confidence in one's own original reasoning and creative powers, and the relentless desire to better ourselves and the societies in which we live are the character traits that rise out of a successful education. However, modern academia, in its extraordinary preoccupation with abstract secondary talk, is part of the problem that is damaging what is best in education. I will explore the problem of the predominance of secondary talk and its relationship to the examined life through the framework of George Steiner's criticism of the academic study of the arts in his book Real Presences. My style of reading Steiner is an example of this essay's message.
 John M. Cooper and D.S.Hutchingson, Eds., Plato Complete Works (Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 981-982, Stephanus number (336b-e). All future quotations from this book will use an in-line reference to the text's Stephanus number without a footnote.