There is more to being great than accomplishing one’s ideal. A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at London University, reminds us of this in his recent review of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller.
Grayling calls Miller’s book—which looks at twelve famous philosophers, engaging the old question of what makes life worth living—”beautifully written and richly informative.” Any book on the lives of philosophers that garnishes that sort of praise goes on my TBR list.
Miller’s conclusion, however, “is a negative one,” says Grayling. “The combination of wisdom, self-understanding, and self-possession that Socrates’s successors took to be the gold standard for the philosophical life proved impossible for most of them to attain, and, in some cases, what they preached and what they practised fell widely apart.”
Is this a failure? There is a bright-side, writes Grayling:
As the cliché has it—no less truly for being a cliché—it is the journey not the arrival that matters. Socrates put his point in the negative (“the unconsidered life is not worth living”) for a reason: giving no thought to how one should live is by default to let chance or others decide one’s fate. So life can be worth living if we reflect and try to choose, even if we do not always succeed in acting as we should.
This last week I taught an intensive doctoral course on theological reflection, which involved discussions of science, philosophy, and literature in light of our own diverse journeys. The ideal I tried to impress upon my students was the journey, rather than the destination. Theology, unfortunately, is most-often tunnel-visioned and focused narrowly on a destination. When this is the case, we forget how to live better lives now. We become intolerant of the limitations of those on the journey.
The journey is about becoming, and there is a great pleasure we can take from that perpetual self-examination. If the journey is our focus, then we don’t need to worry about disappointment. Embracing a deliberate journey makes life worth living.
Grayling’s full review can be found at B & N Review.