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Perhaps the most persuasive reason not to embark on an examined life comes from the feeling that it must already be too late. There seems little point in beginning to scrutinise one’s ethical assumptions when others - more schooled and erudite that we, those privileged scholars who have none of our practical commitments - have studied for epochs and already contributed more than we will ever be able even to assimilate. This accumulation of knowledge, rather than being a cause for joy and an incentive to the development of our own mental life, functions simply as a depressant and a reason to abdicate independent thought. It seems neither necessary nor possible to add anything to the density of what has already been said.

This is a stance with which Plato, and the Socrates through whom he articulated his thoughts, was in the strongest disagreement.1 Few philosophers have had more minimal views of what is required to pursue a thinking life than Plato did. For a start, it was not necessary to disengage from ordinary commitments. Philosophising could go on alongside shopping, working, bathing, loving; it was no alternative to an active life but its necessary complement. This point was emphasised by Plato’s decision to develop Socrates’ thoughts within dialogues set in quasi-novelistic contexts. The central tenets of Western philosophy are thus shown to unfold naturally during conversations between a man who didn’t wash his cloak too frequently and some of his friends, as they strolled to the harbour and visited the gymnasium. The dialogues are strewn with banter and gossip unexpected in philosophical treatises, but because such static is part of existence, philosophy, its illuminator, has a duty not to shy from it.

[1] Plato articulated almost all his thoughts through the historical figure of the philosopher Socrates, whom he had known as a young man in Athens.  Here, when I refer to Socrates, I am talking exclusively of the Socrates found in Plato’s dialogues. 


De Botton, Alain. Introduction.  The Essential Plato.  1999. ix-x. 

See Also

Lexicon Entries

For in Many Ways Human Nature is in Bondage; The Notion of Liberation

Works and Days





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Tags: Plato, alain de botton, Socrates

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