The Unexamined Life
“We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves…Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, ‘each is the farthest away from himself’—as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.”
These words are written by Nietzsche and echo the famous saying that even a broken clock is correct twice a day. These words are written at the onset of Walker Percy’s Book “Lost in the Cosmos.” Recently this book was recommended to me and since then I’ve been absorbing it bit by bit. It brings to light an important theme in philosophy: anthropology. It is such a strange thing to say that we can be more aware of things outside of ourselves than the inner-workings of ourselves. But this tends to be the case. Questions arise about our nature: do we have a soul? If so, for what purpose? And the body - what is it for, and how does it relate to our soul? What kind of thing am I? And how is it that I can even ask these questions? These questions only begin our philosophical examination, and do not yet pierce the very unique experience of our own dispositions and our moral-character.
Today, in our western culture we hear many types of “self-identification.” There are many ways people tend to see themselves or define themselves. However, when one thinks about the senses, we typically only see ourselves when looking in the mirror and listen to ourselves (I mean truly and consciously) when we are watching ourselves recorded in some sort of video. And its a strange thing, Percy suggests, to see ourselves.
Christ adds to this discussion when he speaks about the moral problem of judging others. When we see the speck in our neighbors eye, but fail to recognize the log in our own. Its baffling when we hear criticisms from others, yet look into their lives only briefly to see the same problems they report, if not on a larger scale. Consider Eli, who taught Samuel to hear the voice of God. The message given to Samuel was to reprove Eli. In the end, Eli, who taught Samuel to listen to God, ends up ironically ignoring that very message he encouraged be heeded. Those who stand in judgment are vulnerable to this type of dichotomy - and every human being who judges the things before us, senses them, observes them can be forgetful that they are part of the scene to which they judge.
Studying this phenomenon of a lack of self-knowledge or even the unawareness of a lack of self-knowledge (double-ignorance) is worthwhile. One can fool themselves easily to know who they are, they can say, “I know who I am” as if they’ve figured it all out. But there is always more to explore! When one thinks such a quest is over, its likely a general summary of themselves has been given. However, to be human is to be a mysterious thing, a lifelong unfolding mystery, not easily summarized in a moment of passion and self-expression. Its part of our situation, and one of the reasons therapists, spiritual directors, listening-friends, counsellors, and theologically speaking: the Holy Spirit, are required. Anyone can benefit from outside eyes piercing our own soul, reflecting back to us what they see. Think of Dante, who in moving through the Hell that existed in his own soul, needed a guide to awaken him to such painful realities, as well as move him to the other side of them.
Perhaps the secret to unlocking ourselves has never been found in ourselves. Perhaps there is something to the notion that man is intrinsically a social-being, requiring for self-fulfillment, self-discovery, another person. Perhaps this is why Aristotle said the unexamined life was not worth living, and in the same vein, that life is impossible without friendship. That is to say, such examination cannot be done well or even sufficiently without friendship.
Whatever identity we have, be it wrapped up in things of this world, or extrinsic matters that amount to nothing more than accessories, we need to look to Christ and the Holy Spirit (in a state of vulnerability with the Church) to reveal to ourselves our own identity. This is crucial, especially as a Christian.
Within Percy’s book he states that one of the identities of today is a “Ghost in the Cosmos” whereby we don’t know our meaning, our purpose. We roam the world making all sorts of scientific advancements, but without the ultimate meaning of our purpose being established. If that is you, I suggest you turn to Percy’s book, and you find some direction on how to move from being a ghost, to becoming alive.
But to begin, as Christians, we understand ourselves as beloved children of God. This is something we need to sit within, ponder, treasure in our hearts, and absorb. Daily actions need to be done with this identity in mind.
How has seeing yourself as a child of God affected your daily living?
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
St. John Paul II