The unexamined life

Walking on Wimbledon Common last Monday, eying the gathering clouds, I was listening to an old programme from the In our Time series. These 40 minute discussion programmes conducted by Melvin Bragg provide a comprehensive education in historical, scientific, religious and philosophical culture. I thoroughly recommend them.

This one was called “The Examined Life”, and its starting point was Socrates’ phrase “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The panel were Anthony Grayling, Janet Richards and Julian Baggini. I give you their names because it is relevant that they are all highly cultured luminaries in fields related to philosophy.

I am not going to describe the discussion, fascinating though it was, because you can listen to it for yourselves  (below). But, after having spoken about the ancient Greek pioneer work into the meaning and ends of life as understood through philosophical reasoning, Bragg asked them about Christianity. They initially responded with such a collective snigger and rolling of the eyes that Bragg said he wished that he had had a television camera to catch their expressions. He put up a brief, and quite good, challenge from the Christian angle, but they would have none of it. Christianity, they believed, had been the enemy of philosophy because it had exchanged reason for diktat, and moral investigation for legal imposition. Far from increasing our understanding of the meaning of life, Christianity had brought a foreign, in fact oriental, world view which it proceeded to impose on society.

Now I am accustomed to half-baked pseudo intellectuals who attack Christianity through some kind of instinctive reaction – I encounter them all the time, but I had supposed that the luminaries on the panel, as alleged experts in such matters, would at least have picked up some level of understanding of the history and the approach of Christianity, before they criticised it.

The first thought which came to my mind was Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark that Socrates was in some way a prophet of Christ through his claim that man possessed the capacity for understanding truth. And, at Regensburg (which postdated this discussion), he insisted on the essential connection between reason and faith in the history of Christianity – ironically quoting Socrates himself.

They appeared to know nothing of the influence that Stoicism had on the development of the Church’s understanding of natural law, and its relationship to the divine law. The whole movement of Neoplatonism seems to have passed them by. Aquinas, whose introduction of Aristotle into the debate changed the direction of Western philosophy, was apparently unknown to them – to say nothing of the whole corpus of medieval philosophy. Neither Descartes nor Pascal need to have written a word. Elizabeth Anscombe’s damning critique of agnostic approaches to moral philosophy had passed them by.

There is plenty to criticise about the Church’s development of philosophical enquiry –  indeed often expressed on this Blog. But if those whose profession it is to understand the history of ideas are capable of sniggering at Christianity without bothering to understand it, what hope is there for the common man?

The discussion referred to here is at

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46 Responses to The unexamined life

  1. tim says:

    A popular argument against religious belief is to point out how many different religions there are, with different tenets – they can’t all be true (we are told). Is a corresponding argument properly mounted also against philosophers? (maybe Rahner can help here….?)

  2. Brendan says:

    Melvin Bragg’s program on radio 4 is of great relevance to anyone tutored or untutored in history/philosophy , who wants to understand the broad sweep of major influences that make our world what it is today. Myself, being largely self – taught on such subjects have sensed a tendency on occasions – an unfortunate penchant ( very infrequently, thank God ! )among’st some of his guests to a pompous self- assertion bordering on arrogance. Almost like the naivety that can occasion a fifth form debating class. Maybe some academics have never left the classroom. There is no excuse for this among professional academics who’s students lay at their feet hanging on their every word. Maybe that’s what the likes of Professors Grayling and Dawkins want. Spirit of the age perhaps ?
    Perhaps they should put their books down and get out of their ivory towers into the real world to experience real people who have put the worlds ‘ theories ‘ into practice. One would hope it would be a humbling life-changing experience for them. The film ‘ Shadowlands ‘ springs to mind and the interpretation of the life and death changing events surrounding C. S. Lewis, brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.
    A vital part of the Christian yearly cycle is Lent ( sic. ‘ springtime ‘ ) a time for life- changing introspection —— sadly, I can feel the ‘ sniggers ‘ now from some quarters.

  3. Ann says:

    Melvyn Bragg is a member of the British Humanist Association, as is A. C. Grayling, but it must have been embarrassing for him not to have been able to elicit even the semblance of a discussion on this issue.

  4. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Quentin – Although a regular listener to the series I don’t remember that particular programme, so thank you for the link. I fear you may have been seriously unjust to the three philosophers, who as I understood them were not disparaging Christianity in saying it gave answers to moral questions that philosophy aimed to solve for itself. They may have deplored the sidelining of their own profession in the “ages of faith”, but that’s another matter.

    By the way, it wasn’t a snigger but (to me) a laugh as much at themselves as at anyone else.

  5. John Nolan says:

    It’s nothing new. The men of the 18th century Enlightenment believed that they were the heirs of classical civilization and philosophy and associated the intervening ‘Gothick’ centuries with obscurantism and superstition. I would have thought that modern understanding of medieval history and philosophy would have made that particular conceit quaintly ridiculous, but apparently not. Very strange.

  6. Nektarios says:

    All teachers of philosophy, have completely failed because they make us into automatons, they tell us what to do.
    In the very process of following them in what we do, have we not created more problems?
    I think it is very important to understand the way the mind works.
    From school to college or university, our education, all we are taught is the cultivation of memory, the learning of formulae; the mind is trained only in the process of imitation.
    when you read History, Science, Physics, Philosophy, Psychology, the teacher is only functioning
    in imitation; you learn from him or her and you also imitate. So, from childhood until we die, this process of imitation, this cultivation of memory goes on.

    What is one to say of such a mind that is constantly occupied with something, following somebody, some philosophy, with its own sorrows, failures and successes – surely such a mind becomes insensitive.
    Most of us live unexamined lives. If we are going to live an examined life, be aware of the above.

    • milliganp says:

      I remember as a child / young man going through education 50 years ago. I kept asking myself “when am I allowed to think for myself, to be original”. I thought it would happen at A-level, I thought it would definitely happen at University, but it never happened. It seems at Doctoral level one is allowed to add to the sum of human reason, but below that academic effort is but to compare and contrast established wisdom. In this world anyone without a doctorate can be easily dismissed – a ruling caste if ever there was one.

  7. Johyn Thomas says:

    Quentin, I snigger at Materialism. Just think: the claim that everything that exists is the result of chance and accident, of undirected processes, that everything came out of nothing – by chance. . To believe that irrational nonsense you have to have a strong, non-rational inner need, which must suppress any reasonableness you may once have had. And such “beliefs” prove beyond questioning that everything is purposeless, and all human efforts futile, that suicide is the only reasonable course of action. Does nobody question these … people and their notions? Did Bragg?

  8. Alan says:

    Something which exists and engenders purpose without cause is difficult for me to understand … be it our existence or God’s. If I must set aside such rational constraints for God then I feel I must set them aside for other options too. It leaves the question of existence as a mystery. I don’t expect to learn the answers in my lifetime, but I’m curious enough about what we can find out not to want to cut that lifetime short just yet.

    • Nektarios says:

      The source of your difficulty with this, is firmly rooted in your own conditioning, something in ones formative years we are not aware of – as you have put your questions above, namely, `If I must set aside such rational constraints for God…..’
      What part of that conditioning is all about, I demonstrate in my earlier posting above
      about philosophy and conditioning that follows on from it.
      I hope you might find some answers before your journey’s end. Serious enquiry may help you gain that understanding, but mere curiosity will get you nowhere.

    • Alan says:

      I’m not sure what difficulty it is that you mean Nektarios or what area of study you would recommend. I don’t feel greatly unfulfilled nor disappointed at the prospect of never knowing the answers to such questions. The ideas are interesting to me, but I’m content enough to study/examine different subjects while others consider our origins.

      • Nektarios says:

        `Something which and engenders purpose without cause is difficult for me to understand.’
        Philosophy think they have made great strides in their arguments and understanding – more specialized, yes, but I don’t think they have progressed at all really.
        The best subject of study is yourself…. know thyself.

    • Vincent says:

      “Something which exists and engenders purpose without cause is difficult for me to understand” Join the gang!

      But perhaps this takes us back to Aristotle. Everything we know has a cause(s). So the first cause must be itself uncaused (otherwise we’d still be looking for the cause of the first cause — which is nonsense).

      That’s where reason must take us. But it doesn’t mean that our limited minds can understand what that cause may be.

      • Nektarios says:

        If we could totally understand God, then He would cease to be God. No more can the pot understand the potter, or a worm understand you? Reason can only take us as far as the information we have, but that information is not being read either concerning nature, the cosmos or ourselves. For that which proceeds from God is both Holy and eternal and that Holy and eternal is not separate from it. Other He certainly is, and if we could but fathom our relation aright as His creatures mad in His image, we may begin to see clearly,
        reason clearly and act as were created to do Godward and with great respect for others so created by God.

  9. RAHNER says:

    Philosophy deals with issues that are essentially contestable and so no philosopher should be too reverential towards the views of another philosopher. No doubt philosophers can, like anyone, be subject to intellectual bias but the track record of Catholic philosophers in the modern era isn’t terribly impressive. Until the second half of the last century most Catholic philosophers failed to engage with modern philosophy and spent their time regurgitating Aquinas or what they thought was Aquinas.

  10. Brendan says:

    Following my earlier post on the topic under discussion I believe that Peter D. Wilson’s observation is correct and that I also have been unjust to Professor Grayling on the programme in question. Having followed Quentin’s tag and re-visited the programme in question I admit that I made a big mistake in my interpretation of his standpoint vis a vis the effect philosophy had on , and when ,applied to the rise of Christianity.

  11. Ignatius says:

    I’ve just listened to the programme carefully but found there neither sniggering nor condescension. I found the programme interesting, engaging and in parts very perceptive.

    • Quentin says:

      Thank you and others for your comments that I have been unfair to the philosophers on the programme. I have of course listened to it again, but I am afraid that I cannot agree.

      If I may just look at a central issue raised. The philosophers appear to be ignorant of the immense importance which the Church has put on the Natural Law as the way in which rational man may discern the difference between good and bad behaviour. The Stoic approach, which held that the world was essentially rational, was a strong influence here. God’s promulgated law contains specific moral requirements (for example, thou shalt not steal) which correspond to natural law. And not surprisingly because God created nature! Nor is it a surprise, given that the ordinary population had little education, that this was promulgated primarily as moral rules by the teaching Church.

      Perhaps we should be spending a little more time with Aquinas. He saw immediately the consonance between Aristotle’s essentially rational approach to morality and virtue and the Church’s approach, and much of his writing is devoted to showing this.

      It does not surprise me that Bragg says, “I know you’d all like to go on a rampage against Christianity.” He clearly saw that, in this matter, he was talking to closed minds.

      • Nektarios says:

        One must understand the relationship between Aristotle and Aquinas, one operating out of a pagan world and one out of a barely Christian world.
        Where they both come together is within the realm of behaviour and order.
        The failure of both Aristotle and Aquinas was the arrogance of both to follow them.
        The arguments are sound enough and rational enough, but neither of them get close
        to God’s view of morality and order.
        Until God takes a regenerative work in us we are all rebels, all in a state of disorder of one type or another, and the many thousands of years man has been on this planet has, as we see today, things have only changed superficially but not essentially.
        There are deep spiritual reasons for this.
        Both Aristotle and Aquinas only got so far as the superficial, the outward, the peripheral
        of morality and order without which they saw everything breaking down.
        The answer to it was to enforce laws, coercion, punishment and death, none of which
        stops the disorder in man – restrain it slightly perhaps,
        The logic on the surface seemed sane, sensible and rational. However, they found it did not work and discovered their well thought out order was producing further disorder and worse disorder further down the line. We have it with us today be it Abortion, Technology,
        Business, Banking, the workplace, Drink, Drugs, Religious disorders &c.

        The problem lies in our approach, having not really understood our own nature apart from the peripherals of it. Natural Law is the peripheral side of human nature. It is earthy, of the earth, with all the cycles that take place within that, operating between life and death, surviving. Our human spirit, is not that of the soul. The soul is very different in nature and has order. That spirit is not affected by what is done here. However, God’s order of things has been obscured and we hardly know anything about our soul, our Spirit/Fire, that life
        and order of it, which is very different from the life and order thought up by most philosophers, moralist, politicos with their orders,which has turned the joy of living into the problem of living , having no real answers to man’s disorder.

      • Quentin says:

        I think you are fundamentally correct here. That is, the Natural Law in its completeness was only present in man before the Fall. After the Fall it had to be applied to the new circumstances, which you describe. And this could only be imperfectly. This is where the ‘secondary precepts of Natural Law come in.

        Classical Protestantism took the view that man’s nature was so corrupted that he no longer had an ability to discover the truth through reason. The Catholic view was that, despite the damage, reason could find its way to truth. But, as you suggest, with many mistakes and superficialities.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Quentin – I take your point about the failure of the philosophers to recognise the Christian contribution to thought on Natural Law – arguably a fault of omission. However, everything that was actually said, and the way it was said, seemed to me perfectly acceptable.

      • Quentin says:

        My objection, Peter, was by no means to much of what they said. It is what they didn’t say when they were faced with the challenge of Christianity that I would rather attribute to ignorance than ill will. They simply didn’t know the connection of Christianity to philosophical thought. Even Bragg who, as far as I know is agnostic, was taken aback. He referred to their ‘nods and winks’ when he raised the question, and he implied their prejudice after they had addressed it.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Thanks for your explanation.

  12. Alan says:

    I’m not at all familiar with the issues, but isn’t disagreement (“ill will”) – rather than ignorance – a more likely explanation for their views? I’m just trying to imagine them being faced with the criticism directly and how they would respond.

  13. Quentin says:

    Always difficult to suss out others’ intentions. But, had they understood the Church’s approach to the key relationship between religious belief and philosophy, they would have been in a position to describe its shortcomings. If you want to disagree, it’s best to show that you understand the question. (Unless you don’t!)

    • milliganp says:

      It does seem extraordinary that, given the dominance of Christianity over nearly 2000 years of Western history and that the first 600+ years of university education was essentially clerical in nature there should be so little to say! even if critical.
      Screwtape would be most happy that Christianity be considered irrelevant.

  14. Nektarios says:

    For those of you wanting to delve into the attentive life as opposed the inattentive I pass on this website for your perusal. Here Milliganp and the rest of us will find much said on the spiritual life and give sustenance. This man gave his all to the attentive life/ spiritual life.

    • milliganp says:

      Nektarios, I have oft wondered why I have difficulty understanding your posts, having dedicated 20 wasted minutes of my life to the ideas of Jacob Boehm I now understand the disconnect.

      • Nektarios says:

        I would advise you read first on the website, how to read him. Yes you will have to work at it. But if you expect what is going on spiritually within you to be handed to you on a plate – you may well get what you want, but it will hardly be worth the time and effort reading it.
        However Jacob Boehme was one of the greatest mystical spiritual minds that is known and beloved by Christians in many denominations including Roman Catholic and his works have been in print continuously since around 1670. That speaks for itself.

        You know, some people may say they have a short attention span – I don’t buy it.
        They will spend hours concentrating on their favourite hobby, hours staring into their mobiles, hours watching sport or whatever, but when it comes to spiritual matters
        they seem to have no interest or attention span. Sermons are too long, Bible translations are not easy to understand give us a better one and so the list of demands go on.
        But if you would really appreciate, in actuality what is yours in Christ and develop ones spiritual life more, then difficult to read though he is at first, as found him too I have to say,
        then the penny drops and the reality of it all is profound. Persevere a little more if you can,
        failing that, keep on with your good Christian literature such as you have.

    • johnbunting says:

      “Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
      When hot for certainties in this our life”
      (George Meredith)

      I’d heard of Jacob Boehme, but never read a word of him; so thankyou, Nektarios, for bringing him to our attention.
      So what’s the connection? Well, having now read a few pages of Boehme, I think the sort of certainty he’s talking about is simply not accessible via the usual logical or empirical methods. Many people, probably including those in the ‘In Our Time’ programme, and possibly our old friend AD as well, would think it intellectually suspect to profess a belief in something that cannot be so proved.

      “The first essential for a philosopher or theologian is to distinguish between what is temporal and what is eternal”.
      (Sankhara: a ninth-century Hindu philosopher)
      That seems to me the same distinction that Boehme is making.

      Certainty is over-rated. A subjective feeling of certainty is no guarantee that one has arrived at the truth. We hear a lot about faith being opposed to reason. Well, the reasoning may be sound, but the assumptions or axioms from which it starts cannot always be proved.
      Nowadays of course we have not only moral relativism but ‘factual relativism’ as well: there is ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’. Absolute truth? We don’t know, any more than Pilate did. “Love God, and your neighbour as yourself” seems a good starting point.
      Chesterton once commented on another writer’s aphorisms, one of which was, “Truth, for most people, is whatever agrees with their own opinion”. “Wrong”, said GKC: “All genuine thought is an attempt to discover whether one’s opinion is true, or not”.
      Boehme seems to be saying to his pupil, “Don’t flap around looking for truth: you won’t find it. Be attentive, keeps an open mind, and it may drop on you when you don’t expect it”.

  15. Ignatius says:

    “.But let the reader know that the sharp speculation of his own reason will never pry into the depth of this book, but rather bring him into a maze of doubtful notions, wherein he will bewilder himself, and think the author’s phrase tedious and strange; and therefore the understanding lies only in the manifestation of that Spirit, which in the Day of Pentecost gave forth the true sense and meaning of all languages in one: Now if that Spirit rules and dwells in you, then you may understand this author in the deepest ground, according to your creaturely constellation, both in the eternal and temporal nature; but if not, these things will be but as a relation of trifles and chimeras to you. And therefore if you be of a saturnine property, dull and dark, shut up in the house of Luna, soar not too high with your censure and scorn, or with a critical speculation of your outward reason, lest you fall indeed into the deep abyss of darkness; but wait patiently, till the divine Sol shall shine again in your dark and selfish Saturn, and give you some beams and glimpses of his eternal light, and then your angry Mars will be changed into pure love-zeal, and your prating, pharisaical and hypocritical Mercury into a meek, mild, and Christian speaking of God’s works and wonders in the dispensation of his wisdom; and your doubtful, unsettled Jupiter will be turned into a plerophory, or most full assurance of true joy and saving comfort in your religion; your earthly Venus into heavenly love, and your eclipsed mutable Luna into the pure, perfect, and crystalline streams of light, life, and glory.”

    Right, well that all seems fairly straightforward doesn’t it…….?

    • Nektarios says:

      Do you want me to give you a more modern English version or just the general meaning
      meaning. This is not straightforward, as it is a inner mystical language of a high order.
      If you would truly become attentive, that is attentive to the spiritual side of ones nature,
      then obviously the normal daily language descriptive we have and use is not sufficient.
      Over the years, I know we get hooked on the descriptive, becoming satisfied with the mere descriptive. But like I have said several times on the blog, the descriptive is never the actual.
      Are you telling me, that your inner world/ spiritual life, that nobody sees, is straightforward? Try writing down for yourself what it is and how it works and its potentials. You will find you either have got nothing to say, know little about it, or will find it extremely difficult to give a cohesive sentence about it… Ignatius, it is not easy, straightforward to the modern day understanding at all.
      But that was not my intention of placing this works of Jacob Boehme before you. We are dealing with the inattentive mind and what an attentive mind in the spiritual sense means.

      You also have on that website works by William Law. He is interpreting much of JB for us in a much clear way. This introduction to JB may be more helpful to you? His Spirit of Love and The Spirit of Prayer are a great read too. Classic!

      • St.Joseph says:

        Forgive me if I am mistaking your ‘language’ for the ‘New Age Movement’! Creation Centered Spirituality! ‘Seeking the God within’! ?

    • Vincent says:

      Ignatius, you are unfair. Just think how often you could use the phrase “if you be of a saturnine property, dull and dark, shut up in the house of Luna, soar not too high with your censure and scorn, or with a critical speculation of your outward reason, lest you fall indeed into the deep abyss of darkness” for comments on the blog.

      I have added plerophory to my vocabulary. I shall use it often when I want to impress.

  16. Nektarios says:

    St Joseph
    I forgive you – you are indeed mistaken, it has nothing to do with New Age philosophy. Though JB writes partly about creation it is not New age rubbish. I think you may find the works of William Law also on the website, a little clearer to understand as he interprets some of JB thought and writings.

  17. St,Joseph says:

    Nektarios,Thank you but I don’t think I will bother!

    This may enter twice as I did not log in.

    • Nektarios says:

      St. Joseph,
      The choice is yours of course, but perhaps the rigours of such spiritual activity may be too much for you to cope with and feel more comfortable with what you know. that’s fine too.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Nektarios. You say ‘perhaps the rigours of such spiritual activity may be too much for me to cope with’.
        It is not the case of feeling more comfortable with what I know.
        As a mother and a grandmother I am coping with situations that concern me much more in the spiritual world than to let my mind be distracted with obscure thinking
        I base my Truth on knowing that ‘Jesus came- lived- suffered and died on the Cross and Rose again on the third day, for our salvation and we hope that we can spread that message to others in plain language.
        Thank you for your concern!.

  18. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Nektarios – I’m sure (though perhaps not plerophorous) that you’re trying to be helpful, but it might be more so if you made greater allowances for our limited understanding. Please remember what St. Paul said about speaking in tongues.

    • Nektarios says:

      Peter D. Wilson
      Point taken. However St Paul was talking in that instance about disorder.
      Some are asking why I posted it in the first place? Simply this – when you meet on the very rare occasion with the likes of Jacob Boehme, we may be confused at first, unwilling to go any further, and that is understandable too, but chiefly it was to realize out inattentiveness towards spiritual things going on within us and realizing out inattentiveness, one wakes up as it were and become attentive.

  19. Ignatius says:

    Vincent, yes, I tried it out on my students a few days ago in the teaching clinic; wonderful results.

  20. Singalong says:

    When we say that a person has a philosophical outlook on life, I think we mean that he looks at events and ideas in the context of his beliefs about reality, and the circumstances surrounding them, and usually this has connotations of putting him at a slight distance from too much emotional involvement. When things are difficult he can accept them better because he understands and considers the reasons, and so he has more control over his response. I am not quite sure how far this relates to spirituality, which I think of as a more personal relationship to God, and a desire to know Him better.

  21. Ignatius says:

    Singalong, Yes I think I agree. As far as my own experience has been of it, spirituality and spiritual growth is more a matter of desire, revelation, need, love, delight, sorrow, shame, tears reconciliation and persistence These terms collectively spell encounter and are not concerned with abstract analysis. On the other hand writers have over the centuries identified common aspects of spiritual life so the subject must permit of some degree of analysis. One of the things I do tend to notice about those who favour the analytic intellect is the tendency to become dogmatic over what might be termed ‘understanding’ In other words these types tend to view the world through ‘adult’ eyes finding little place for wonder and mystery.

  22. Singalong says:

    Thank you so much Ignatius, that is very helpful, especially your list describing different elements of encounter.

    • St,Joseph says:

      It is almost like when Jesus said .’Unless we become like little children we can not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’!
      Yet our Spiritual leaders in the Church have to be knowledgeable to teach.
      Is it that ‘too much knowledge’ will obscure blind faith.?
      Do we need ‘not ‘to be like the Apostle Thomas who believed because he had seen.
      Will Jesus have to be born again every 100 years so that sceptics will believe.
      He did send the Holy Spirit to give us the Grace to understand our unbelief as blind faith is not too popular today!

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