February 14, 2023

BEARD | The Philosophy of Life 

Print More

While standing trial for impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth , Socrates famously defended himself stating that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. It’s a cliche phrase that’s found its way onto t-shirts and the coffee mugs of arm-chair philosophers the world over. Despite its overuse, it’s a phrase I like for two reasons. In seven words it stresses the importance of philosophical questioning as well as living our philosophical principles in the real world. It’s simple, succinct and easy to remember. But in spite of its simplicity, over the years Socrates’ words seem to have been forgotten and replaced with the variety of philosophy taught in dimly lit classrooms at Cornell and schools like it across the country.

To be fair, I’m incredibly biased on this perspective. That being said, I think you would be too if you had sat in on my philosophy discussion section last Friday. In the span of an hour, we debated a singular question: Can we argue that “A chair is a four-legged stool” is a self-explanatory definition of the term “chair?” Are you confused yet? I certainly was. After an hour of back and forth, I only knew one thing for certain: I was no closer to knowing how to live a better life or how to think about the world. In this regard, I think our Athenian friend would have assessed my philosophy class as a failure. On the purpose of philosophy, Socrates was quoted as saying, “we cannot live better than in seeking to become better”. Once more, he shows a deference to the importance of ‘living’ that my  education on philosophy lacks.

In a nutshell, this is my beef with academic philosophy. It’s a space crowded by overeducated men writing treatises so far removed from the real world that you need four years of education to simply understand the high-minded ideas they debate. Its evolution of thought that would cause dear Socrates to roll over and over in his grave. This was not the philosophy he and Plato followed. Socrates’s philosophy was a philosophy of life. He didn’t squirrel himself away toiling at manuscripts to be misunderstood and ignored by college students in the “Introduction to Philosophy” course. He was on the streets of Athens asking ordinary people questions and prodding them to think about their lives a little more. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates is asking a judge, Euthyphro, about what is right and wrong. In Lysis, he asks two boys about the nature of friendship. In Crito Socrates refutes his friend’s attempt to save his life. As much as Socrates annoyed his Athenian neighbors in 399 BC, his foundational practice of philosophy offers a stark rebuttal to the way we practice it in universities today. Like that most famous quote from his trial, it can be summarized just as simply as:  Why the hell do we care that a chair has four legs?

If Socrates were still alive, one can imagine a conversation with our philosophical academics of today. It would probably be one of his more frustrating dialogues. 

“Why did you spend your life writing about whether chairs are four-legged stools?” asks Socrates.

“Because it’s important to question everything, like you said” replies the professor.

“What question about life does your question answer?”


Like Euthyphro or Lysis before them, our philosophy professors would find themselves on the hot seat, forced to examine the professional lives they lead. This is exactly Socrates’ intent: To force us all to practice a little bit of philosophical introspection. That is an examined life. No abstract or overcomplicated thought exercise can muddy that.

Socrates’ remarks sparked a tradition of philosophy that has endured for thousands of years. It has spawned different philosophical schools, forged ideology and made our Ivy League professors rich. The importance of philosophy makes sense through history. After all, Socrates’s idea of the ‘examined life’ was a twofold message of self improvement and life betterment. To the students and ordinary people alike, seeking out philosophy in classes and books should be normalized. But the idea of an “examined life” cuts both ways. To the professors and philosophers whose heads are high up in barely intelligible texts come down here with the rest of us. It’s time we examine how we teach philosophy and bring it back to the Socratic precedent of a living study. 

Brenner Beard ‘24 is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Agree to Disagree runs every other Tuesday this semester.