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.
Since the backwards law encourages us to focus on the deeper, underlying meaning behind our goals, I was forced to reevaluate where my values came from and why they were important — pushing me to intentionally let go of objectives that added no true value to my life.
Under the influence of several friends who told me about the designed addictiveness of screens, I recently switched the color filter on my phone and laptop to black and white. I made this part of my observance of Lent, 40 days of simple, ascetic living observed by Christians in preparation for Easter.
If Lent involves ethical progress via analogy — refraining from indulging in sugar to train the same discipline that refrains from indulging in excessive criticism — then being more conscious of literal surfaces, like laptop screens, acts as one of several possible reminders to not take what is immediately before us as all there is. I’ve since realized two things: One, that relative detachment from my screen was in line with Lenten principles to remove distractions from what was important; two, that spending less time with surfaces like my screen and having faith in what might be beyond had implications beyond the private domain of religion, and extended into public domains like politics. A secular description of faith by the psychoanalyst and nontheist Erich Fromm is, “a conviction which is rooted in one’s own experience,” or a belief in the value of pursuing data-informed visions of truth that eventually lead to scientific discoveries and social transformations — taking the surface, but daring to see beyond. This could be as practical as the environment and sustainability major disturbed by discouraging data on water pollution and flooding, but determined to study and someday apply the building of ditches.
Five panelists — one each from the departments of biological engineering, industrial labor relations, neuroscience, history and philosophy — grappled with this question as they attempted to convince the Klarman Hall audience that their respective fields of study mattered most and should be preserved.
Is it ever morally permissible to risk the well-being of others for a higher purpose? In a recent “Chat in the Stacks” talk at Olin Library, Prof. Andrew Moisey, history of art and visual studies, admitted that he had taken such a risk with the publication of The American Fraternity (2018). The American Fraternity is an art book of photographs taken by Moisey at a UC Berkeley fraternity. It includes images of women passed out, nude and in compromising positions, their faces at times obscured. In the Q&A session, Moisey recognized that these images pose a risk to the women depicted, should the women be identified.
I spent roughly one hour and 10 minutes twice a week for an entire semester discussing the body. I’ve thought that after the amount of time spent reading about this physical entity — and believe me, even English classes about the body know how to work you — and pondering over its purpose, I thought I would come closer to understanding what this thing I’m living in is. The body to me is such a beautiful thing. The unique aspects of each and every body fascinates me. I think it’s lovely the way skin folds and smooths.
When I was a junior in high school, I taught a film and media class at my former elementary school. I gathered a group of 11 year olds around a computer to write a script and asked them, “What message do you want to share to your audience?” They told me they wanted to make a movie about a dog traveling around the world; somehow dynamite and chicken wings were involved but I can’t remember how. “No, I mean what do you want the meaning to be?” I asked again. They didn’t understand what I was trying to say. They suggested dinosaurs instead of the dog.
We’re all sinners to an extent.* Some of us are aware of our cosmic wrongdoings, and some of us have yet to learn, but all of us have to cope with who we are. One day, perhaps we’ll even love who we are (but I don’t want to ask too much). In the meantime, it seems like we’re expected to engage in a process of continuous growth — as does the model-millennial, who improves himself to improve the world he inhabits. Albeit in a leisurely way, I, too, advocate for self-improvement, but not by scorning my flaws. Sometimes, adopting a new perspective serves better than donning a new personality.
I had a conversation with a girl recently. As I write that, I can almost hear my middle school friends sardonically expressing their disbelief. But it’s true. I did. And the conversation still sticks out in my memory.