The “Unexamined” Life

Some years ago, a Catholic Great Books school asked me to speak to the faculty. The lecture room had Socrates’ saying over the door: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I expected this sort of thing, and had prepared a talk for those very fine people instead about why the unexamined life, in a certain sense, is most definitely worth living. Catholics particularly need to be clear about this.

If you think an examined life requires reading great books, you will be partly right—and partly wrong. Great books help some, for those of us who can make use of them. I have spent a good portion of my own life with them and sent my children to places that read great books. But I’m worried, as alleged experts take over more and more or our lives—and look down on anyone without proper academic credentials—that in focusing on formal education as the path to wisdom, we’re misreading several problems and losing a living human legacy.

Did the billions of human beings who never looked at a book in their span on earth live incomplete, unexamined lives? Did Jesus ever read a book, other than the Old Testament? For all the good that books do us, are the most important things usually found there?

I had two ethnic grandmothers. One read daily from a single book: the New Testament and selected prayers, in a foreign language that I had to learn in graduate school. She had sharp notions of how her limited reading and large observations of life applied to an unlimited number of situations—and was not shy about saying so. The other grandmother never read a book, that I can recall, but she could read you—and just about anyone else—like a billboard. She wasn’t shy either. Did these two women lead unexamined lives? I would not advise you to tell them—or anyone like them—so. You might hear a few things you haven’t read in books.

My generation is the last with a living memory of a world in which large numbers of people did not go to college. There’s no good reason to sentimentalize those earlier generations. They had their share of narrowness, superstition, and incomprehension. (Whether our versions of those faults are an improvement is doubtful.)

But they were taught by daily experience and were under no illusion that “educated” meant better in anything other than particular tasks. W. H. Auden’s brief poem has this exactly right:

To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word “Intellectual” suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.

Familiarity with wide-ranging thought may broaden and better us, but it may also incline us to rationalize or relativize.

When you believe that “education” itself leads to good behavior or wisdom, as if the old emphasis on habits and virtues was a pre-modern stopgap before colleges, textbooks, and newspapers were available to all, you lose touch with those generations all over the world who trained themselves to action by relatively straightforward imitation—mostly of saints and heroes. Today, we think imitation of others diminishes our uniqueness, makes us units on an assembly line. But that was not the view of pagans like Aristotle, or Christians throughout history. One reason we may be largely failing to transmit saintliness and heroism may be that we think we have to argue for things that are better demonstrated.

I came across an example of this in—of all places—Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a highbrow book if there ever was one. Françoise, the maid in the narrator’s family, has habits of “medieval” France, we are told. Among these is her treatment of the sick and the dying:

Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.

This reflects a Mother Theresa-like quality, another woman from a mostly bookless world, which casts in a different light our educated chatter about sympathy and caring, to say nothing of our kissy-huggy familiarity.

Now, if you tell me this is not all there is to life and that we need great intellectual efforts too, I won’t argue. I’ve tried to do what I can myself in that regard. But if we are talking about living examined lives, meaning striving towards wisdom, we need something a lot higher—and different—than higher education.

With a few exceptions—a handful of Catholic and evangelical colleges, a program here or there, a few secular institutions—a university education is the farthest thing from a path into the examined life that one might imagine. Animal house behavior aside, colleges now are largely trade schools, an honorable service just so long as we don’t confuse career training with the examined life.

But the problem goes further. Priests often tell you that one big problem today is lay people who have been highly educated in various fields—though not in Catholicism—and think they are moral theologians.

So if you are sending children off to school any time soon, by all means make sure that they meet some of the big questions there. It will only be part of a long pathway they should already have set out on at home. But it’s a crucial step on a lifelong road. Even more important, make sure that they understand from that start that even the best academic education is something quite different than the examined life.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.