Travelling North

Book – How Shall I Live?


We are curious creatures; curious about ourselves, about the people around us and about the world we live in. To ask ‘why?’ is part of our make-up.  We watch documentaries on television, read about the lives of others, and even just listen to someone else speaking because we are driven by the impulse to find out more.  That impulse to be inquisitive about everything around us seems to have been a human characteristic for a long time, and was clearly a driver in that explosion of critical thinking that took place in Greece two and half thousand years ago.  Socrates was one member of a group of Greek philosophers who played a key role in the questioning, provoking and doubting of just about everything.  He was driven by the concern that he was not sure that he really understood things, and therefore it was important to subject even the most simple of everyday comments to scrutiny.  He did this by asking people questions about simple things such as what they meant by saying they were happy – and quickly demonstrated that these things were not simple at all!  However, some saw Socrates’ habit of asking questions as evidence that he was a troublemaker, even a corrupter of youth, and as a result ended up being tried for his life in his old age.  In responding to questions about what he had been doing, Socrates replied, “an unexamined life is not worth living”.  In saying this, he was not just talking about arbitrary curiosity, but about what he saw as a necessary task, to critically assess the life we lead.

Why was Socrates so adamant that an unexamined life was not worth living?  It seems to me that it is very easy for most of us just to fall into doing things, to get on with living, and never step back and ask if there is more to life than this.  Socrates is asking us to take some time out and explore whether what we are doing is enough.  Are we satisfied with the life we are living – not in a material sense, but in terms of feeling good about ourselves?  I suppose you could say that while we have moments when we ask ‘why’ about something, we seldom as ‘why’ about ourselves.  As we will explore later in this book, Socrates was concerned with more than just personal self-examination, but also the broader themes as to what we mean by justice and the nature of a good society

How can we set about the task of living an examined life?  There are nine topics in this book, and each is described in terms of a continuum, defined by two extreme scenarios as to how we might live.  By reading and reflecting, you are invited to examine your place on each continuum, and perhaps here you would like to be on that continuum in the future.

That must sound very abstract; so let me illustrate the approach by giving you a preview of what follows in the next chapter.  As we explore how we make assumptions about other people, we are going to consider two different perspectives, seeing others as individuals and seeing others as members of a community.

When we think about others in terms of individuality, especially in today’s very materialistic environment, we tend to see this expressed in terms of conspicuous – and often rather selfish – consumption, whether by getting another new television set, going on a trip to an overseas country, or just getting a good seat in the cinema.  At the extreme, seeing people as individuals is to see them as focussed on themselves alone, as if the rest of the world did not really matter.

When we think about others as members of a community, on the other hand, we tend to think about peoples’ willingness to give away individuality for the sake of being accepted in a group, whether this is by dress, behaviour, or even the views they hold.  At the extreme, seeing people as part of a community is to see them as like clones, indistinguishable from one another.

Of course, either extreme is rather unrealistic.  No one can be an individual totally isolated from the community, except, perhaps, in the case of a hermit.  Equally, no one can be totally absorbed by a community, except, perhaps, in the case of some cults. These extremes mark out the extent of what we might call ‘affiliation’ – how we link with others.  In thinking about the affiliation criterion and the continuum that runs from the extreme of isolated individuality to the extreme of the unthinking member of a community, the question to be examined is where you see yourself on this continuum.  Are you closer to the individuality end of the continuum, more concerned with meeting your needs than with sharing and identifying with others, or are you closer to the community end, sacrificing your individual needs for the sake of others?

Each of the continuums is like this, providing a lens through which you can examine your life, think about what you are doing today, and consider if there are ways in which you might want to change – to move further towards one extreme or the other to be truer to the person you would like to be.

Making Assumptions

If you live in a modern Western country, you can see two rather contradictory activities going on around you.  One the one hand, there is an enormous amount of attention being paid to people as individuals, emphasising the importance of meeting their specific needs, their tastes, their preferences.  Indeed, modern technology makes it possible to talk about marketing to each individual separately – a ‘market of one’!  On the other hand, we can also see that people tend to congregate with others like themselves – and express their identification with others through dress, where they go and what they eat, and even how they speak.  It seems as though people are both individualists and members of communities.  How can we make sense of this puzzle:  are people individuals at heart, or are they really members of groups, similar in what they seek?

One way of approaching this is to explore what is intrinsic to our human nature.  When we deal with other people, we make a number of assumptions about them, and there are things we take for granted.  Perhaps a good starting point is to acknowledge that it is important that we make assumptions about others!  After all, one of the puzzles we face in dealing with people is that we can never get inside another person’s head.  We see everything through our own eyes, our senses, and we understand things through frameworks in our minds.

Philosophers have a lot of fun dealing with this – and have undertaken thought experiments to come up with all sorts of elaborate scenarios to consider what the world might be like – ranging from imagining there is no world outside our own head (the external world exists just in our imagination) through to contemplating a ‘brain in a vat’ (a brain without a body, but fed information to make it believe it was really in a person)!  You might well wonder why such bizarre ideas are considered, but in both those cases, they are used to act as the basis for questioning some of our ‘taken for granted’ assumptions.

One part of our ‘taken for granted’ world has to do with similarity and difference.  In thinking about the people we deal with, at one level we recognise that they are all different – in appearance, in behaviour, in preferences, in tastes.  No one person seems exactly the same as another, and even identical twins turn out to behave quite differently despite the fact that they can look uncannily similar.  Each person seems to be unique, and while there is a great deal of ongoing debate as to the relative influences of nature (our genetic inheritance) and nurture (the socialisation we undergo as we grow up), it is that uniqueness that makes each one of us a distinct person.

Yet, at another level, we assume that all people are the same, and have the same needs as we do for food, safety, peace, a home, and so many other things.  We also assume that in some fundamental way they also have brains that work like ours, that everyone else feels emotions in the same way we do, can analyse problems, and answer challenges – perhaps coming up with different answers, but still having some common underlying mental and emotional processes.  We also assume they see the same world that we see – buildings, roads, and even a beautiful sunset.   That sense of all human beings sharing these same basic attributes is also what allows us to differentiate ourselves from other animal species, even though we acknowledge some similarities between the higher apes and ourselves.  We can draw that distinction between ourselves and other species because we have some unique capabilities such as our ability to use language, to be dextrous, and to retain and recall vast quantities of information.

When we talk about human nature, we are referring to those attributes that we believe are common to us all.

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