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Wisdom is the Search

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wooden Scrabble tiles spelling out "transform wounds into wisdom"
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The cliche that has come down to us is that Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That phrasing should not go unexamined . . .

ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ)

Anexetastos can mean “unexamined,” but also, “not searched out.”

Biōtos (where we get the prefix bio) doesn’t mean “worth living” but rather “to be lived.”

A more accurate translation — or at the least a translation that makes us think — is, “The un-searched life is not to be lived”

From this perspective, it’s a warning: You’re not living if you’re not searching.

Now that’s a program I can sign onto: I’m not living if I’m not searching.

The contrast is between mere life and being alive: vital, interested, engaged. Compassionate. Just. A seeker of wisdom.

Socrates uses this line at his trial for corrupting the youth of Athens. He was facing the death penalty. The traditionalists of Athens wanted people to go off and enjoy their unquestioning lives like good, obedient citizens.

Socrates said, if that’s the choice, I choose death: “The un-searched life is not to be lived.”

As a Humanist, I often get the comment, “Oh, you put all your trust in science, then.”

Actually I don’t, because I know the history and philosophy of science. For example, when Copernicus proposed his heliocentric theory of the universe, he was only partially correct. He was mostly wrong. Isaac Newton’s laws of motion are correct only within certain parameters. Newton was mostly wrong.

As philosopher of science Karl Popper saw it, if it can’t be tested and perhaps proven wrong, it’s not science.

“The un-searched life is not to be lived.” That goes for everything we have learned and everything we think: science, history, philosophy, religion . . . . Searching is the way, not the end.

The point, every day, is to learn how to live better than we lived yesterday. What’s “better”? Fear less. Hate less. Care more. “Better” is more compassionate; more loving; more just.

First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

The Din of Conversation

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