Socrates’ Axiom Applied
How might Socrates’ axiom, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” be applied to our lives and culture today? One means of applying Socrates’ axiom is allowing it to serve as an inroad to an apologetic encounter with a non-Christian.
Our culture is glutted with sound-bite sloganeering, superficial platitudes, and bumper sticker philosophies. Consequently, our lives are full of uncritically-adopted suppositions and intellectual superficialities, all of which are controlled by personal pragmatism and prejudicial bias. The careful consideration of the fundamental ideas, upon which one operates and makes decisions, is extremely rare in our culture. Therefore, Socrates’ axiom may be used to challenge non-Christians (and Christians alike!) to contemplate the basic beliefs on which they have built the edifice of their own worldview. If the foundation is faulty, the superstructure will be too.
The apologetic utility of this application of Socrates’ axiom comes when the non-Christian presuppositions have been duly uncovered and examined. This allows the Christian to help the non-Christian see the contradictions and internal incoherence of the fundamental ideas of their non-Christian worldview. Socrates’ axiom applied to our culture reveals that, whether examined or not, a life grounded on non-Christian presuppositions is, in fact, not a life worth living, but a life wasted. This clears the way for a biblical examination and valuation of life, having Christ and his gospel grounding the meaning of a worth-filled life. This application is actually consistent to Socrates’ own application to his culture, although his and my conceptions of both God and man are antithetical (see, e.g., Apology, 23).
Examining the Truth Value of Socrates’ Axiom
Whether understood in terms of a Christian or a modern non-Christian perspective, I don’t believe Socrates’ axiom is true. On the one hand, could we not respond to Socrates with an incredulous, “Says who?” Socrates is just one thinker (and not the first) in a vast, almost-shoreless sea of thinkers in the history of Western philosophy, many of which contradict one another. Granting the near unanimous espousal of naturalism today, what is beauty, goodness, virtue? These are immaterial, absolute, abstract concepts. But if reality is made up of only sensibles (i.e., material things), then Socrates exhorts us to rationally reflect on things that are unreal, and thus irrational. From a secular outlook, Socrates’ axiom is untrue, since it leads to irrationality.
In terms of a Christian outlook, Socrates’ axiom is certainly untrue. Human speculation about ultimate questions of the real, the right, and the reasonable, autonomous and independent of God, is precisely what introduced sin and calamity into the world (Gen 3), and has since only been an expression and recapitulation of that archetypal sin. Socrates described this autonomous examination of life as the very best thing a person can do; that is, it’s man’s greatest good (Apology, 38). For Socrates, autonomous, unaided human reason, operating independent of God, is man’s greatest good.
According to the Christian perspective, however, to glorify and enjoy God forever is man’s greatest good (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1). These ideas are perfectly antithetical.
Wisdom and knowledge are the result of reverential awe and fear of God in Christ (e.g., Prov 1:7; 9:10; Ps 111:10; Job 28:28). God cannot be known through autonomous human wisdom, just as wisdom cannot be apprehended apart from God (1 Cor 1:21). Jesus Christ is God’s wisdom (v. 24), and becomes wisdom to us through faith (v. 30). That is because Christ is the sole depository of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). Therefore, in our pursuit of wisdom, we must begin in humble submission to its Source, and seek him to find it (James 1:5).