Posts Tagged ‘socrates’

Liberal Arts and the Culture of Self-Examination

August 17, 2011

Last week I had the pleasure of a visit from one of my dearest friends from college (to whom I’ll refer as A.). Together we engaged in one of our favorite pastimes in all the world: trying to make sense of our experience at a small northeastern liberal arts college (via much conjecture and conversation).

For four years, our school truly made up our world—”bubble” culture at its most bourgeois-bohemian. But the truth is that our experience as liberal arts students, compared to those of the rest of the world, was unfathomably specific—and learning to reconcile that now (1.25 years out of college) seems to me so daunting a task that it’ll take up the remainder of our lives.

For us, the link between the liberal arts tradition and the pursuit of some greater consciousness of the self (à la Western Enlightenment—thanks A.) appeared to be rock-solid and pretty obvious (though, writing this now, I guess that doesn’t need to be the case).

Under that premise and with my undergraduate experience, endeavoring to write this blog is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve always a) prized the “Know thyself” mentality as valuable in almost every respect; b) shaken off any claims of corrupt narcissism with the self-reflection framework’s implied virtues; and c) lamented other people’s shortcomings when it’s clear that on this point we don’t agree.

How this exposes my own nearsightedness is perfectly ironic. We—A. and I, at the very least—assume that this sustained, unrelieved reflexivity is the highest, most evolved form of existence (placing value like it’s our job, almost as if we have something to compensate for). But is it really the road to happiness? Does less self-reflection really lead to a lower quality of life?

I haven’t changed my mind about it, but A. and I both decided it’s best to try as hard as possible to acknowledge a lifestyle of constant and critical self-examination as just that: a lifestyle, among many others, and not necessarily the best one.

A sketch that developed out of a nerdy mood a few weeks ago.

To follow up:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

cf. “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all.” Mark Twain

P.S.: I’m still stumbling around with the vocabulary of this topic, and am 100% sure that there’s many a scintillating essay about it out there. If you have any interesting reading on the aforementioned culture or the liberal arts tradition, I’d love it if you sent it my way! It doesn’t bear repeating that I navel-gaze like it’s the degree on my diploma.