The Sunday News
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena
One of the exalted aphorisms in philosophy concerns the ethic of the “examined life.” Socrates was on trial for his life before an Athenian court in 399 Before Christ when he remarked that “the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.”
Since then philosophers have occupied themselves with the idea and practice of an examined life.
Socrates stood accused, as a member of the popular assembly of the people, of impiety against Greek religion amongst many other wrongs.
He was alleged to have acted against the popular will and interests of the people of Athens by speaking ill of democracy and the idea of elections.
Socrates argued vehemently that to allow people en masse to vote was to promote ignorance to sanctity which is comparable to allowing untrained individuals to pilot a ship across the sea under very stormy weather.
Political education and training, to Socrates, must have been the very foundation of politics and democracy, not just the wild lottery of men and women that elections bring about. Socrates taught in the streets of Athens by asking probing and troublesome questions that questioned the very foundations of daily life in the city state.
He is now claimed as one of the legends of European wisdom and democracy but in his time he was sentenced to death for being a dissident and a heretic.
His crucifixion took the shape of being forced by law to drink hemlock, a deadly poison that slowly but surely killed him.
The charge-sheet against Socrates closely resembled that of Jesus the Christ that was accused and crucified for negating the ancient laws of Moses and insinuating that he was the much awaited Messiah of the chosen people, the Jews.
The idea of the examined life, therefore, was not only baptismal but it was squeezed out of Socrates by the grave possibility of death that looked the philosopher in the eye as he was defending himself before the Agora that was fully set against him.
Much like the Christ, Socrates believed in his life after death and really did not plead for his dear life but pleaded for the freedom and lives of his accusers.
I can argue here that the idea of the examined life came directly from the cross of crucifixion, from the point of intersection, between life itself and death.
One can say that the idea of the examined life as a philosophical concept has been part of the death wish-list of great philosophers, messiahs and the prophets that at the point of death get to see clearly the importance of life well-lived and well-examined.
One of Robert Sobukwe’s reflections and one that titles a book after himself was: “how can man die better?” The answer to that question has always been that an individual dies a worthy death only after living a worthy life of the struggle for truth, freedom and justice, not only for himself but also for others.
Proverbially, therefore, an examined life is also a brave life of courage and fearlessness because cowards are said to die many times before their actual death. Many of us have for a long time assumed that bravery and courage was a quality of soldiers and warriors when first and foremost it is the true property of the philosophers, poets, prophets and other dissidents of thought.
Whose Examined Life is worth Living?
When the western Empire and its civilisation are reminded of their crimes of slavery and colonialism they retreat to self-justification.
The spokespersons of Empire are quick to point it out that Christianity and democratic government are some of the gifts that Empire brought to the Global South.
Socrates and Jesus Christ are touted as some of the ancients whose wisdom western modernity brought to the South. We are assumed to be blind or to have forgotten that the two thinkers, Socrates and Jesus, were crucified for their truths in what was their home. The western civilisation and modernity rejected them as unwanted dissidents and heretics that the world was better without.
I am making this observation in full awareness that there are many historians and philosophers that insist that Jesus in particular was neither white nor was a European in the modern sense of the word.
There is also copious Afrocentric literature on that Socrates was a student of Egyptian philosophers who exported African philosophy into Europe and was killed for the use of it. In other words, philosophically, Socrates died for being black in a white world. My point is that philosophy as the instrument of an examined life and Christianity as furniture of modern spirituality and reason are not exactly sole possessions of the Europeans specifically and westerners generally but attributes of humanity.
It is worth remembering that one of the philosophers of the social contract which has become a governing idea of the world, Jean Jacques Rousseau, was not accepted in his lifetime as a great European thinker. He was isolated, demonised and driven to insanity and premature death.
Today the apologists of western modernity and Empire do invoke the name of Rousseau as one of the gifts of Empire to the whole planet.
I never stop recalling the observation of Walter Rodney who noted that if Jesus had come to Africa he was not going to be crucified but listened to and treated with humility and hospitality by Africans that have no huge problem with anyone that has a different take on life.
Africans, it is assumed, were going to have a rigorous debate with a Socrates and a Jesus, and not just judge, condemn and murder them.
In the African philosophical cosmology the other is listened to, engaged and questioned and not simply dismissed, judged and damned.
What is Enlightenment, exactly?
To fully examine life and its meaning we require tools and one such tool is the weapon of enlightenment. Immanuel Kant attempted to answer the above question in an essay by the title: In answer to the question; what is Enlightenment?
His answer is summarised in the first sentence of the essay: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity; immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”
So in the Kantian sense enlightenment is the maturity to reason for one’s self.
That maturity is also, says Kant, “freedom to make public use of reason.” Reason cannot be buried in the self as an internal property but it has to be publicly used for the benefit of society beyond the individual.
To be enlightened in the sense that Kant described meant that one strives to be thoughtful and wise. “Dare to be wise!” is the baptismal motto of Kantian enlightenment.
To “dare” be wise implies the property of the courage to think and think bravely and freely that I noted above. To see the light is therefore at once to declare war against darkness.
The enlightened thinker is a kind of warrior against the forces and passions of darkness.
The colonialists, as we know, believing themselves to be enlightened, believed that the histories and knowledges of the colonised were all darkness and doom.
Enlightenment, in that sense, was weaponised against the colonised and instrumentalised for purposes of conquest and coloniality.
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Gezina in Pretoria: [email protected]