Three Versions Of Meaning In Socrates, Descartes, And De Beauvoir Essays Examples
In this paper, I will argue that the meaning of life has changed from Socrates’ definition of an examined life to one of the absolute autonomy of the will, as credited to Descartes’ in The Meditations to the existentialist notion that the self is nothing but one makes it as articulated by Simone de Beauvoir. All three thinkers represent movements in philosophy in how we as a culture have understood meaning. The history of philosophy can be understood in three ways. First, there is the Socratic way that says the truth is something we have within us. The Ancient Greeks called this inward truth the soul. Descartes came along in the seventeenth century and said that in fact what makes us all human is that we can think and he fashioned an entire philosophy around the indubitable nature of the “I think” in his book The Meditations. In the twentieth century, thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir argued that humanity, when first born, is nothing and took on the banner of existentialism. She and existentialists like her argued that there is no soul, nor is the seat of reason the answer. We are who we are because of a series of choices we make that shape the world around us.
Certainly Both Socrates and Descartes are the two heavyweights of philosophy, especially as it has been indoctrinated in the Western Tradition. Descartes formed the basis of what was considered modern philosophy when he argued that makes sense is that by thinking alone the rest of the world and others, could be understood. Descartes asked used people to put into question what could be perceived through their senses and asked people to rely on their thinking alone. De Beauvoir is a thinker who radicalized meaning because she renounced the foundations of philosophy that built up Socrates and Descartes. In a way, we today live a world more inherited from the ideas of Descartes and Simone de Beauvoir than the world we see depicted in The Trial and Death of Socrates.
Before we can understand where we have come in our path to meaning, we have to start at the beginning of the story. But what grounded Socrates vision for meaning? It is important to make preliminary comments about Socrates. Socrates gives a defense of his trial and in this defense, he outlines what he thinks constitutes the examined life. For Socrates, the to examine one’s life was (and still is) the heart of philosophy. This is the idea that Abram talks about when he writes that Socrates did not consider himself an educated man, and was, in fact, totally reliant on some other power to fuel his philosophical imagination (107). In fact, the word philosophy itself means, “love of wisdom”. Socrates not only gave philosophy an answer to what makes life meaningful, but he also accepted death rather than give up his role as the gadfly of Athens. Socrates was notorious for trolling the streets of Athens making people think and asking questions. In his Apology, in which Plato recounts the events of his trial, is not a plea for forgiveness. It is a defense of his beliefs. Socrates argues that life is meaningful only when we recognize that no one is wise. For Socrates, what gives people wisdom is the recognition that they, in fact, no nothing. The idea that knowledge comes from “not knowing” was an attack by Socrates on those who pranced around telling everyone that they knew everything, but, in fact, knew nothing at all (21e).
Socrates criticizes the people of Athens for not thinking critically, and this is why he was most likely put to death. Socrates believed that knowing oneself was far better than having a good reputation among the upper echelons of the elite and ruling class (22a). But, in examining Socrates’ language, it seems as if he believed that wisdom was not something you could earn, and in effect, he argued that wisdom was like a gift of the gods. In so many words, Socrates echoes this kind of thinking of humanity’s passivity to true knowledge when Plato has him say, “ the god ordered me, as I thought and believed, to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others.” This statement is interesting because he is suggesting that when we talk about true wisdom it is something that comes outside of ourselves. This is a crucial statement, and it underpins the main argument of this paper. We can see how the history of philosophy has been a history of arguments about the nature of how we as human beings come into knowledge -- both self-knowledge, knowledge of others, and knowledge of the external world.
Socrates and his student Plato argued that the inner life is nurtured by the health of one’s soul (28e). In this way, we can understand perhaps the most famous of Socrates’ saying when he tells his accusers at the trial that the “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (38a). What Socrates is saying is that to live a philosophical life is to recognize that true wisdom comes from reflecting on how one lives. For the Ancient Greeks philosophy was not a course one took in College. Philosophy was a way in which one lives their life. In this way, as we can see in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, the examined life has an ethical quality to it. What de Beauvoir argues is quite the opposite. She argues for the power of the will, for the power of choice as a way one carves out the contours of one’s life. If there is the choice in Socrates’ philosophy, it is the freedom of recognizing one’s passivity to the divine. In both Plato and Socrates’ way of thinking the body is like an open vessel that happens to have a soul attached to it. The soul is the living life force of the human person. To live an examined life is to recognize one’s complete dependence on something transcendent and greater than oneself. What we see in the existential, ethical philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir is that one has an autonomy of the will. At first blush, man is nothing. De Beauvoir calls this negativity (33). What she means is that the human person is like an empty slate, and what we become, who we are is completely made up by the sum account of our choices. There is no objective good or evil, right or wrong, but what is right or bad or what is pleasant or humane is purely conjectured by us humans who are our own authority in how we live our lives.
When we return to Socrates, it is apparent that philosophy was the meaning of life. Philosophy then became something that made being human more attractive. It is in Socrates we see the birth of philosophy itself. The search for meaning comes full circle. As creatures on this planet, we search for wisdom. However, do we think of meaning as something that has been given to us by the divine? In this way, human science is only a gift. Do we think of technology as a curse, or as something that has hindered us from searching and finding meaning?
This has certainly interesting ramifications when we consider that for Socrates what he meant by the “unexamined life” is that philosophy is a passion to discover the inner qualities that make up the human person (33a-b). If we consider, that Socrates thought that what he followed was his divine sign that tells him what to do we see emerging a picture of what meaning is for him (41d). What Socrates is saying is that we do not carve out our selves out of nothing, as the existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir would argue. The Socratic way of life is searching for truth by way of conversation. Socrates was willing to die for a greater truth than to live the life of an unexamined person (38e).
However, de Beauvoir, in her book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, dismisses the duality of body and soul that both Socrates and Descartes espoused. Descartes, especially, kept up a dualism between body and mind. While he argues that since he can think, and then, therefore, he must exist, he takes on the idea that both body and mind (in which he means soul) are both inseparable but opposite of each other (48). Descartes sees a body and mind as two entities that work together even though they are radically different. In fact, Descartes argues that there are only two that exist: thinking and extended things. Descartes continues the dualism of meaning that Socrates (via Plato proposed) but he adds to it the claim that the self is made meaningful by the “I think” which seems to have superior control over how we understand the world and each other.
What makes Descartes so unusual is that he gets rid of this idea that we are just a vessel waiting for the overflow of the divine. Also, he does not see human being’s search for meaning just in the mind. It is not as if the body is unimportant. For example, when I think of the wax section of the Meditations, it is important that Descartes asks us what the wax is. Is it just the physical substance that makes it what it is? Just because the wax, like a body, is hard, and it can be smelled with the senses, the wax melts when it is lit. What about the wax is still the wax? What remains (21)? Is the body just a substance, or is it something that I sense with my senses, through smell and tough, or is there something distinct about the body that makes it the way that it is? Something about the wax remains unchanged and in this way Descartes brilliantly lays out the patterns of thought. The thinking self, even connected to a body is the key. Even if I am dreaming, or if God is deceiving me, I can still think. What was something transcendent and gifted by the Gods becomes for Descartes a search for meaning that is inscrutably linked to the ability of the mind to do anything? It is as if someone was thinking of Descartes when they thought: “Whatever you put your mind to you can do”.
Why is De Beauvoir’s critique of Cartesian dualism so important then to how meaning has been transformed? Her point is simple. By hanging on to the notion that the mind is something that is unchanged we hold onto the erroneous idea that we will never die (7). De Beauvoir argues that in maintaining the dualism we forget about death. The concept of mortality is what brings her back to her thesis of negation. Since the self is like a vast open sea or an empty page in a notebook, it is based on nothing. There is no eternal mind (like Descartes says), or some divine entity (like Socrates says). De Beauvoir’s point is that by not thinking of death we forget the importance of mortality in framing the question of meaning. Socrates, of course, from the readings from The Life and Death of Socrates, knew that he would die, and he accepted death openly and without fear. But perhaps the critique of De Beauvoir suggests that Socrates was holding onto something greater than death.
In conclusion, would Socrates’ answer to the meaning of life be different if he rejected the notion that the soul lives forever? It is only possible to speculate. Would Descartes put so much emphasis on the “I think” if he rejected the immortality of the soul? A better way to answer this question is to ponder what merits does De Beauvoir offer over Descartes and Socrates. What they are missing, if we follow De Beauvoir’s argument, is the importance of responsibility (16). As Abram suggests, the clinging to the divine makes us negligent in taking responsibility for something important like the environment. It seems we have come upon meaning in the world hoping for a choice, but refusing to accept the responsibility that De Beauvoir suggests comes with accepting one’s mortality.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.
Beauvoir, Simone De. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Citadel, 1962. Print.
Descartes, René, Donald A. Cress, and René Descartes. Discourse on Method ; And: Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1998. Print.
Plato, Huntington Cairns, Benjamin Jowett, and Hans Erni. The Trial and Death of Socrates. Print.