In Plato’s Apology, he attributes to Socrates the frequently quoted maxim: “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Adjacent to this quote is the unquoted, but potentially more profound statement, “I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live…. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death.”
I reflected on these lines from the Apology in a most improbable of moments this week – at the engagement and wedding ceremonies of some dear friends in India. As I watched a priest chant mantras in Sanskrit, I inquired of several of the guests how many brides and grooms knew the meaning of what they were reciting during the marathon, smoke and fire-filled rituals.
“We don’t know what these mean,” was the near universal response.
Sanskrit has been around for at least 3,500 years – potentially one of the world’s oldest languages. It is reasonable to speculate that more philosophy, religion, sociology and cosmology has been contemplated in Sanskrit than in any other tongue. This language of wisdom, scholarly inquiry and culture contains not only literal essence but also harmonics and tonal elements that are considered to integrate frequencies and vibrations that literally embody meaning. Its use in ritual and meditation persists while the wisdom and experience of humanity from which it arose is increasingly eclipsed in the fluorescent glare of emoticons and hashtags. And why, in independent India has the siren of materialistic artifact been so compelling as to induce the amnesia to the wisdom of ages past? Why, having cast off the colonial regimentation of industrial empire has India elected to chase the fleeting futility of even greater triviality?
The answer, in part, lies in the unquoted Apology. And there’s a bit of irony here. When Socrates stated that he would rather die speaking his understanding than conform and live, he wasn’t being melodramatic or forming an argument. In fact, he recognized that to acquiesce to what he knew to be untrue and inconsistent with observable reality was as much death as drinking hemlock for speaking out in a manner so compelling that those around him, “deliberately attached themselves” to him “because they enjoy hearing other people cross-questioned” (the origin of the concept of Socratic learning). The unrighteousness to which Socrates referred was the willingness to adopt consensus in the evident face of its fallacy. Preceding Gregory Bateson’s theory of the psychopathology of what he called the Double Bind (in which schizophrenia results from serially observing reality and seeing trusted persons or the crowd act in what appears to be diametric opposition to, or ignorance thereof), Socrates could not tolerate living in a world in which consensus error was reinforced by mercenaries while inquiry and truth were castigated.
Socrates used as evidence of his character his commitment to the transmission of knowledge for free.
“If you doubt whether I am really the sort of person who would have been sent to this city as a gift from God, you can convince yourselves by looking at it in this way. Does it seem natural that I should have neglected my own affairs and endured the humiliation of allowing my family to be neglected for all these years, while I busied myself all the time on your behalf, going like a father or an elder brother to see each one of you privately, and urging you to set your thoughts on goodness? If I had got any enjoyment from it, or if I had been paid for my good advice, there would have been some explanation for my conduct, but as it is you can see for yourselves that although my accusers unblushingly charge me with all sorts of other crimes, there is one thing that they have not had the impudence to pretend on any testimony, and that is that I have ever exacted or asked a fee from anyone. The witness that I can offer to prove the truth of my statement is, I think, a convincing one – my poverty.”
The notion that wisdom and its acquisition cannot be defiled with monetary compensation opens a more poignant inquiry into the phenomenon I witnessed in the rituals of Brahman priests. Education – conventionally thought to be the orderly conveyance of knowledge, skills, practices, and norms from one generation to the next – has transformed over time and with it wisdom has been subordinated to technical proficiency to qualify for rent wages mandated by the industrial age. Value in the transmission of knowledge for the sake of considered inquiry has fallen victim to the opiate of employment. Proficiency and competency have replaced mastery and transcendence. Why? Because we can measure the unit output of trained automatons in monetary rents while we have no conventional mechanism to attribute value to the genius or idiot outlier. And, by the way, this unit of mercantile productivity includes what was once considered sacred. I was told by several of my fellow wedding goers that the Brahman caste once shunned money to the point of refusing to come into contact with it. Now, in the middle of rites, the officiating priests were interrupting the event with overt cash exchanges. Is it any wonder that a social order that has chosen to defile their own priestly class with commercialism has become untethered from the agency of its heritable essence?
Millennia from Socrates’ celebrated embrace of monetary poverty for the wealth of wisdom and its transmission, post-independence India (like many others), has adopted the language of consensus powers rather than exporting its heritable wisdom inclusive of all of its intricacies and nuances. Ringtones now replace mantras and this is a mark of success. Why? Because having ‘things’ has become more important than examining the essence of life. Education for job placement is celebrated above incarnating and transmitting persistent, unfathomable wisdom. And this is happening exactly at a point in the arc of the mercantile industrial paradigm where its utilitarian deficiencies are becoming glaringly obvious.
As the wedding crowd waned, a group of recent graduates from some of India’s finest schools approached me to ask me how I became a ‘successful’ entrepreneur. After disavowing the title in its conventional use, I went on to explain the dimensionality of wealth that I describe using the optics of Integral Accounting. These young men – all in their early to mid-20s – were enlivened by a conversation that included topics like my involvement with the National Innovation Foundation, the Global Innovation Commons, grass-roots initiatives around the world, quantitative text-based trading algorithms, and innovation-based, productivity-linked capital solutions.
“Why aren’t we taught about these things in business school,” several asked, their faces evidencing a yearning for greater purpose?
As I reflect on our exchange, I realize that these young men, like me, want to live vibrant, examined lives. Sure, we want to be productive and be capable of interacting in many dimensions of life. But we don’t have the School of Athens. We don’t get to “attach” to our Socrates with whom we can “cross-question” and learn. In a generation and a half, their world has done its best to diminish what millennia of wisdom sought to build. Until We The People actually end the rush towards automated digital consensus, we run the risk of deepening our version of the European Dark Ages. It’s high time some of us step up and evidence an alternative: one that seeks to gain knowledge rather than train; to collaborate rather than prevail. Starting today, read something from a field about which you think you know nothing and find out how great it feels to exercise your mind. Speak to someone from a different culture or language and find the joy in imperfect communication with perfect intention. See your world through the smoke of rites and flavored with all the spices of a palate that’s as foreign as you can imagine. Examine your life and in so doing, we may rekindle the joy of unfettered learning and thereby forge a More Perfect Union.