“We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.”
Albert Camus points out that we “get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.”
We are born, we find ourselves in the world, in a community, full of meaning, practices, and traditions. Before we are able to think for ourselves, before we are fully conscious and self-aware, before we form our first memories, the processes of socialization and social conditioning have already started to influence us. We are taught to view the world a certain way, to see things from a certain perspective, well before we even understand that other points of view, other interpretations, are possible.
An individual might, for example, grow up in a religious household. They might spend their formative years in a family that values achievements and markers of success. Their early years might be filled with people telling them that they need to go to college, or that they need to earn high marks in school, or…
In truth, it doesn’t matter what your specific circumstances happened to be. That fact is, we are all influenced by outside factors, social practices, social pressures, expectations, and norms. We start to formulate a picture of the world, of how we should act and behave—we “get into the habit of living”—well before we start actually thinking about what life means, about what we value, and about what matters to us.
“We get into the habit of living,” of doing things a certain way, of being in the world, without ever stopping to consider whether the life we are living is right for us. When we live our lives without thinking about life, our own goals, hopes, and values may not necessarily be a reflection of what we actually want, hope for, or value.
our own goals, hopes, and values may not necessarily be a reflection of what we actually want, hope for, or value…
Camus points out that a “world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world.” Even when we recognize that the values and meanings we’ve adopted aren’t right for us, we nevertheless hold onto them simply because the prospect of changing, of thinking for ourselves, is too daunting.
In the modern, technological world, where information is passed from screen to screen instantaneously, finding the time and the quiet needed to think is a challenge in and of itself. There is always noise, a seeming infinite number of possible distractions, and all of these reaffirm certain values and ways of looking at things.
Socrates said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” He suggests that it is only through examination, through self-reflection and thinking, that life is worthwhile.
If we want to live a good life, to live our own life, then we need to start making time to think, to reflect, and we need to start taking our lives seriously.
Make time for self-reflection and self-examination. Make time to think about the life you are living and whether it reflects the values that actually matter to you. Focus first on what you think before worrying about what others think.
In the end, this is your life, and only you can live it. But you must acquire “the habit of thinking” before you can start living your own life…a worthwhile life.
Plato begins his dialogue, Meno, abruptly. Meno poses the following question to Socrates right at the outset: “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” Meno believes he understands virtue and what it entails. He admits as much to Socrates: “I have made many speeches about virtue before large audiences on a thousand occasions, very good speeches I thought.”
After a relatively short debate with Socrates, however, Meno begins to doubt his own knowledge. He doubts whether he actually knows what he thought he knew.
“Socrates, before I even met you I used to hear that you are always in a state of perplexity and that you bring others to the same state, and now I think you are bewitching and beguiling me…so that I am quite perplexed…now I cannot even say what [virtue] is.”
In Meno, like so many of Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates is able to demonstrate to someone that they don’t possess the knowledge they thought they possessed.
Plato reminds us that all learning, all growth begins when we admit that we don’t know everything.
Socrates readily admits his own ignorance in Plato’s dialogues. I’ve always found this interesting and appealing. Socrates is not some divine authority with all the answers; rather, he is portrayed, as he is—a man who is curious, who wants to know the truth and who has committed himself to the search, but who by no means knows everything. (See my related article, The Importance of Exploration and Experimentation, here.)
If Socrates did know everything, what would be the point of pursuing truth, of engaging in all the interesting debates he gets himself involved in? He admits to Meno that he doesn’t know what virtue is and hasn’t met anyone who does. (Check out my article, What is Virtue?, here.)
“Not only [do I not know what virtue is], my friend, but also that, as I believe, I have never yet met anyone else who did know.”
All learning, all growth begins when we admit that we don’t know everything.
We take for granted that the world is a certain way, or that we understand how things are, and yet when we are pushed to give a clear account we fail to explain what we claim to know. Why do we so often refuse to admit that we don’t know something or that what we know is perhaps not the whole story?
Plato’s dialogues demonstrate the importance of admitting what we don’t know. They demonstrate the role curiosity and perplexity play in fostering a desire to know, to understand, and to explore the world around us. Learning, growth—really any sort of advancement or development—requires being open to new possibilities, new ideas, and a willingness to explore the world around you.
(To learn more, see my related article, Are Hobbies Important?, here.)
Our world expands when we admit we don’t know something. Conviction creates a narrow world, one where only one interpretation is permitted.
The road to truth is paved in trial and error, in experimentation, and requires an open mind to navigate it effectively. We should all learn to be a little less certain, to cultivate the wonder and curiosity that expands our world, and to rediscover the love of knowledge and learning that permits self-growth and development.
We should learn to get comfortable in a state of perplexity.
“I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing; but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing.”
The other day, my class and I discussed the first part of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I highly recommend it if you are unfamiliar with it. It is a truly unique work, one that manages to both challenge and entertain the reader in unexpected ways.
In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky questions the classical view of the Western Tradition. The classical view puts reason, intellect, on a pedestal and defines humans and their worth solely in terms of it. Dostoevsky takes issue with this view because it defines man only in terms of reason and ignores all other aspects of being human, of being a person.
Through reason we strive to make things regular, comfortable, communicable, and knowable. We apply concepts, we group things, we make judgments, and we classify things in the world so that we feel secure and can grasp what we experience. This causes us to ignore particulars in favor of generalizations.
When we think of a dog, for instance, we think of a generic conception of a dog, not the unique individual dogs that exist. Likewise, when we think of a pine tree, we think of a generic concept of a pine tree not the unique pine trees that exist in the world.
On the one hand, this is an excellent skill and a useful tool. It makes us capable of quickly identifying, classifying, and comparing things in the world. On the other, it is potentially dangerous because in seeking similarities and in making things similar we overlook the particular individuals and unique specimens that actually do exist.
Reason’s drive to conceptualize also has negative implications for us. We employ the same tactics on ourselves and other human beings that we do on everything else in the world. In doing so, we group, classify, and make similar what is, in actuality, unique and different.
During an election year, for instance, many of us group fellow citizens by political party affiliation. We begin to act as if society is comprised only of republicans and democrats rather than individuals who have complex, nuanced views and positions. We strip the world of its uniqueness and diversity in our attempts to make it intelligible. We, in short, generalize.
The main problem is that when we think of ourselves as primarily rational creatures, our generalizations and conceptualizations are, as it were, turned against us. In our attempt to understand ourselves, to make ourselves intelligible and to be part of the world—to live above ground—we apply self-concepts and limit ourselves in the process. We conceive of ourselves as conforming to standards and ideas and in doing so we lose the unique, particular individual we are.
Dostoevsky captures this nicely when he writes: “I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing; but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing.” Rational concepts and perspectives are an “excellent thing.” We can communicate, understand, know, and conceptualize our world. We can make sense of things and find security and comfort in the process.
The problem, however, is that focusing only on reason causes us to ignore our full development as unique individuals. We ignore or deny our emotions, we ignore our physiological responses because these sorts of things are not rational, they are not transferrable, not communicable in the world that reason dominates. The underground man must live underground because he cannot be an individual above ground. Above ground he must be something society understands, he must conform and become a part of the social world. In doing so, he loses himself as a particular.
Society pushes us to conform through socialization, social conditioning, social pressures, norms, and standards. The social is a celebration of the world reason has created, not the individuals we are. When we communicate, for example, we must subsume our particularity under a generic, universal concept in order to be understood.
(See my related article on Kierkegaard and finding our own path.)
Consider the seemingly simple act of expressing your love for someone. You find yourself in a situation where you have intense feelings for another person. The other person cannot know what you as a particular individual experience when you feel love for them. To communicate your love, you must take the unique, particular experience that you identify and subsume it under a generic concept that conveys the general idea. The moment we communicate something we strip everything truly unique and particular away to convey some basic, generic idea to the other, to the world.
When Dostoevsky says that “two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing,” he means that rejecting the rationalizations, rejecting the push to conform and expressing one’s unique self is also a most charming thing. As individuals we should find ways to realize our individuality, to realize ourselves.
What we learn from Dostoevsky is that to develop as a whole person, to realize our authentic selves, we must sometimes seek the underground where we can be ourselves and occasionally affirm that “two times two equals five is also a most charming little thing.”
In Notes from Underground, we are reminded that reason is an excellent thing, that our higher cognitive faculties are wonderful and make so much possible, but that, in the end, it is only reason and not in any way representative of the whole person, the individual. To spend time underground is to spend time with oneself, away from the social pressures and demand to be understandable. If we become more self-aware, we might learn how to start doing what will, in the end, result in our full self-expression and self-development.
When we spend time underground, we realize that…
“reason…is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life—that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches.”
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“Without [earnestness of spirit], you may succeed in accomplishing a great deal, even in astounding the world (for I am not stingy), and yet you will miss out on the highest, on the only thing that truly gives life meaning; you may win the whole world and lose yourself.”
Humans are social creatures. Social pressures push us to conform to society’s norms, values, and standards. Kierkegaard recognized that conformity causes us to ignore our true self. Even if we are successful, wealthy, and powerful—even if we “win the whole world”—we may still lose ourselves.
Kierkegaard’s view, like the adage to take the road less traveled, reminds us that in life we should find our own path, one that allows us to realize our individual, unique self. When we determine the life that is right for us, we take responsibility for our lives and the choices we make. Our life has greater meaning because we are more invested and in control.
Do you agree with Kierkegaard? Is there a connection between living authentically and finding happiness?
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