The Unexamined Life

Everything has to have an origin story. For some reason, it doesn’t matter very much whether the story makes any sense or whether a nine-year-old girl would be fooled by it, what matters is that there is a story to be told. The tobacco factory in Durham, North Carolina has an origin story, according to which, W. T. Blackwell, the founder of the factory, thought that Colman’s mustard was made in Durham, England, so he borrowed the bull from their label and attached it to his tobacco factory and called it Bull Durham Tobacco.

Sports teams in Durham, and for the purposes of this article that means baseball teams, minor league baseball teams, then took the name and are known as the Durham Bulls. A film, ostensibly about just such a team, was then called Bull Durham (1988).

In the film, “Crash” Davies (Kevin Costner) is a minor league baseball player and has been for a long time. He once got to the majors but it didn’t last long and he is conflicted between pining wistfully for his few moments in the spotlight whilst being resigned to the certainty that his baseball life will end largely un-noticed in the minor leagues. The one thing he thinks he can do is prevent other players from making the same mistakes he made, which is why he is signed to the Durham Bulls to mentor their star pitcher, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) who has a million dollar arm and a five cent brain. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who preaches at the church of baseball, comes between them, and the film is as much about the boys competing with each other for her attention as it is about them cooperating with each other to get “Nuke” to the major league.

Towards the end of the film Crash, out on the road with the team, hits his 247th minor league home run, a record that goes largely un-noticed, exactly as Crash expected. At home in Durham, Annie tells us in a voice over that she knew the moment he hit it, though the sports papers never mentioned it. Then she quotes a line of poetry, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air. Thomas Grey,” she says.

This is an accurate quote from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Grey, published in 1751. It is an elegy in name only, more similar to an ode, it embodies a meditation on death, on the unknown lives of those buried in the churchyard, and thoughts on how we each approach death and are remembered after death. In this context Annie means to draw attention to the unseen nature of Crash’s achievement, and that it not being acknowledged does not diminish it in any way, which can be thought of as similar to the unknown lives of the obscure rustic persons buried in Grey’s churchyard. Their lives are not less noble or meaningful for being hidden from us. A thought that seems at face value to contrast with a line from the Greek philosopher Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Not a lot is known about Socrates, about the context in which he said these words and whether or not they are meant to be taken literally, and I am certainly not scholar enough to debate philosophy with Socrates, but I think it possible to draw some sensible conclusions.

Socrates was, I think, talking about the life of a human being. He didn’t mean that a beetle or a seal should examine its life, or that the life of a horse was not worth living because it went unexamined. He was talking about the life of a moral being, a person capable of making ethical choices and of knowing right from wrong. He was, I think, saying that if we do not make those choices by examining ourselves and questioning our motives and our morality then our lives as moral beings are effectively no more purposeful than those of the beetle, the seal or the horse.

Whenever I consider this thought of Socrates I am minded to think about the tens of millions of young men who have joined their nation’s military to, in many cases, fight a war they do not understand against an enemy they do not know. I am not suggesting the young men are blind fools, merely that comprehending the real reason their country is at war requires a level of political and philosophical engagement rarely seen in the young, and that would, in any event, require information normally not available to them, or to you and me for that matter.

Take the First World War, for example. An Austrian duke called Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open car on his way to the town hall in a place called Sarajevo where he got shot by a man called Gavrilo Princip, one of six assassins. Within weeks, most of Europe was at war and it doesn’t, I suggest, require any stretch of the imagination to suppose that the majority of the millions of men who died in that war had no idea what started it or what they were really fighting for.

A Serbian shot an Austrian, as a consequence of which English soldiers gathered in a ditch in France where they were shot, bombed, and gassed to death by Germans. In their millions. If it were not such a tragic waste of human life it could almost be the plot for a political satire.

My point is that if the men do not have available the information that would help them make the moral or ethical choice then their choice is not being made along the lines identified by Socrates. Which, he seems to be saying, suggests that their lives are not worth living and that their sacrifice is therefore pointless.

Thomas Grey said that the lives of the noble rustic labourers buried in the country churchyard were not rendered any less by us not knowing who they were or what they had done or how they had done it. Socrates appears to be saying that even though we know who those millions of young men were, and how they got into that ditch, and why they died there, their lives were not worth living simply because their choices had not been made morally or ethically. It seems to me that Grey and Socrates cannot both be right.

The American author John Williams (1922 – 1994) wrote a novel on this theme. Stoner (1965) is an immersive study of the life of one man who in many ways can be equated with Grey’s rustic persons who lead noble but simple and largely unobserved lives. By the end of the novel we know quite a lot about John Stoner and we have shared with him the ups and downs of his life in a story told in a language that both takes your breath away and insistently urges you to keep turning the pages. It is a one-sit read, an unputdownable novel that quietly but urgently requires the reader to answer the question of whether Grey was right, or was Socrates right. The very special quality of Williams’ writing is that unlike both Thomas Grey and Socrates, he doesn’t tell you the answer. Instead, he gives you everything you need to know to decide the matter for yourself.

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