When Socrates was put on trial for corrupting Athen’s youth, he was adamant that he wouldn’t change his ways. Socrates felt compelled to “fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men”. He explained that “examining myself and others is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living”. Of course, the Athenian court wasn’t convinced and they sentenced him to death. And, reading the Apology of Socrates, I have to say that I myself wasn’t fully convinced by the great man’s words. Looking within may certainly be of immense use to us, but it is not itself the ‘thing’. Searching within may reveal the secret of happiness, but it is not, in and of itself, the secret of happiness.
In defence of Socrates
Of course, introspection is of great value, arguably even more today than it was in ancient Greece 2,400 years ago. Modern life can drown us in a sea of noise if we are not careful. Indeed, my own work is centred around the idea of looking-within in order to more deeply understand ourselves and our worlds. So, far from corrupting the youth, Socrates was inviting them to pay more attention to their deeper beliefs and how they live. A very good thing indeed!
Yet, there is also the danger of having too much of a good thing. The danger of turning introspection into some ultimate virtue. Searching within can certainly help us to live better. To cultivate wisdom so that we can better navigate the complexities of life. And, for some (like myself) it may even be a source of fascination and entertainment — an activity like music, that is done for its own sake. Yet, there is no ultimate virtue in it, and to make such a claim, is folly.
While I would have been on Socrates’ side in court, I would have also had a private word with him. I would have raised how clinging to introspection can be as problematic as ignoring it. For, we can end up turning it into some kind of ‘achievement’, and chasing achievement is the enemy of contentment.
What is the secret of happiness?
The human tendency is to look for happiness in the extraordinary, when the secret of happiness lies in embracing the ordinary. In embracing the joy of the everyday. For, if you can’t find happiness simply having a coffee under a tree, you are not going to find it having an orgy on a yacht.
Luckily, much of life involves doing precisely that — enjoying the everyday. Enjoying time with our loved ones and doing everyday things that interest you. The problem arises when you start to doubt that this is enough. When you start believing that you need to do something bigger and better to feel good about yourself. And, so it becomes self-fulfilling. Because you believe you need to prove yourself with more— more career success, status, spiritual attainment or whatever — you end up not feeling good about yourself!
Hiding in plain sight
The secret of happiness is that it is readily available, now, if you allow yourself to experience it. What makes it elusive is that it hides in plain sight, in the beauty of the everyday. That reminds me of an old Zen koan.
When a Zen master was asked “Who is the Buddha?” — ‘Buddha’ here being shorthand for ultimate truth or ultimate reality — he simply pointed at a tree and walked away.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.