The unexamined life

Imagine one friend gives another an amazing piece of Arabic calligraphy, framed under glass and bordered in ornate, gold leaf filigree. It is so beautiful that the friend decides to mount it in the center of his living room wall as the main piece in the room. The bold, black lines curve left and right, forming the image of a woman’s hair as it flows down to the bottom of the page.

I visit this friend and ask him, “What does it say?” He replies, “What does it matter? It’s so gorgeous, just looking at it is enough for me.”

Life is a lot like this. There is so much beauty – in the pretty faces, the grand ideas, the intricate systems of complex harmony – I often myself simply looking on in rapture. In those moments the sight itself is enough; the experience of perception seems like the essence of all life has to offer.

Then someone comes along who has spent the time and effort to learn Arabic. He stands in the friend’s house and says, “Do you know what’s written on that tablet?” The friend has no idea; he knows it only as a thing of beauty, worthy of admiration. The Arabist turns to him in surprise, “How long has it been here?” “A few years or so.” “You never thought to seek a translation?”, he asks. The friend answers, “Does it really matter? It sits on the wall so nicely, I thought it made a better use for it than reading it!”

The Arabist turns back to the hanging script. “Well, though you don’t seem too interested, what you have on your wall reads: ’There are ten bars of gold in the hollow oak, to reward the curious.” The two go out and sure enough, there is the gold. “This doesn’t take away from the beauty of the tablet,” says the Arabist, “but learning how to read it would have been a double benefit. Now you can enjoy both the form and intent.”

I’ve talked with people in my life who say similar things about life. When I speak of mystical realities they say, “Why bother with all these laws and exercises? The joys of my life are enough for me.” Yet Plato wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Not because an ignorant life has no beauty, but because, when placed next to the life that could be ours, it fades away in comparison. Why not reap the double benefit of significance and signifier?