“Greek civilization was undermined by a sophistical excess of speculation which, calling in question the bases of ordered human existence, proved fatal to the permanence of all public and private relations and duties.” (William Samuel Lilly, On Shibboleths, 1892)
“They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves in seeming knowledge . . .” (Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, 1604-1605)
That “an unexamined life is not worth living” is neither self-evident nor suggested by experience, and this is so even if we follow Socrates and stipulate “not worth living for a man.” I have known many a man whose self-examination proceeded no further than a close inspection of his reflection in the glass, but who nevertheless found life highly satisfactory and very much worth living. And I knew one man who followed the advice of the old gadfly, opened the hood, inspected the machinery, and then fell into a despair that he ended by suicide. My poor friend fell to the mischief that is caused by what Wordsworth called the “meddling intellect.”
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.
When I examine my life, I ask not only what it is, but also why it is so. I ask how I came to live in this place? to practice this trade? to wed this spouse? to know these friends? to cherish these treasures? to scorn this trash? And what my meddling intellect discovers is that intellect is a very small part of the answer. My life was not built like a house after a plan. It accumulated like a logjam in a river. And, until my meddling intellect asked these questions, I had thought the form of my life “beauteous.”
When a society holds itself up to criticism, it asks the same questions and comes to the same melancholy conclusion. How did we come to inhabit this territory? to pursue these livelihoods? to be this people? to espouse this creed? Intellect finds it was by accident, happenstance and arbitrary choice. We are a logjam, not a house. And, until the meddling intellect asked these questions, we had thought the form our collective life “beauteous.”
A rationalist will tell you to bite the bullet and take dissection like a man, because there is for him no truth outside a bloody pile of gore. But he has ensconced himself in what Shakespeare called “seeming knowledge,” and his sour scrapple stinks beside the sweet lore that nature brings.