I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things.
Socrates, Plato’s Apology
Trying to live a good life, you spend your days deliberating about hard questions. There is no way around this. As you grow older the issues do not become easier—in fact it seems the contrary, but perhaps we grow more capable of thinking clearly about them. Perhaps.
We all have principles. Whether consciously by intention or unconsciously by haphazard, our reasoning proceeds from particular starting points and givens. What these principles are makes all the difference in our decisions and so in our life.
Hard times—whether societally, personally, or both—put extra pressure on our discernment. What am I to do? How do I address this challenge and that one? What if I choose wrongly, as I often have before?
Socrates was a master life-coach. He was well aware that life is the art of the possible; that is, that we can only make the most of the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves. He also had confidence that what is possible is always something profoundly beautiful.
My making earnest and honest choices this day, the fruit of persevering deliberation, is in my power. And the power of such choices for good is incomparable.
One begins with self-examination and self-knowledge. Why and how do I make the decisions I do? What hidden principles might be it work in my reasoning—perhaps principles stemming from selfishness, hurt, or fear—that undermine my responding well to life?
And then Socrates offers an overarching principle. It does not remove the need for other and more specific principles. But it gives context and guidance for discovering and enacting them.
Act as though the more important things are indeed more important.
So much wisdom in one proposition. So many implications unfold before our eyes. So many mistakes or follies immediately exposed. It can take our breath away. And it can breathe life into our ailing efforts.
Have we sacrificed richer goods out of what seemed a legitimate desire for a lower good—something for example pertaining to health or wealth? Such is understandable. It is also remediable.
Again, taking this principle to heart does not immediately answer all questions. But it does assure that we are asking the right questions. And further, it sets us up to discover an astounding truth: putting first things first is precisely how to treat secondary things well.
In other words, to treat the higher as higher is itself the basis for seeing and treating all other things rightly. And so remarkably, inexorably, when we strive to put first things first, we discover that all else is added unto us, besides.
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Here is a brief video that is the culmination of the Concepts Made Clear mini-series on leisure:
Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.