Book Review: Living an Examined Life
Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For Socrates, to know and understand oneself would give meaning to life.
In the case of Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, author James Hollis helps readers to examine their lives by visiting 21 different aspects of the self through self-inquiry. The book jacket suggests that the book is useful for anyone “at a crossroads in life,” but it seems that this kind of introspection would be valuable for any mature person, at any stage of life.
Hollis confronts readers with important life themes, and raises interesting questions about our institutions, our parents and upbringing, and the many rules we follow, often blindly, throughout our lives. On happiness, which is considered by many to be the primary goal in life, Hollis claims that “the happiness metric is a poor measure of a life. What abides, in my view, is meaning.” Strong stuff.
Throughout the book, Hollis challenges conventional thinking. He seeks to challenge the attitudes of people who haven’t really thought much about why they go about their lives in the ways that they do, and who choose instead to just proceed, as always, without ever questioning.
The chapters are short and come in around only about 5 pages each. This is purposeful, says Hollis. He chose to make chapters short enough to absorb all of what is in them, and advises readers to read only a chapter a day so that they might reflect on the material and really focus on that topic. That is good advice, though the shortness of each chapter makes it tempting to keep reading.
Living an Examined Life is a book that one should hold onto after finishing and refer back to from time to time. Our lives endure continual change, and some of these changes may cause us to lose sight of the things that are most dear to us. Re-reading selected chapters may help us to become grounded, time and time again.
Hollis makes the point that we have accepted roles in life that are typically considered to require adult behavior, even when we not be all that mature (at least privately).
“How is it that we play all these mature roles, and yet know, in our heart of hearts, that we still have to grow up?” Hollis asks.
Throughout life we may find that we are sometimes in a position to be responsible for something important, but have inner doubts about our readiness to handle it.
Hollis also opens up an interesting dialogue about our ability to allow our children to become their own people, and how damaging it can be if we do not do that. Our own baggage from childhood or what we have learned from our parents may ultimately create barriers for our children. This has the potential to be both detrimental and unfair.
James Hollis challenges readers to think hard about how we face life, and the ways in which we interact with all of the people we may influence. He isn’t demanding perfection, but, he has identified behavior traits that, if examined, may help readers to lead a more fulfilling and authentic life.
I think Living an Examined Life could be enjoyed by people in various stages of life, as well as professionals who are helping others to find their true identities.
I enjoyed reading Living an Examined Life, and I think others will too, especially if they are ready to question certain aspects of their lives that have gone unexplored for a very long time.
The Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey
James Hollis, PhD
Paperback, 144 pages