Are You Truly Living by Your Values?

The Death of Socrates Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748–1825) 1787 Oil on canvas; 51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm) Accused by the Athenian government of denying the gods and corrupting the young through his teachings, Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) was offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or being sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. David shows him calmly discoursing on the immortality of the soul with his grief-stricken disciples. Painted in 1787 the picture, with its stoic theme, is perhaps David's most perfect Neoclassical statement. The printmaker and publisher John Boydell wrote to Sir Joshua Reynolds that it was "the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanze of Raphael. . . . This work would have done honour to Athens at the time of Pericles." The subject is loosely based on Plato's "Phaedo," but in painting it David consulted a variety of sources, including Diderot's treatise on dramatic poetry of 1758 and works by the poet André Chenier. The pose of the figure at the foot of the bed was reportedly inspired by a passage in a novel by the English writer Richardson. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931 (31.45) ** The Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection contains more than two million works of art from around the world. It opened its doors on February 20, 1872, housed in a building located at 681 Fifth Avenue in New York City. Under their guidance of John Taylor Johnston and George Palmer Putnam, the Met's holdings, initially consisting of a Roman stone sarcophagus and 174 mostly European paintings, quickly outgrew the available space. In 1873, occasioned by the Met's purchase of the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot antiquities, the museum decamped from Fifth Avenue and took up residence at the Douglas Mansion on West 14th Street. However, these new accommodations were temporary; after negotiations with the city of New York, the Met acquired land on the east side of Central Park, where it built its permanent home, a red-brick Gothic Revival stone "mausoleum" designed by American architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mold. As of 2006, the Met measures almost a quarter mile long and occupies more than two million square feet, more than 20 times the size of the original 1880 building. In 2007, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was ranked #17 on the AIA 150 America's Favorite Architecture list. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1967. The interior was designated in 1977. National Historic Register #86003556
The Death of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David , 1787

There is only one currency for which all these tokens of ours should be exchanged, and that is wisdom. In fact, it is wisdom that makes possible courage and self-control and integrity or, in a word, true goodness, and the presence or absence of pleasures and fears and other such feelings makes no difference at all, whereas a system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.

~Socrates

Many scholars have argued that Socrates strove to be a completely logical and pragmatic man who had a general disdain for emotions, and saw no true value in basing one’s decisions, and thus life, on such fickle impulses.

That may be true, but he was also human, and my guess is that he also understood that to be human is to feel,  AND that there is difference between those emotions based on little or no reason, and those based firmly in reality.

I believe that this is what the above quote is all about. He cites wisdom as the ultimate goal, which then leads to a skillful way of life, and “true goodness.” In short, he sounds like a Buddhist.

In Buddhism, true wisdom can only be gained through insight. And true insight can only be gained through experience. More specifically, the experience of seeing reality as it truly is. Mind you, this is no small task.

Still, the Buddha’s teachings are not exactly what I want to talk about though they serve as an appropriate and perhaps necessary (for me) preamble for my main point.

The key statement in the quote is that “a system of morality based upon relative emotional values is a mere illusion.” Emotional values as Socrates sees it are those values not rooted in experiential, and therefore rational, experience, or wisdom.

Yet, I do not think what he is saying is that one should live without values. I believe he is challenging us to discover our own values based upon scrutiny of each of our individual realities.

In fact, I was having this conversation with a good friend of mine just the other day, because this concept of values is something I’ve been mulling over a lot lately. My friend took mild exception with the term “value,” only because that word can be so subjective. I agree.

So call it something else, or don’t name it. What has become clear to me, is that whether I realize it or not, the decisions I make are firmly rooted in some value or lack thereof.

So, I sat down, and I wrote. I wrote an extensive list of things that are truly important to me in this life. And long story short, I managed to narrow down my three core values.

I won’t share them today, or maybe ever on this blog because for anyone else, they will simply be words. And the meaning of those words will vary from reader to reader.

What’s important is that it came as quite a surprise to myself that some of the decisions I had been making on a consistent basis, whether small or large, were not in line with some of my values. I found that these actions also tend to be the more unskillful things I do.

I very much believe that one’s greatest fulfillment and goodness can only be achieved through clear intentions based in clear values. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but it seems that if we commit to those values, the often useless and irrational emotions like instant pleasure or fear begin to dissipate.

Then, the way is clear, and illumination is imminent.

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Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained singer and actor living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.

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