Philosophy 11 - 1.3.1 “The Life Which Is Unexamined Is Not Worth Living”

After Socrates is convicted and has a chance to address the jury to persuade them to offer him a sentence or punishment other than death, he considers and then rejects the idea of exile. If he lived in exile, Socrates believed he would no longer be able to carry on his work as a philosopher because a foreign city would be even less welcoming of his strange questioning than his hometown. In speaking about this alternative, he says the following:

Someone will say: “Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you?” Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living—that you are still less likely to believe. (Plato, Apology)

This idea—that a life that is “unexamined” is not worth living—strikes at the heart of what Socrates tells us motivates him to live a philosophical life. The statement ought to make us pause and reflect, not only because Socrates himself demonstrates his commitment to a particular kind of life, to the point of accepting death, but also because the charge that an unexamined life is not worth living rightly seems like such a serious thing. To have lived a life that is not worth living: What could be worse? Given the stakes, we ought to wonder, what does Socrates mean by an unexamined life? Or, alternatively, what would it look like to examine one’s life in the appropriate way?

Examination of the Self

The first form of examination that Socrates clearly advises is self-examination. At the temple to the oracle at Delphi, one of three maxims engraved in stone is the phrase “know thyself.” Like most oracular statements, it is not clear what is meant by this phrase. Plato suggests it may be a kind of warning to those who enter the oracle: “Know your position relative to the gods!” Alternatively, it may be a command to understand your own nature and your own mind before you seek to understand other people or the things of the world. Based on our reading of Socrates’s life and works, we can assume that he considers this saying to be a command to investigate our beliefs and knowledge, to appreciate the limits of our own knowledge, and to strive to eliminate inconsistencies. After all, Socrates’s method of questioning as it is described in Plato’s dialogues (and as Socrates himself describes in the excerpted passage) is exactly such an inquiry.

Socrates questions others about whether their beliefs are consistent and whether they have adequate justification for the beliefs they hold. This line of questioning suggests that Socrates holds such consistency and internal justification in high regard. We can imagine that Socrates considers an unexamined life to be one in which a person holds beliefs without justification or holds beliefs that are inconsistent with one another. We may then speculate that an unexamined is not worth living because it is dictated by beliefs and ideas that have never been tested, justified, or accounted for. You might respond that endless questioning is boring or difficult, or you may respond that “ignorance is bliss.” For a philosopher, this attitude is not only undesirable, but it also approaches irrationality. It seems that, whatever makes life worth living for creatures capable of rational thought, a minimum requirement is that we believe things worth believing in, hold positions we can defend, and understand why we do what we do. To do that, we need to engage in self-examination.

A gestural drawing in brown pen and ink wash shows four people sitting at a table. One speaks and reaches out a hand while the other three listen intently.
Figure 1.9 This image depicts Socrates in deep conversation with Athenian statesman Alciabiades, Athenian politician and orator Pericles, and Aspasia, a well-known Milesian woman who gained political and philosophical influence as Pericles’ romantic partner. (credit: “Drawing, Socrates, Pericles, Alcibiades, Aspasia in Discussion” by Felice Giani/Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Public Domain)

Examination of Nature

Even though Socrates himself did not develop an account of nature and the cosmos like many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, we may imagine that living an examined life requires us to understand the world around us. Socrates himself was well aware of the various natural philosophical accounts that were prominent in his day. Plato frequently records Socrates quoting or citing another philosopher’s account of the planets and stars, natural change, or other natural phenomenon when he is questioning others. Indeed, several of the dialogues place Socrates in conversations about the nature of the soul, the nature of causality, the classification of animals and plants, and so forth, all of which could fall under the examination of nature. Why might such a process of examination be important for a life worth living? We might speculate that it is important for us remain curious. The capacity to reason gives human beings the ability to investigate how things work—to discover truths about the world around them. Neglecting that drive to understand the world around us is like neglecting a natural skill. Methods of philosophical reflection can help us make sense of the world around us. Such investigation is characteristic of the ancient philosophers and may be considered part of a life worth living.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax