the unexamined life is not worth livingSocrates (Plato, 1997, 33)
The unexamined life is not worth living is perhaps Socrates’ most famous quote and Socrates is perhaps the most widely known figure of philosophy. The words though don’t only belong to Socrates they also belong to his student Plato who wrote them.
The quote comes from Plato’s Apology, apologia in Greek, which in legal proceedings means defence speech. Plato’s Apology is a representation of Socrates real trial of 399 B.C. (2420 years ago) and although it can’t be known what was said at the trial, Plato’s version exists to ask some difficult philosophical questions.
Socrates stands accused of practising a mode of philosophy – socratic questioning – which his accusers claim “makes the worse argument the stronger”, teaches about “things in the sky and things below the earth”, and does not “believe in the gods” so is “corrupting the young”.
Despite Socrates defence the majority of the 501 jurors find him guilty, with one of his accusers (Meletus) calling for a death sentence. This is why Plato’s Apology is also known as the “The Death of Socrates”.
Unsurprised the 70 year old Socrates ponders an appropriate sentence by asking the jurors a difficult question
Clearly it should be a penalty I deserve, and what do I deserve to suffer or to pay because I have deliberately not led a quiet life but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city?
I thought myself too honest to survive if I occupied myself with those things. I did not follow that path that would have made me of no use either to you or to myself, but I went to each of you privately and conferred upon him what I say is the greatest benefit, by trying to persuade him not to care for any of his belongings before caring that he himself should be as good and as wise as possible, not to care for the city’s possessions more than for the city itself, and to care for other things in the same way. What do I deserve for being such a man?
The unexamined life is not worth living in context
In Plato’s recount Socrates says the unexamined life is not worth living as a response to what he calls the slanders of the city against him. The extract below is from Plato’s Apology and begins around line 37. The jury gives its verdict of guilty, and Meletus asks for the penalty of death to which Socrates replies:
I am convinced that I never willingly wrong anyone, but I am not convincing you of this, for we have talked together but a short time. If it were the law with us, as it is elsewhere, that a trial for life should not last one but many days, you would be convinced, but now it is not easy to dispel great slanders in a short time.
Since I am convinced that I wrong no one, I am not likely to wrong myself, to say that I deserve some evil and to make some such assessment against myself.
What should I fear? That I should suffer the penalty Meletus has assessed against me, of which I say I do not know whether it is good or bad?
Am I then to choose in preference to this something that I know very well to be an evil and assess the penalty at that?
Imprisonment? Why should I live in prison, always subjected to the ruling magistrates, the Eleven?
A fine, and imprisonment until I pay it? That would be the same thing for me, as I have no money.
Exile? for perhaps you might accept that assessment. I should have to be inordinately fond of life, men of Athens, to be so unreasonable as to suppose that other men will easily tolerate my company and conversation when you, my fellow citizens, have been unable to endure them, but found them a burden and resented them so that you are now seeking to get rid of them. Far from it, gentlemen.
It would be a fine life at my age to be driven out of one city after another, for I know very well that wherever I go the young men will listen to my talk as they do here. If I drive them away, they will themselves persuade their elders to drive me out; if I do not drive them away, their fathers and relations will drive me out on their behalf.
Perhaps someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? Now this is the most difficult point on which to convince some of you. If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical.
On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less.
The unexamined life is not worth living meaning
What does Socrates mean when he says the unexamined life is not worth living? Well firstly Socrates doesn’t expect you or the jurors to believe him.
A clue to what Socrates means is present in the first quote above. Socrates doesn’t believe in living a “quiet life”, that is one that exists with a quiet mind. For him this quiet life is one that would require him to be dishonest – to keep silent the questions that enter his mind.
For Socrates an unexamined life is also one focused on individual wealth and status over and above the wealth and health of the society (the city). Distracted and even driven by possessions this unexamined life gives no thought for wisdom or the good.
Socrates has witnessed the unexamined life in the city he lives and knows he can not live it. In fact for him the thought of doing so is worse than death. Rather than conform to the popular opinion that death is the worst of all things Socrates examines this idea critically.
Death for Socrates is an unknown and therefore he has no fear of what he does not know. He says ‘to fear death, gentleman, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know’. For Socrates an examined life means ‘I do not think I know what I do not know’.
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