the unexamined life is not worth living quote socrates

The unexamined life is not worth living

The unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates
(Plato, 1997, 33)

Imagine. You are on trial for your life. You are accused of leading young minds astray with your critical teaching in the public square. You face the jury who hold your life in their hands. And you tell them, in effect, that they are corrupt, self-seeking, and care more about their own reputations than they do about the state of the community they represent.  And then, as your final flourish, you tell them they are all living their lives in the wrong way. The things they care about are desires of the body, the need for immediate gratification, whether by means of sex or shopping. What really makes life worthwhile, he says, what gives life meaning, what gives it a real substance and depth and happiness, is to exercise the mind, to think about the big questions, to seek to understand what the purpose of life really is. The unthinking, unexamined, unquestioning life is not worth living. Only the deeply thoughtful life is worth living.

But that all happened 2500 years ago, much too long ago for us to care about! Well, how long ago is 2500 years? It’s 100 human generations, or 100 sets of grandparents ago. That seems to us like a long time. But it’s only seconds ago when compared to the 4.5 billion years that the Earth has existed or compared to the 250 million years since the dinosaurs roamed the earth. One of Socrates’s great challenges to us is that all things appear to be relative. A long time and a short time can be the same time. In one relative sense then, he is in court today, on trial for his life right now, and the question of the value of the examined life is also one for us, here, today.  

The unexamined life is not worth living – who said that?

the unexamined life is not worth living - Socrates - images of Socrates

Who was Socrates? He was born in 470 or 469BCE and died in Athens in 399. His father was perhaps a stonemason and his mother a midwife. It is believed that he married twice, had three sons late in life, and fought with distinction in the Peloponnesian war. He didn’t have any political office in the city of Athens, which was itself torn between democratic and tyrannous forms of government. Socrates had serious issues with both forms of government.  But he is best known for talking, perhaps philosophizing, with young men in the city about all sorts of moral, educational and metaphysical issues. By some accounts he was poor, perhaps ugly with somewhat big frog-like eyes, and something of a paunch, and the old coat he wore was a source of humour in the city. He is reported to have been able to outdrink anyone, yet no one had actually seen him drunk!

The unexamined life is not worth living – so what is an examined life?

Back to the challenge he sets us today about the examined life. Do you care more about money or your soul? Let’s be clear here, since Socrates didn’t really have a job as we would understand it, he didn’t have to work for a living. So, he could spend his time talking and discussing the great questions of life and death. We might say that he was committed to the idea of γνῶθι σεαυτόν which is Greek for ‘know thyself’. But how much time do we want to spend today trying to understand who we are and what we should do with our lives? How much time in our busy lives can we really spend in thinking? Surely most people want to spend their time in just having fun and enjoying themselves. Perhaps Socrates’ challenge regarding the unexamined life is this:  if you are the fun-lover, and if you take the mickey out of people who, as we say, ‘think too much’, are you in fact just running away from asking the tough questions about yourself?

The unexamined life is not worth living – you can’t always get what you want.

Why should we think about ourselves? The ancient philosophers pretty much all agreed that our lives were divided between what the body wants, and what the mind wants. The body has obvious material needs like food and shelter. But the body is also very selfish. It wants immediate satisfaction; what it wants, it wants now, and will do anything to get it. And what gives it satisfaction it wants more of, driven on by greed and lust. ‘Let’s get what we want any way we can, and never mind anyone else on the way.’ The mind, on the other hand, wants mental or as it is called, spiritual pleasure. Not the physical stuff, but ideas, thoughts, imaginings… including art, religion and philosophy. A simple comparison between body and soul might be this: my body wants me to get rich so that I can have more stuff; my mind asks if that is right, if that is really me.

The unexamined life is not worth living – but if you try sometimes well, you might find, you get what you need.

Socrates has a clear response to this. If the body feeds its desires and ignores the mind, then this is a life empty of the really valuable things in life. If the mind examines life, asks questions, and deal with thoughts, then it deals with truth and questions about what is good and bad, or about morality and virtue and other qualities. The Greeks believed in having a healthy body and a healthy mind. One should ensure physical fitness, even physical beauty, but not at the cost of trying to feed the soul. It too needs to be in the best possible shape.

To live with others in a society that is just and civilised, so we need our minds to be able to control the lust and greed of the body. This makes us better people. And this is why, as Socrates says to the jury, the unexamined life is not worth living. It was his way of reminding them to think about justice before they sentenced him … alas, to no avail.

Nigel Tubbs

Read Socrates’ response to his sentence, which includes perhaps his most well known quote the unexamined life is not worth living (start at line e).


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