I recently listened to an old podcast on the Partially Examined Life regarding Plato’s The Apology of Socrates. The Apology is basically Plato’s version of the speech Socrates gave when he was on trial for “corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes”. Long story short, Socrates decides to defend his actions and stand his ground rather than repent and so is convicted, to death. I haven’t read the speech, although I plan to, but the podcast was interesting to listen to anyway.
The part I found particularly interesting was Socrates’ idea that the “unexamined life was not worth living”. I have had this idea in my own head for a long time but when it was presented to me in this quote I had to examine the statement and determine whether I believe it is true or not, and in what way, and why.
To examine life is to take a step back and to think about why you do what you do and why. It is to think about what you think and what your life means. And it means to pose those questions about the whole of humanity too. It is to live a life of questions and skepticism, to find the truth of things, and to come to your own conclusions for your own reasons. It’s self-knowledge and self-critique.
The ability to do this is, as far as we know, a purely human trait. We can not only question our own motives but we can change our own minds and better ourselves purely through thinking about why we do what we do. To not do this is to deny a fundamental part of being a human being. You could argue that by not examining your life you are not being human and rather are acting more like an animal, running on only instinct and reaction to outside stimuli.
But while self-knowledge can be valuable the question is whether a lack of self-knowledge make a life less worthy. I would have to say no, all lives are worth living. I also believe that practicing philosophy and introspection is an activity of the privileged, there are people in this world for whom their chief concern is to just survive. Is their life worthless? Of course not.
I think Socrates must not have meant this statement in a literal sense. I choose to believe that he could not think that there were lives that are worthless simply because the go unexamined. I think he made a bold statement to illustrate a point but he only means that reflecting and questioning is something that all humans should try to do. Through this pursuit of the truth within ourselves we can change what we believe and do and if we do it as a whole species we could “do better”.
There is an undeniable logic to the idea that if you know who you are and what you believe and why you are more likely to make choices that move you towards a happier life. A person who has self-knowledge and asses themselves regularly is less likely to be a reactionary person. This person is less likely to make choices that are detrimental to themselves and others. I believe we all ought to try to regularly sit ourselves down and have an internal conversation with ourselves about our beliefs and goals and adjust ourselves accordingly.
I still think that even the unexamined life is worth living, considering the rareness of any life at all, but I do think that the examined life is a more fully lived one. Not that Socrates or I could ever decide whether or not any life was worth living or not. Each of us must decide for ourselves whether our lives are worth living or not, but by merely asking the question you are engaging in the very examination that makes your life worth living! And once that door is opened you cannot help but to step all the way through. Don’t worry though, once you do everything can change for the better.