We wonder what Socrates may have meant by the expression ‘examined life’ and also offer a personal evaluation of the Socratic view of ‘the good life’, which, it will be argued, is the fruit of self-examination and indeed the primary purpose and reward of living the self examined life.
On the streets of Limerick there lives a homeless middle-aged man named Billy. He is widely regarded in the community as some sort of a ‘nutcase’ because he sits on street benches smoking cigarettes, sipping cold coffee from Styrofoam cups and mumbling profusely to himself about whatever it is that is going on deep inside his own mind. I stop to talk to him and, with little effort on my behalf to abstract personal information; he tells me that he was diagnosed many years ago as a manic-depressive. He contemplates and he smiles to himself at the folly of the diagnosis. His hands are shaking nervously as he wraps them around the cold cup and lifts it to his mouth spilling some as he does. He further announces that ‘they’ got it wrong and, in fact, his own diagnosis is something he calls ‘obsessive rumination’. I ask him to elaborate and he tells me that each morning when he wakes up a new thought enters his head and that thought remains with him for the duration of the day until he falls back to sleep in the dead of night to reawaken with another new thought the following morning. He explains that today his mind was firmly focused on the reality that all human beings have insufficient layers of skin to keep in all the evil that exists within every human being. Clearly it was more than a ‘thought’ it was a daylong obsession with what many a ‘sane’ person would deem a redundant misinterpretation of reality.
For him, it was a fact. I further explored how it was that he came to this conclusion about his own illness. He sat back and contemplated for a moment and then leaned forward and admitted, as if it were wrong, that he was a one time student of Philosophy and paid too much heed to Socrates and the concept of the ‘examined life.’ He concluded that the ‘examined life’ is only good when the result is positive.
To understand what is meant by the ‘good life’ we need to understand what is meant by the ‘examined life’ because one follows from the other. Through the process of self examination ideas, thoughts and feelings are brought forward that enhance the quality of ones life through the development of ones mind, body and spirit. The philosophically reflective ‘self examination’ is best understood as an assessment of one’s basic beliefs and assumptions that should yield a positive rather than a negative effect on the quality of the self-examiners life. The purpose of self-examination is self-understanding and thus a rebalancing of our selves and a shifting in a positive way to a ‘superior’ or ‘good life’. The quality of the ‘unexamined life’ is too high a price to pay for the quality of the examined life. The unexamined life is not one of deep personal understanding. It is not a life of self-directed positive change. One pays a price for living such a life. Socrates identifies it when he states that this form of life, the unexamined life, is not worth what you have to pay for it. The price you pay for an unexamined life is your entire life and you pay no greater price for anything than with your life. Interestingly, Socrates did not say that the ‘unexamined life’ was valueless and leaves the viewpoint open that some positive value exists in any life however unreflective it may be. Philosophy helps us to examine our lives and Socrates’ statement about the unexamined life does seem to imply that the wise philosopher left us to draw our own conclusions about the quality of our own lives by examining ourselves.
…You hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living….
So what are the advantages of living the self-examined life and how does one achieve this condition? Because of his political associations the Athenian democracy put Socrates on trial, charging him with undermining state religion and corrupting young people. The speech he offered in his own defense, as reported in Plato’s Apologhma (Apology), provides us with many reminders of the central features of Socrates’s approach to philosophy and its relation to a practical or ‘good’ life. “No one is wiser than you.”iii Socrates argues that he has a kind of wisdom which is an open awareness and full acknowledgement of his own ignorance. Open questioning is the goal of the self-examiner which will help achieve genuine self knowledge and expose illusion about reality and help understand everything thus achieving a greater level of self awareness which is of primary importance to the good life. The goal of self interrogation, then, is to help the person to achieve genuine self-knowledge, even if it often turns out to be negative. There must also be a devotion to truth and a dispassionate reasoning in the process of self interrogation. These qualities are demonstrated by Socrates when the jury has sentenced him to death; Socrates calmly delivers his final public words, a speculation about what the future holds. Disclaiming any certainty about the fate of a human being after death, he nevertheless expresses a continued confidence in the power of reason, which he has exhibited while the jury has not.
Plato’s dramatic picture of a man willing to face death rather than abandoning his commitment to philosophical inquiry offers up Socrates as a model for all future philosophers. Perhaps few of us are presented with the same stark choice between philosophy and death, but all of us are daily faced with opportunities to decide between convenient conventionality and our devotion to truth and reason. How we choose determines whether we, like Socrates, deserve to call our lives philosophical and consequently ‘good’ or examined.
In short then, it can be concluded that if one follows the Socratic line of thinking that the ‘examined life’ may be the better of the two options, examined or unexamined, then the reward of the examined life is ‘the good life’. To understand what Socrates meant by the good life, the philosophical definition, is one of honest enquiry and impeccable conduct. By searching for true justice, true beauty, or true friendship, Socrates inevitably called into question what was widely believed to be justice, beauty, friendship, and so forth. “The good life is a life that questions and thinks about things; it is a life of contemplation, self-examination, and open-minded wondering. The good life is thus an inner life—the life of an inquiring and ever expanding mind.
Socrates’ relentless ‘questions and answers’ strategy of self exploration and forced self examination of people he encountered in his normal day to day life; and he obstinately pursued his task of questioning people about what mattered most in life in his endless pursuit of self knowledge. The obvious conclusion of this ‘line of attack’ is that the unexamined life is one which is lived with unthinking and the good life is one which is lived with intelligence and discrimination. Clearly Socrates was a man of strong conviction with regard to the importance of self examination and the pursuit of knowledge and true wisdom. In his ‘Apology’ he fully endorsed his own ‘modus operandi’ by delivering a passionate defense for the way he had chosen to lead his life.
Socrates always confessed that he was wise because he knew that he knew nothing and by virtue of this fact was not preoccupied with personal gain from self examination but arguably the more he questioned the more he realised how deeply his own ignorance ran and, consequently, how wise he was to realise this unavoidable fact. The statement made by Socrates about the unexamined life not being worth living makes sense from one point of view, but it is untrue if taken from the point of view of someone who is oblivious to this kind of wisdom and lacks the motivation to look for it. It is the same principle as saying ignorance is bliss. People can lead very happy lives, however simple, even without asking the questions that people like Socrates dare to ask. When it comes to those who do have an intrinsic desire to understand and have that passion about true wisdom like Socrates, however, to not pursue that desire would be very unfulfilling. So from Socrates’ point of view, the statement makes perfect sense and should be true for those who have that curiosity, but from the point of view of many others, it simply does not apply. There could be an argument that a life lived by one who is oblivious to true wisdom is still leading a worthless life, but only from the point of view of someone looking in from the outside. To the person living it, his life has all the meaning in the world. It just depends on which point of view is taken. This statement is so bold that it is impossible for everyone to agree with it. Socrates is thinking purely from the point of view of someone who has this knowledge, and not considering the possibilities of one who does not bother with curiosity.
In conclusion then an unexamined life would be just coasting through and not making any decisions or asking any questions. Socrates could not see a point in living if you were unable to ask questions and challenge your way of thinking. An examined life would be trying to understand your purpose and the current state of things. By examining your life, therefore understanding yourself, you will not be subject to actions motivated by passion or instinct.