Socrates on the Examined Life – a short reading from Plato’s Apology

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“And if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me.”

Introduction

In the year 399 B.C., in Athens, Socrates was brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. He was found guilty and condemned to death. The Apology, written by Plato, is an account Socrates’ defense speech at the trial. In the previous passage, Socrates explains why he would rather die than stop practicing philosophy and live a life without virtue. In this passage, Socrates has just been found guilty and the death penalty has been proposed. As per the Athenian court system, Socrates must propose an alternative punishment and the 500 jurors must decide between the two. Socrates initially proposes that instead of punishment he deserves to receive free meals at the state’s expense for the rest of his life. This proposal must have pissed a lot the jurors off because they quickly sentence him to death.

Reading: Socrates on The Examined Life

The following reading is from the Apology by Plato, translation by Benjamin Jowett. The full text, with a more thorough introduction, can be read online at Project Gutenberg. You can also listen to an audio version of this reading on Youtube.

And so he proposes death as the penalty. And what shall I propose on my part, O men of Athens? Clearly that which is my due. And what is my due? What return shall be made to the man who has never had the wit to be idle during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care for—wealth, and family interests, and military offices, and speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties. Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live, I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to every one of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions. What shall be done to such an one? Doubtless some good thing, O men of Athens, if he has his reward; and the good should be of a kind suitable to him. What would be a reward suitable to a poor man who is your benefactor, and who desires leisure that he may instruct you? There can be no reward so fitting as maintenance in the Prytaneum 1, O men of Athens, a reward which he deserves far more than the citizen who has won the prize at Olympia in the horse or chariot race, whether the chariots were drawn by two horses or by many. For I am in want, and he has enough; and he only gives you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality. And if I am to estimate the penalty fairly, I should say that maintenance in the Prytaneum is the just return 2.

Perhaps you think that I am braving you in what I am saying now, as in what I said before about the tears and prayers. But this is not so. I speak rather because I am convinced that I never intentionally wronged any one, although I cannot convince you—the time has been too short; if there were a law at Athens, as there is in other cities, that a capital cause should not be decided in one day, then I believe that I should have convinced you. But I cannot in a moment refute great slanders; and, as I am convinced that I never wronged another, I will assuredly not wrong myself. I will not say of myself that I deserve any evil, or propose any penalty. Why should I? because I am afraid of the penalty of death which Meletus proposes? When I do not know whether death is a good or an evil, why should I propose a penalty which would certainly be an evil? Shall I say imprisonment? And why should I live in prison, and be the slave of the magistrates of the year—of the Eleven? Or shall the penalty be a fine, and imprisonment until the fine is paid? There is the same objection. I should have to lie in prison, for money I have none, and cannot pay. And if I say exile (and this may possibly be the penalty which you will affix), I must indeed be blinded by the love of life, if I am so irrational as to expect that when you, who are my own citizens, cannot endure my discourses and words, and have found them so grievous and odious that you will have no more of them, others are likely to endure me. No indeed, men of Athens, that is not very likely. And what a life should I lead, at my age, wandering from city to city, ever changing my place of exile, and always being driven out! For I am quite sure that wherever I go, there, as here, the young men will flock to me; and if I drive them away, their elders will drive me out at their request; and if I let them come, their fathers and friends will drive me out for their sakes.

Some one 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 to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you. Also, I have never been accustomed to think that I deserve to suffer any harm. Had I money I might have estimated the offence at what I was able to pay, and not have been much the worse. But I have none, and therefore I must ask you to proportion the fine to my means. Well, perhaps I could afford a mina 3, and therefore I propose that penalty: Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, my friends here, bid me say thirty minae, and they will be the sureties. Let thirty minae be the penalty; for which sum they will be ample security to you.

Discussion

Socrates doesn’t go into a lot of detail in this passage about what exactly constitutes the examined life or why “the unexamined life is not worth living”. So what exactly does Socrates mean? It’s a rather radical statement and if we accept it, it means we ought to live a life like Socrates; ignoring wealth and social status to focus on philosophy.

A good place to start is with the idea that the examined life involves “daily discourse about virtue”. Presumably this means questioning yourself and others about what it means to live a good life and trying each day to find an answer to the question of how we ought to live.

Why is this important? We can speculate on why Socrates values the examined life so highly if we understand Socrates’ other beliefs about virtue and knowledge, namely that virtue is knowledge, that no one does wrong willingly and that it is better to die than to live an evil life. Consider a man who is lost a sea and is ignorant of basic maritime navigation. He is just as likely to sail into the middle of the ocean as he is to find the nearest coast. Likewise, a man who doesn’t examine life will be ignorant of how to live a virtuous life. He will live life blindly and is just as likely to do evil as he is to do good. So if we agree with Socrates that an evil life is not worth living, we can understand why he believes the unexamined life is not worth living.

Further Reading

To learn more about Socrates and his views on virtue, knowledge and the examined life, please see the links below:

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Notes:

  1. The Pyrtaneum was like a town hall where public entertainments were held, particularly to Olympian victors when they returned home.
  2. Socrates is basically saying he should get free meals for life instead of the death penalty. The G.M.A Grube translation is much clearer: “So if I must make a just assessment of what I deserve, I assess it as this: free meals in the Prytaneum.”
  3. One mina would be equivalent to around three months wages for the average laborer in Athens.

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