What Is the Examined Life?

The unexamined life is not worth living.

- Socrates as quoted in Apology by Plato

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss self-examination. Socrates, the Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC, famously declared that "The unexamined life is not worth living." His drive towards rigorous self-enquiry and his uncompromising questioning of assumptions laid firm foundations for the history of Western Philosophy. But these qualities did not make him popular in ancient Athens: Socrates was deemed to be a dangerous subversive for his crime, as he described it, of "asking questions and searching into myself and other men". In 399 BC Socrates was sentenced to death on the charge of being "an evil-doer and a curious person". Two thousand years later, the novelist George Eliot was moved to reply to Socrates that "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all". For Eliot too much self-scrutiny could lead to paralysis rather than clarity. What did Socrates mean by his injunction? How have our preoccupations about how to live altered since the birth of ancient Greek philosophy? And where does philosophy rank in our quest for self-knowledge alongside science, the arts and religion?

Listen to the In Our Time episode on The Examined Life

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Short Article of the Day

I have long been intrigued by the claim, attributed to Socrates, that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’. For a start, there is the absolute and uncompromising tone of the language,”not worth living”. Why not set the bar lower and simply claim that an examined life is better than the alternative or that it’s useful to think about things before acting? Perhaps the quotation was framed with a fair measure of rhetorical flourish. On the other hand, what if the words were meant to be taken at face value? What could lead a person to say that a certain type of life is not worth living? I do not (and cannot) know precisely what the historical Socrates had mind. After all, he is glimpsed but darkly through myriad competing lenses tinged by the thoughts of others...

Continue reading Simon Longstaff's article: The unexamined life is not worth living

Further Reading

...Someone 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 this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living - that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you. Moreover, I am not accustomed to think that I deserve any punishment. Had I money I might have proposed to give you what I had, and have been none the worse. But you see that I have none, and can only ask you to proportion the fine to my means...

Continue reading the Apology by Plato

Related Topics

 Ignorance | Philosophy | The Value of Knowledge | Wisdom

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