Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

The Unexamined Life Is Worth Living: A Socratic Perspective

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

The Unexamined Life Is Worth Living: A Socratic Perspective

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Socrates is famous in Apology for stating that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it is argued that this statement is not deserving of its reverence. It is more likely Socrates' comment, rather than Plato's, because it is not mentioned in other dialogues. The paper's contention is that an unexamined life is also worth living, and may be superior to an examined one. Lives spent examining morality and living virtuously, though meaningful, may be less rewarding, less happy, and not as fulfilling as some meaningful unexamined ones. Practicing and investigating virtues is not necessarily the happiest or best life.

Keywords: Socrates, Plato, Apology, unexamined life, examined life, meaningfulness

The statement that the unexamined life is not worth living from Plato's Apology (38a5-6) is one of the most famous and honored utterances in philosophy, and yet it is undeserving of its reverence. Since Socrates spoke these words in 399 B.C. at his trial (assuming the accuracy of Plato), phi- losophers and educated persons have assumed its truth, more or less, and it has not been seriously questioned in recent philosophical literature. Although his trial has been analyzed innumerable times, rarely do scholars question the practical truth of this important and controversial statement. Firstly, this is because Socrates gives no argument or evidence for it, and secondly, the statement (ULS) does not appear in those entire words in the other dialogues. Why, then, is it famously taken for granted, along with "know thyself', as a fundamental precept of western thought?

My contention here is that this statement was not true when it was uttered and it is not true today. It cannot and should not serve as a universal normative or descriptive truth, though some people find it true for their own lives. For most people, the unexamined life can be preferable and superior to an examined one, and moreover, the examination (exetasomen) of virtue and one's life, as Socrates advocates, implies no special moral obligation or duty to everyone. My position is limited to what Socrates is likely to have said as reported by Plato in Apology and Crito, and not by Plato himself in the other dialogues. Secondly, I shall depart from this narrow perspective to explore the larger philosophical meaning, utility, and evaluation of this state- ment. First, I shall analyze the meaning of "unexamined" before showing why this life is surely worth living and may be happier than an examined life, and then show major reasons which provoke moral examinations, and finally how a meaningful but unexamined life may be superior to an ex- amined one.

According to Socrates, the unexamined life is less worthy, unliveable, or of no moral value, compared to an examined one. This statement, especially in its literal sense, demands considerable defense and/or evidence that is clearly lacking in Apology. Neither Socrates nor Plato speaks about a "mean- ingful" life per se, yet this is implied in a sustained moral examination or inquiry. Socrates believed that an examined life involves serious reflection and discourse of moral virtues, especially justice, and the good life, and that it is the greatest good to discuss virtue every day, and other philosophical issues that he talks about. Critical introspection is indispensable using the elenchus with the right individual to guide it. The Socratic meaning is a cross examination, a conversation or dialogue, rather than merely discussion with oneself. "Unexamined" or" without examination" refer to the unwill- ingness or inability to investigate or inquire closely the meaning of moral terms - their general definitions with cogent reasoning. "Unexamined" does not necessarily imply intellectual deficiency, but it can imply a lack of in- terest to discuss moral virtue. Originally from the Latin exigere, according to an etymology dictionary, examined developed into meaning to ponder, weigh or evaluate. The argument or inference that examined refers to military examination or review does not appear useful or relevant for clarifying Soc- rates' views, contrary to Goldman. …

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