There are quite a few arguments about ethics and morality given by people from a myriad of backgrounds throughout history, but of all the sometimes cliché teachings that have stuck around to today, Socrates’s claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living” has been the most influential claim I’ve come across in my entire life. Not everyone agrees with this claim – in fact, some people find it degrading to others – but I find that it is absolutely true not only for myself, but also for anyone who seeks to accomplish anything of meaning in life. Let’s review some of the arguments around this subject and see what seems like reasonable assertions about value and what seems like elitist arrogance, if there is any. First, the context in which Socrates gave this claim must be reviewed to see if it’s more than a personal opinion.
Socrates is reported by Plato in the Apology to have given this claim during his trial for impiety, or blasphemy against the gods, and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates could’ve admitted to the charges and accepted exile over the death penalty, but he offered a defense objecting to the charges, stating that he was in fact doing the opposite of what his accusers claimed. His goal was to discover through philosophy the essence of human excellence, and to serve what he saw as his vocation from the gods. His philosophizing was greatly impacted by the Oracle of Delphi delivering a message that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, a claim that Socrates was very skeptical of, but nonetheless wanted to test. It became the focus of Socrates’s life to determine to what degree could it be true that an oracle, supposedly reporting on the god Apollo’s behalf, could claim that there was no one wiser than Socrates himself.
During his trial, to explain his motivation for dedicating his life to the choices he made, he claimed that he would never have chosen to do otherwise because the unexamined life is not worth living, and death would be preferable to never being able to philosophize in Athens again. He claimed that there is no reason to fear death, because it is either like an endless sleep in which one dreams for the rest of existence, or there is nothing. If death is like endless dreaming, then he will dream of philosophizing and seek the answers to his inquiries in the afterlife. If death is endless nothingness, then he wouldn’t even exist after death to fear anything anyway. And one may fear pain or suffering, but this all ends once you die, and if he could not philosophize, then the rest of his life would be full of loss and pain from the lack of being able to do what he finds most meaningful and fulfilling. In Socrates’s perspective, he could either continue to do what he loves most, regardless of any criticism or accusations against him, or die as nothing else would please or fulfill him.
This seems a little extreme, but I believe that doesn’t make it unreasonable. Aside from the oracle’s message and Socrates’s own piety, he was a someone with knowledge and skills, and he wanted to test his abilities by seeing what his wisdom is worth. Socrates saw philosophy as being the most valuable thing in his life, and he wanted to expand this area not just because of the oracle, but because of his own belief in the grave importance (pun intended) of this pursuit. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, but one of his personal goals was to use his knowledge and understanding to help others enrich themselves by living according to appropriate standards. Socrates wasn’t focused on the circumstances by which he accomplished his endeavors, only that he was able to live a life of philosophy and seek the truth in ethics, morality, and “the good life”.
Most of the arguments against this “Unexamined Life” claim that this is not the case for everyone. One such argument is that if someone is simply complacent to stay in the status or circumstances in which they find themselves, and they are able to remain happy and avoid a stressful, daunting life, then who is Socrates or anyone else to say that such a life is not worth living. This counter-argument suffers from a common misconception however that the aim of life is to live a happy or comfortable life. Happiness and comfort are both very valuable and should not be ignored, but most people find that chasing happiness and comfort only increase the intensity with which they suffer emotionally when they are not happy or cannot afford comfort. Sure, lowering one’s standards may help as well, but how many people can we seriously expect to accept a life mired by depreciation of value and meaning for the sake of avoiding conflict or struggle? Are people really willing to sacrifice their values just to avoid hardship? Is it right to suggest that such a life is fitting for some people when so many others are encouraged to conquer hardship for the sake of greatness?
What we can see from Socrates’s example is someone who has achieved the self-actualization that philosophers such as Nietzsche and Jung advocate for as optimizations of the existential freedom and responsibility that is thrust upon us in life. This life did not come to Socrates by chance. His dispositions and personal perspective may be a result of his chance existence, but since he was here, he followed his interests, developed his personal set of values, chose a life-long pursuit or goal, and sought to optimize himself and his abilities and knowledge for the sole purpose of constantly achieving this goal. His life goal wasn’t the achievement of a certain level of status or the perpetuation of a certain feeling, but the fulfillment of a set of standards he placed upon himself that was defined by what he found valuable and meaningful. Yes, it got him executed, but Socrates would’ve suffered more had he not died following his passion. In this sense, Socrates lived the best life for himself. So if it worked for him, does that mean this can work for everyone or anyone else?
While I don’t recommend that anyone try to live exactly as Socrates did, and I acknowledge that Socrates did not live a “perfect” life without conflict or worry, it may very well be the case that Socrates modeled a working formula for living well. Defining one’s own values, optimizing one’s skills and knowledge in the areas of life you find most meaningful, and setting personal standards to live up to seems like a great formula for sustaining a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Considering the current state of Western society, one in which feelings of anomie and a lack of centeredness in value and meaning lead people to depression and occasionally suicide in the face of world in which we are solely responsible for our own growth and involvement, this formula seems like the perfect fix for the void left by society. We cannot expect others to define our lives for us, nor should we be so uncaring as to assume that a static or complacent life is just as satisfactory so long as we lower our standards bellow those seeking greatness. Our minds will not even accept such complacency. If our nature truly is continual change, it shouldn’t take too long for an individual to learn that improvement, growth, and development are better than deterioration, diminishment, and stagnation. Simply put, it is better to evolve than devolve; and, in order to evolve, one ought to have some idea of where you’re at and where you’re going.
Like Socrates, we are all presented with this choice between self-fulfillment and self-denial, between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. Enlightenment serves this very purpose. It’s a process and an experience that helps us to determine our own truths, and to live by standards we can accept with meaning and fulfillment, rather than alienation and fear of failure. It helps us to know who we are and to accept responsibility for our freedom and involvement in this world. Most importantly, it actually lets us know there’s meaning in the world and in our choices. All we have to do, is understand it.