“…the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates in The Apology by Plato
These words of Socrates are notoriously provocative. Perhaps they should provoke us.
One implication of course is that an examined life is indeed worth living. But just what is an examined life? Presumably it is a life in which asking questions has a central place.
I sometimes say to my students that there are no bad questions. But to tell the truth, I say that because I know the people in my classroom, and my statement is more an expression of hope.
I think there are bad questions, and also bad reasons to ask questions. At the heart of a well-examined life are good questions, that are asked for good reasons.
The other day I was speaking to a young man who said to me in a rather serious tone, “I really like to think about things.” In context, it was clear that he meant something like this: “Already in my young life I’ve seen that there are deep things at stake, and I realize that I’d better attend to them because life is serious; and it takes effort to figure things out.”
It is heartening to see this in a young man. There are significant forces at work, both within us and around us, that militate against our living a recollected and examined life. We are probably not asking certain questions, including about our own life, that really should be asked. One of the first objects of examination should be just what we need to do in order to establish habits of good examination. Then we can set about discerning what questions to ask. And how and where to seek answers.
A husband sometimes find himself asking, “Why does my wife insist on acting like that?” This need not necessarily be a bad question. But in comparison with: “Do my actions elicit the very thing that I find so hurtful?” the first question might well be a bad question.
Some of the best questions might have answers which we would rather not consider. Learning to live an examined life entails, at least in part, learning to ask hard questions, and to reckon with answers we did not expect.
Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Apology is his account of the trial of Socrates, at which he was present.
Image: A fisherman.
Join the Community.
Become a LifeCraft Member and gain access to our online courses and exclusive content. It's FREE of charge. Period.
If you join as a contributing member, you will help make this content available to an increasing audience and enable me to spend more time in this work. I thank you in advance.
Join the LifeCraft community today and get access to:
- Man of the Household (Course)
- Woman of the Household (Course)
- Concepts Made Clear (Mini-course)
- Dinner at Home (Mini-course)
Friendship and the Conversations that Really Matter
“One must always tell what one sees.” Charles Peguy So many great conversations never happen. There is nothing like sharing insights with a friend into things that matter, and even things that don’t matter so much. But why is it so difficult? One of the great...
What Makes Home a Home
The words ‘home at last’ are uniquely powerful. The desire to be at home is so deeply rooted in us that we don’t question it. If we see these words on a tombstone we scarcely notice; or we smile and think, of course. In the end where else would one want to be? It is...
Hospitality: Finding Our Way Home
It is perhaps a sign of our times that we speak of a hospitality ‘industry.’ Rooms-for-the-night and meals away from home can certainly be bought and sold. But hospitality is something no exchange of money will ever effect. Hospitality is intimately tied with being...
Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.
I think the point of the examination of life is to find the purpose of it. A life lived without pursuing it’s purpose is not worth living. I am not sure that you can assert that asking questions is the central point. Really, questioning is a means to getting the understanding of the truth about your purpose. So, the central point is to pursue your purpose. Pardon this preaching to the choir. 🙂
Karl, I certainly appreciate your emphasis of the importance of finding the purpose of life. I would simply add that I think we can still say that questioning is central to life–even while it is indeed a means to coming to a deeper understanding of the truth. I would suggest that there are two reasons that ‘questioning’ always remains critical. First, we can think that we know the meaning of life, but still need to come to a deeper understanding of that meaning/purpose. And second, there is always more to discover about how to go about living the good life. Indeed, as Socrates rightly saw, the more wise a person is the more he realizes how much more he has to learn–and thus the necessity for further questioning. Thank you for your comment.
Were the great philosophers existentialist to some degree? Socrates famous statement “a unexamined life is not worth living” is he saying find the one true meaning and purpose in life which is the reality of our being created in the IMAGO DEI, or did they feel we create, or make our own meaning and purpose as the existentialist teach.
Tim, You ask a very important question. I would put it this way: Socrates definitively holds that there is an objective meaning and purpose for human life that is determined by the human nature we all share. In this way he is far from the position that a human being can make up his own meaning in an existentialist sense. Now you must also remember that he did not have the benefit of the divine revelation of the Old or New Covenants, in which man’s being created in the image of God is a central feature. I think it is fair to say that his view is very compatible with the Christian view, but it does not include the fullness thereof. In conclusion, when he speaks of the importance of living an examined life he is of the mind that such examination will allow one to discover an objective meaning in life. This objective meaning, for Socrates, consisted most of all in living virtuously and coming to as complete a knowledge as one can of the divine. Thanks for asking.