“I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Some of us, especially Philosophy majors, have probably heard about this famous quote by the notable Greek philosopher Socrates. While the credited founder of Western philosophy authored no texts and is known mainly through posthumous accounts of classical writers such as Plato, Socrates was recognised to be a polarising and unconventional figure who took great pleasure in confounding and stinging his conversational partners into realising their ignorance while piquing their curiosity.
“For the unexamined life is not worth living.” - Socrates
That was a famous dictum made by Socrates when he was being put on trial for impiety and corrupting the youth; he had rejected the city gods and questioned the social, ethical, and moral values of that time. So firmly rooted in his beliefs that he would eventually choose death over being exiled from Athens, thereby revealing his vehement refusal to live with such an unjustified sentence while staying true to his convictions in the face of suffering.
What is the Examined life?
Centuries on, how does the examined life look like in our day and age? With a sundry of distractions from the physical and digital world constantly calling out for our undivided attention, how do we hold space and time for contemplation of profound things? When we have the space and time to do so, do we have the understanding and strength to see through the process?
When Socrates spoke of the examined life, it was the need for introspection and self-awareness that he was mooting for as he saw just how important it was to scrutinise one’s beliefs and actions by subjecting them to careful interrogation and analysis. The ability to soul-search does indeed develop a level of self-awareness in individuals that enlightens them to act in a more-informed manner that could result in wiser decision-making. While the theory sounds idealistic and relatively straightforward in application, how can we be sure that we aren’t simply echoing the words of others?
Not just an echo
Individuals who pursue an examined life should not be mere reverberators of Given Wisdom but role models of Applied Wisdom as observed through their approach to life circumstances. The purpose of an examined life has always been to enable humans to flourish in their own right by developing greater clarity and discernment to make better life choices individually and as a community. Such a purpose requires us to build upon the wisdom that the preceding generations have established and to probe deeper into the logic behind them so that we may understand how we should apply such wisdom in our lives.
The basis for beliefs
How can we be assured of the validity of our beliefs? We live in the Information age where many have convenient access to information beyond borders but are way more skeptical than ever. Skepticism, at a healthy level, has proven helpful in bringing about some of the world’s greatest discoveries that have propelled us forward in many ways. However, basing our opinions on the opinions of others will only strengthen the case for skepticism as we must account for the possibility of fallacy.
Our search for truth
Even though one’s pursuit of an examined life may leave them debilitated at times, it should always set them on a path towards uncovering universal truths and laws that would put them at ease. When we consider the innate survival instinct embedded in us, it makes the most sense to prioritise what is important to us first. Most of us will do everything we can to ensure our survival and prosperity before considering these things for others around us. Living the examined life calls, not for the abandonment of our prioritises but for us to look beyond what we desire and into how we can still flourish in a manner mindful and considerate of others’ wellbeing. In acknowledging that life exists beyond ourselves, we become cognisant of the essentiality of values and principles’ existence in safeguarding our society and have a greater conviction to abide by these truths.
The call to living an Examined life
Living the examined life necessitates an element of sacrifice and requires a lifetime of commitment. It calls for a marriage to countless hours of contemplation and continually seeking answers to some of life’s most abstract existential questions. Such a journey, once seen can no longer be unseen, may set you apart from the people closest to you and leave you lonesome in despair. Yet, it is only through this path that one derives the most pleasure they can ever get from this life here on earth.