Socrates' Unexamined Life

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Why does Socrates think that the unexamined life is not worth living? Does he have a good defense of his philosophical life?

As the wisest man in all of ancient Greece, Socrates believed that the purpose of life was both personal and spiritual growth. He establishes this conviction in what is arguably his most renowned statement: "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Socrates makes it quite evident through the severity of the language in this claim, the extent to which he will live and die for this ideal. He did not merely say that the unexamined life was not a noble existence or that it was the path of the less righteous, rather the unexamined life is just not worth living at all. Theoretically, according to his declaration, someone might as well not be alive unless they lived an examined life.

Socrates' basis for this claim lies is his principle that we, as humans, should lead "responsible" lives. In order to be responsible, we must examine the beliefs that we hold and give reasons for why we do what we do. Taking it a step further, we must scrutinize these reasons and assess which ones are the good reasons. Ultimately, the examining of our own lives should lead to us holding only those beliefs that we can find good, sound reasons for. To Socrates, the ideal ends to be achieved as a result of this manifestation, is that of a life of justice and virtue.

When Socrates was told by the Oracle of Delphi that he was the wisest of all men, he maintained that his wisdom lay in his recognition of his own ignorance. Through the "Socratic Method," Socrates' incessant questioning of fellow "wise" men, he found that their reputations were not legitimate. He unearthed the invalidity of their wisdom through the method of elenchus, which consisted of Socrates asking his fellow "wise men" questions in regards to positions they held on various issues, then asking further follow-up questions that transgressed them into seemingly inevitable contradictions. These paradoxical situations that Socrates would create would offer enough reason to negate their original claim as a result of the inconsistency within the logic that they presumed.

Because Socrates created these sorts of situations in which his contemporaries found themselves holding unsubstantial claims, he was able to further substantiate his own claim that, "the unexamined life is not worth living." These men, who were held in esteem as a result of their wisdom, were not able to authenticate their wisdom once probed by Socrates. Socrates was able to exemplify that their lack of scrutiny and critical reflection within their own set of beliefs had led them to lives that lacked logical justification. That same void of reason, as a result of a life less examined, is exactly the kind of life that Socrates would consider "not worth living." In due course, Socrates would rather not exist, than subsist holding a value structure that was based on false or inconsistent pretenses. On the surface, Socrates' claim that "the unexamined life is not worth living" can be taken as a pure and simple statement. In short, as humans we must think for ourselves. When taken allegorically, it could be as innocent of a statement as a parent telling their child to "be yourself" as they are sending them off to the first day of school. In essence, the message communicated through Socrates' statement is one of good intention. It is preaching the notion that mankind should not act like sheep, for we have something that animals do not, the ability to reason. Below the surface of Socrates' statement, is where ambiguities exist. Socrates' philosophical life-style that he speaks of is inspired by a pursuit of reason. Socrates' willing and open affirmation is that his wisdom spurs out of his ability to recognize his ignorance. In other words, he is pronouncing that he basically knows nothing. However, this is where inconsistencies arise within Socrates' own logic. By...
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