Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

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Goal of the Course: The general goal of this course is to consider what philosophers call the Socratic commitment. Socrates, a Greek philosopher, 470-399 B.C., was placed on trial in Athens because he questioned the political, moral, and religious practices of Athens. He gave his own defense which his pupil Plato recorded as The Apology (The Defense). When he was convicted for impiety to the gods and for corrupting the youth because he had taught the young adults to question, he was given the opportunity to propose his own penalty. He refused to give up his mission as the one calling Athens to the examined way of life. He refused to leave Athens, if the condition were to be that he had to give up teaching. He summed up his defense in the following way:

If I say that I cannot hold my peace (by giving up my mission) because that would be to disobey the god, you will think that I am not in earnest and will not believe me. And if I tell you that no greater good can happen to a man than to discuss human excellence every day and the other matters about which you have heard me arguing and examining myself and others, and that an unexamined life is not worth living, then you will believe me still less. But that is so, my friends, though it is not easy to persuade you. (Apology)

The general goal of the course is to explore the personal and social meaning of the statement, the unexamined life is not worth living. The live in which I let other people tell me what the questions of life are, the life in which I let other people give me their answers without my thinking through to my own answers, is the unexamined life. Socrates is saying that the life in which I ask my own questions and answer them for myself in a reasonable manner is a more valuable life than the unexamined life. The examined life is so much better than an unexamined life that Socrates is willing to die for that value.

I want to insist so much on your personal involvement in this course that I choose not to define philosophy other than to say that philosophers have all agreed that the unexamined life is not worth living and that we shall explore how these philosophers have examined their lives so that you may be encouraged and assisted by them in examining your own life. The philosophers do not agree on what questions should be asked in life or in what order the questions should be asked, much less on the answers that they give to their questions. Philosophers do not agree on how to define philosophy. Philosophy is not a science in which we can all use the experimental method of reasoning and conclude to the same theories. Philosophy is not mathematics in which we can all use a mathematical method of reasoning and prove our conclusions. We will make the assumption of-Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living in order to begin the course. But every assumption which we make should itself be examined in order that we can be honest with ourselves in living an examined way of life.


Hoebel in his 3rd edition of his Anthropologv states that every culture makes: (1) basic factual postulates about the nature of the external world and human existence, and (2) basic normative postulates about what acts or things are good and how the pursuit of these goods or values gives meaning to human existence.

In philosophy, I want us to (1) discover for ourselves our basic postulates about the nature of human existence, about moral values, about religious value; (2) to enter into dialogue with great philosophers about these matters; and (3) to end the course by a restatement or change of our basic postulates, with a responsible answer to the challenges, evidences, questions, and perspectives of the great philosophers.

(1) The ability to state one's basic postulates about human existence, moral values, and religious values may be very difficult For our culture does not present to us only one set of...
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