Socrates was sufficiently arrogant as to believe that he was among the wisest of men, certainly wiser than those who were sitting in judgement of him and prepared to sentence him to death. Yet, Socrates’ concept of wisdom had less to do with knowledge per se than with understanding. Specifically, he understood that he did not know everything there was to know, in contrast to many others who purported to wisdom based on what they did know. And it is within this context that Plato, summarizing his elder’s self-defense, quotes his teacher’s adage that “the unexamined life is not worth living . . .” Socrates was, of course, a scholar driven by the thirst for knowledge and for virtue that resulted from self-reflection and inquiry and from engaging in discourse with other learned men. Not for nothing is his name associated with the practice among many law professors of calling out students rather than passively awaiting acceptance of the offer of dialogue. He was an instigator of intellectual discourse because he believed it essential for the mental and moral development of humanity. As Plato proceeded to speak for his teacher, he included a parable about the distinction between knowledge and wisdom:
“Finally I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find that they had knowledge of many fine things. In this I was not mistaken; they knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I. But, gentlemen of the jury, the good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am. As a result of this investigation, gentlemen of the jury, I acquired much unpopularity . . .”
The notion of an “unexamined life” lies at the heart of Socratic thought. Many individuals extrapolate on the basis of limited data or information and dare to arrive at a conclusion to which they hold fast, resistant to the further accumulation and analysis of information that could undermine that conclusion. Too few, Socrates and his prized student believed, were willing to dedicate themselves to the continuous pursuit of knowledge and to question those conclusions at which they had arrived. Knowledge, in other words, held no end-state; rather, it was a continuous, lifelong pursuit.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates famously states that the unexamined life is “not worth living.” In broad terms, Socrates is referring to a life of philosophical contemplation, one devoted to thinking about the big questions, as it were.
But for Socrates philosophy is primarily defined in ethical terms. This simply means that he is concerned with how we should live our lives. This stands in stark contrast to those philosophers who came before him (the Pre-Socratics), whose main focus was on grand thoughts about the universe, raising issues that today would be dealt with by natural science.
On the face of it, it seems that Socrates is guilty of an exaggeration. An unexamined life impoverished? Sure. Unfulfilled? Possibly. But not worth living? Surely not?
However, it’s important to understand that for Socrates the examined life is a virtuous life, one characterized by the development of moral excellence. Different people have different ideas about what is virtuous, and different cultures too, but Socrates insists that all the virtues are ultimately as one.
Crucially, Socrates also regards virtue as being synonymous with knowledge. That being the case, we can see how the unexamined life would be a life marred both by ignorance and lack of moral excellence. Even if we don’t accept that such a life is “not worth living,” we can still gain a better understanding of the point that Socrates is trying to make.
Basically, the "examined life" for Socrates is one in which a person tries constantly to achieve virtue. This is what Socrates felt that he was doing with his entire life's work. Socrates says that the best thing that a human being can possibly do is to talk to other people about virtue. What such a person would be doing is examining life and society. Such a person would be trying to figure out what is virtuous for people and for society. This would be the examined life. It would be one in which a person was constantly examining him or herself and the society in which he or she lived. The point would be to ensure that the person and the society were being as virtuous as possible.