According to Socrates, as documented by Plato and other philosophers inspired by Socrates, an unexamined life is one that passes an individual by without question or critical thought. Socrates was well-known for living a relatively simple but meaningful life, and he credits his frequent examinations of day-to-day concerns and widely accepted opinions as the source of this meaning.
Socrates made his famous statement about the unexamined life not being worth living when he was on trial for the corruption of youth. His outspoken nature meant that even after he was sentenced to death, Socrates still insisted that his jurors must examine their own lives with care; though he will die for his beliefs, the jurors will live on and so will the fact that self-examination is always a useful act. Though Socrates was eventually killed and silenced, his ideas live on, forming the foundation of many ideas of Western philosophy and what it means to be a human.
"What is a manIf his chief good and market of his timeBe but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,Looking before and after, gave us notThat capability and godlike reasonTo fust in us unused." (Hamlet IV,iv,32)
Hamlet makes the same point as Socrates in greater detail: a human being who does no more than sleep and eat is nothing more than an animal. We have the gift of reason, and it is incumbent upon us to use it.
Socrates, according to the descriptions we have in the works of Plato and, to a lesser extent, Xenophon, seems to have spent a great deal of time pointing out to people who believed themselves successful and virtuous that they had not thought at all clearly about what constitutes success or virtue. If one has not examined these questions, how can he be confident that he is traveling in the right direction or that he is not doing far more harm than good?
What gives life meaning is ultimately a personal choice, so much so that the direct question "What is the meaning of life?" has come to be regarded by many philosophers since the Existentialists as itself entirely meaningless, a group of words that make grammatical sense but are really nonsensical, like "What is the color of algebra?" (since life is not the type of thing that can have a meaning, just as algebra is not the type of thing that can have a color). Each person decides what gives meaning to his or her life. Answers that many have found compelling include:
- Personal relationships, loving and helping others
- Art and aesthetics, creating and appreciating beauty
- Knowledge, finding out and disseminating the truth
- Justice, exposing wrongs and trying to right them
"Know thyself" is one of the 147 maxims inscribed at Delphi. The Oracle at Delphi, whose prophecies informed some of the most powerful figures of the ancient classical world, was thought to have received this wisdom from none other than Apollo. It is the failure to live according to this maxim which Socrates refers to as the "unexamined life."
Socrates, facing trial for corrupting youth and profanity, is recorded as proclaiming, "the unexamined life is not worth living." The examined life entails a great deal of introspection, personal insight, and genuine curiosity. For Socrates, any claims to knowledge crumble if truth-seekers do not look to answer questions about themselves: self-understanding is the key to knowledge. What Socrates is also telling us is that there's a great deal that is universal about humanity. The questions we have about the social world might be unlocked when we look inward.
What makes life meaningful is a fascinating and unresolved question. For many, it is wealth; for some, it is health; for others, it is friendship. For Socrates, a meaningful life encompasses a wide constellation of human experience. He wanted to move away from the customary morality that typified Athenian life and develop a moral philosophy based on reason. The prime component of a meaningful life, for Socrates, was ultimately the pursuit of knowledge, and that pursuit begins with self-exploration.