What does Socrates mean by stating that the unexamined life is not worth living? What is the relationship of self-examination to morality for Socrates?

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It is notable that so much of Plato's writing took dialogue form for the purpose of arriving at truth—and that Socrates engaged in the inquiry. The Apology is, in part, concerned with the fundamental value and importance of this sort of inquiry. In the Apology, Socrates identifies himself quite memorably as a kind of "gadfly" attached to the body politic, and in this he provides an important (and, in his words, divinely ordained) service to the State. We see a key theme emerge in the Apology: that people have a tendency to assume they are wiser than they actually are. With that in mind, Socrates serves a vital role—for by questioning people, their shortcomings are revealed. Thus, for Socrates, qualities such as wisdom and virtue can only be gained through honest examination of others and the self.

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When Socrates, in Plato's Apology says:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

he is arguing that to do the good and to have a good life one must know what the good is. Without examining one's life, and whether what one seeks and desires are merely instrumental rather than ultimate goods, one cannot even know the good at which to aim, just as one cannot know how to get to Piraeus with first knowing where Piraeus is located.

The examined life, because it is one in which one knows the good, is the only possible moral life, because without knowledge of what is good one cannot be good. Thus Socrates also says:

“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.”


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