Is The Unexamined Life Really Worth Living? By Alexandra Rae
Socrates, the Greek philosopher who is credited as the founder of Western philosophy, was a controversial man of immense knowledge and power within ancient Greece. Primarily documented through the writings of his student Plato (another Greek philosopher during the Classical period), the specifics of his work still remain a mystery to the modern world. What is known about him is his infamous death sentence from Athens' democratic government. Socrates’ critiques of democracy, as well as his association with members of the Thirty Tyrants (the group that was responsible for the overthrow of the Athens government from 404-403 BCE), led to a trial that found him guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth. He was left with two options: voluntary exile himself from Athens, or be condemned to death. In his defense speech, Socrates claimed that he would not go through with the exile, leading to his well-known dictum of “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Hundreds of years after his death, philosophers still engage in great debates over Socrates’ infamous quote and what it really means in today’s world. I’m here to dissect his words and ask: what is the unexamined life – and is it, like Socrates proclaimed, not worth living?
Using Socrates’ philosophy, the unexamined life could be defined as human life devoid of meaning and purpose of existence. In modern day society, one who lives by the rules and regulations of others without examining whether or not they actually want to live by and with those guidelines would be someone with an unexamined life. The examined life, however, would require one to self-reflect on what their purpose is and if their current lifestyle aligns with that (perhaps those who take this to an extreme in modern times would quit their job at Starbucks to go chase their dreams of being a singer after examining how much they hate making frappuccinos for minimum wage). Socrates applied this mindset to his own life as a means of explaining his refusal to avoid engaging in rebellion and anti-government actions.
While many appreciate Socrates’ dictum and use it within their own lives through constant self-reflection on their life choices, others disagree with the philosopher. William Jamison, professor of Philosophy at University of Alaska Anchorage, cited the unexamined life as something worth living within his 2000 article ‘Is The Unexamined Life Worth Living?’ In his piece, Jamison argued that an unexamined life is worth living because “the rigorous examination of life should not be encouraged due to its possible negative effects on the participants and the entire society” (Jamison). He believes that an unregulated human life is more likely to produce ecstasy and overall more happiness for those who engage in it (Jamison). However, he also notes how too much of a good thing is bad for anyone; constantly relying on feelings of ecstasy and pleasure can pose a threat to the thinker and the society in which the thinker is situated. An over-examination of this feeling and the root causes of it can lead to an unhealthy obsession with avoiding or limiting it, which is exactly why Jamison first argued that the unexamined life is worth living – if balance is kept in check.
Examining your life, just like all things, must be done in moderation. From looking at the arguments made from those who support Socrates and those who don’t, I have found that the least successful interpretations of his dictum come from those applying their beliefs in an extreme manner. Constantly analyzing every move you make and whether or not that is putting you on the “perfect” path to your life’s purpose is not healthy, but neither is never taking a step back to think of how to accomplish your goals and instead just letting chaos consume you for the sake of the unexamined life. Life, in its simplest form, should be something you enjoy, cherish, and never have regrets about. But if you find yourself without any of these things, perhaps examining who you are and who you want to be isn’t such a bad idea. According to Socrates, anyway.
Alexandra Rae (she/her), or Alexandra Rae in her written works, is a 20-year-old aspiring writer from the U.S. studying Creative Writing and Public Relations & Advertising at Point Park University. She loves exploring all genres, but her favorites are Creative Non-Fiction and Poetry. She is also a content writer for The Young Writer's Initiative (@TYWI on Instagram) and runs her own writing account as well (@theresonationofalexandra). Her biggest writing inspirations are Taylor Swift, Lauren Slater, Stephen King, and Joy Harjo