Is the Unexamined Life really not worth Living?

Socrates famously claimed at his trial that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. What did he mean by this? Does it mean that those who don’t scrutinise life have worthless lives? Surely not!

For those of you who don’t know the story, the enigmatic and charismatic philosopher, Socrates, was condemned to death for ‘corrupting the young’, but he didn’t actually have to die. He could have chosen to stop posing difficult questions and be exiled instead. But this alternative was an anathema to him. For Socrates the very point of life itself was to examine himself and others, and if he was no longer allowed to do so, then his life would lose all meaning and purpose, indeed he felt as if he would be going against ‘God’ himself. It would be a sort of ‘living death’, pointless and fruitless and therefore without worth.

This may seem astonishing to those who are perfectly happy living their life without feeling the need to analyse it. Many people have told me over the years that they don’t really like ‘philosophy’ because, they say, it doesn’t get you anywhere; it doesn’t provide any answers. It is far better to just ‘get on’ with the business of day-to-day living than to be forever pondering life’s big questions and getting yourself into a twist. Even for those of us who do enjoy analysing things, to hold that death would be preferable to a life without it, does seem a bit extreme.

But here’s another very interesting thing about Socrates – he did not want to investigate everything , rather he wanted to ‘know himself’ and he believed that this goal was imperative:

I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things (Phaedrus 229-230)

The ‘examined life’ is therefore one in which the ultimate goal is to ‘know yourself’, a point at which Socrates himself seems to admit here in the Phaedrus that he hadn’t yet reached. But what does ‘knowing yourself’ really mean? Knowing your motivation? Knowing what you are likely to do or say in a given situation?

Now there isn’t time here to discuss Socrates’ answer to that question. But this is where, as always, Christ comes in and gives us a succinct answer.

I like to think that if Socrates had met Christ his life-long ‘ambition’ would have finally been realised. For Christ really does force us to ‘know ourselves’  doesn’t he? And it is in a manner that is so shocking that it brings us to our knees: the dawning realization of what we really are – sinful and egotistical.

In this way then, the unexamined life, isn’t a life without philosophising, it is a life in denial. The life spent thinking, ‘I’m quite a nice person really’, and ‘What can I do to increase my own happiness’ and ‘I hate X, he/she is so horrible.’ The examined life is the one which leads to entirely different thoughts about oneself, ‘I have hurt people’, ‘I have been selfish’, ‘I really regret doing that’.

But praise God, it doesn’t end there: Once we know who and what we really are, Christ can then transform us into the person we should have been. We don’t need to keep self-flagellating. Christ saves us from ourselves and He helps us move on and become the people we want to be: letting go of all anxieties, selfish ambitions and desires, and focussing on Him instead.

15 thoughts on “Is the Unexamined Life really not worth Living?

  1. Yes, it’s so easy to lie to yourself pretending that you are morally sound all the time. I agree with Socrates to know one’s self is the gateway to a fulfilled existence. Good blog Dom.

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    1. True it is very easy to lie to ourselves when we make ourselves a little god/goddess and invent or borrow are every shifting moral standards from the world and peers. It’s such a blessed and solid foundation living on Christ Jesus the ultimate moral compass!


  2. Socrates, I feel, would of found a friend in Christ, there seems to be common ideas between the two of them. This idea of knowing ones self has been on my mind for quite some time. To think that you will know how you would react in a certain situation is I think incorrect, because there are to many variables involved to say categorically that I would do this. Indeed Christ does try to open people’s eyes to show them about themselves, but unfortunately yes many are in denial and are reluctant to face their own reflection because they would probably be disgusted by what they encountered. A very thought provoking blog Dom.

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  3. Yes, I have often wondered how Socrates would have responded to Jesus, but when Paul spoke to the philosophers of Athens himself, it was the concept of the ‘resurrection of the dead’ that they found unpalatable. So maybe this would have been a sticking point for Socrates also.

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  4. Well, Dom really makes us think doesn’t she? What philosophy did for me was to open my mind. What Christ did for me was to open my heart. Did I examine my life – my own personl life, before meeting Christ? I don’t think so – that came later. Socrates never taught me to examine myself psychologically, but to analyse the concepts that I use to think about things generally. It wasn’t necessarily the things themselves but the words, ideas, concepts, thought-forms etc. that we all use when thinking about anything in our lives.

    This philosophical, analytic enterprise is brilliant when applied to the world outside of us, but Jesus taught us to look within and that’s so hard that it took me a long time to come to it. I became a believer by realising that Jesus did not only always speak the truth but was, in fact, the Truth itself. the very truth I’d been searching for all my life up to that point.

    As Dom says, I didn’t look within myself until after I’d been overwhelmed by Christ as the Truth and by everything He said as being true. I said above that Christ opened my heart, but of course, in so doing, He also opened my mind, but more, much more than that, He actually gave me His mind, ‘the mind of Christ’.

    Twice in his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to ‘examine themselves’ to see just how ‘worthy’ they thought themselves to be or just how genuine was their belief in Christ. Plainly, this self-examination is very important, and I believe it’s only made possible after the light of Christ has shone into our hearts. This is exactly what Dom says when she says that once we are ‘in Christ’ then such self examination can and does lead to transformation. It’s true and it’s amazing.

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  5. Well hello Jack. I loved what you said about the differences between Socrates (philosophy) and Jesus, spot on. Do you think that these two people would have got on with each other and possibly been good friends if they had met each other? I can’t help thinking that the conversations they might have had would have been worth listening to.

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  6. Well Steve, I think Jesus would have said to Socrates what he once said to a learned scribe (Mark 12:28 etc.). The scribe asked him a great question and when Jesus answered, the scribe said that Jesus was absolutely right. Then Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” I can just hear Him saying those same words to Socrates too, can’t you?

    As to whether or not Socrates would have got on with Jesus, a long time ago a Christian friend of mine said to me, “I can’t live without Jesus, but I can’t live with Him either!” There’s profound truth in that statement. We do, as it were ‘get on’ with Jesus in a big way, but He’s a hard man to live with isn’t He?


  7. The poison of self delusion is so intoxicating.

    I am guilty of claiming Christ Jesus as my personal Saviour without deeply examining my soul on a regular basis. For many years I didn’t know how or where to start and the weight of guilt overwhelmed me. I heard many sentimental sermons they passed through my ears but never entered my heart.

    I am eternally thankful for God’s Mercy which is new each morning and for Mother Church and her Catechism for teaching me to examine myself by the light of the Ten Commandments, 7 Deadly Sins and especially the 9 ways of assisting in others sins. To feel sorry, say sorry and seek to fix the relationships.

    When His Spirit leads our receptive souls to the place where we can look at ourselves in the mirror and we flinch less and less the more we are able to be compassionate towards others at least that is the small fruit I have been experiencing and witnessing. Thanks be to God.


    1. What an incredible statement! To think that poison could be intoxicating! But this one statement really gets to the nub of what’s wrong with the world and what’s wrong with us in general. Until we drink deeply of the sobering wine of Christ, and until we are completely intoxicated by it, we’re like nothing more than a bunch of poisoned drunks weaving and waving and staggering through life. Plato tells us that Socrates was a great drinker and although often intoxicated was never drunk. John tells us that Jesus turned roughly 30 gallons of water into wine (!) and invited us to drink rhe new wine of the kingdom of God. If we have been, or recognise that we are, intoxicated with the poison ‘Anon’ speaks of, then we should give up the poison straight away but not the intoxication. Get drunk with the Spirit!

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