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.