Is The Unexamined Life Worth Living?


Presented on January 30, 2000

Super Bowl Sunday at the

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

By William S Jamison


There are two reasons I thought this was a good question for the Forum. This is the first semester our Introduction to Philosophy course at UAA is being offered via TV. The series that is being shown is titled: “The Examined Life.” So in a way, this is an advertisement for the course. I hope it runs lots of semesters. The second reason, is the interest expressed by many in the Forum to find ways of interesting more people to come to the Forum. I enjoy the Forum and agree we should try to interest more people to come, but I also think it should not be a surprise to find most people not interested.


I would like to answer this question in the affirmative. Not only is the unexamined life worth living, but most people should live the unexamined life. Since I would include Unitarians as included in those that live the examined life, I would also argue that most people should not be Unitarians.


What is the Examined Life?


We trace the tradition to Socrates. At the temple of Apollo in Delphi the entrance was inscribed, “Know Yourself.” Prior to Socrates this most likely meant that people should know their place. That is, each of us should understand our place in the status quo and act as our place requires.  Socrates changed the interpretation of “Know Yourself.”


According to his speech recorded in Plato’s Apology, Socrates explained: His friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi to say if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The Pythian priestess said, "No one was wiser."


Socrates thought this was unbelievable. He decided to find a wiser person so he could go to the God and say, "So here is someone wiser than me even though you said no one was wiser!" He began examining those in Athens that thought themselves wise. What he discovered was that there were a lot of men that were wise in their own specialties, say, as craftsmen or poets, but being experts in one thing led them to mistakenly think they were wise in everything. His examining process we call Socratic dialogue, or dialectic, or Socratic method, but the technique was sure to convince anyone that thought they knew all the answers that they were mistaken. He came to conclude, “The truth is my fellow Athenians, that only God is wise. What the oracle meant was that what we know is little or nothing. Apollo didn't just mean me; I am just an example. What God means is, "The wise know their own wisdom is worth no more than anyone's."”


They killed Socrates for his efforts. Perhaps some of this was political but they charged him with atheism and corrupting the youth. He defends himself against the atheism charge very well. In fact, since most of the Platonic dialogues are named after a person that participates in it, I thought it interesting that the trial is called the Apology. After all, the God that virtually acts as Socrates’ demon (or conscience – with knowledge) is Apollo. The name “Apollo” is “apo” meaning “of, or from” and “llo” or the root for “Logos” which means “reason.”  I have not found an earlier text named “Apology” but the definition since is “defense.” Since this is called the defense of Socrates, I wonder if that is how Apollo became associated with rational defense in a trial, or even the rational explanation for something we are sorry about. So it seems clear that the charge of atheism was ill founded, though the point they may have had was that priests found questions Socrates asked, such as, “Is the pious, pious because the Gods love it or do the Gods love the pious because it is pious?” To give you an idea of how annoying that question can be, update it a little and ask the same thing this way: If Jesus were to come to you and tell you what you should do, and you were sure it was Jesus and that He was God, would you question his authority to tell you what was right? Would you argue with Jesus over what was pious?


But was the charge of corrupting the youth on target? I think it was. Socrates was inspiring the youth to become critical thinkers. He was showing them how to examine others and themselves by questioning the definitions of the virtues. This becomes an infinite loop since one definition is defined by others, which in turn need to be defined. You eventually end up drawing a circle that may show the use of a word or idea, but not the justification for using it. But something happens to a person when you first start doing this. You feel a sense of enthusiasm, or excitement. Interesting enough, if you use the Perseus project you can read the English and Greek together, and the word for “examined”[i] strikes me as remarkably like the later Latin expression “ecstasy.” So if there is a word for the feeling a person has when dialectically examining the meaning of something important, we may certainly be right in thinking enthusiasm or “ecstasy”[ii] is a good way to describe it.  Once you get a taste of this kind of thing, you do not want to give it up. When Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living”[iii] it seems to me he is not only voicing an unwillingness to stop his way of life, but can not imagine giving up the ecstasy he has come to feel living that way.


I think this is exactly the kind of feeling that has so often been discussed here at the Forum. We have called it a spiritual uplift that gets us through the week.


I know just how ecstatic you can feel when you are on such a quest and even think of it as a religious experience myself. I suppose it is the daemon of Apollo that Socrates was talking about. Aristotle would later even describe the “Good Life” as “Eudaemonia” or “The Good Demon.” This stuff was better than physical pleasures, or social ones.


I remember how excited I felt when I realized I did not know what Socrates meant when he said, “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.”[iv] I played with the Greek and came up with my own translation: “So I went to someone who everyone thought was wise, a politician, and look what happened: while we talked it dawned on me that he was no wiser than me, even though everyone thought he was so intelligent. He even thought of himself as incredibly wise. I tried to explain to him that he wasn't as smart as he thought and this made him mad at me. So I walked off thinking that neither of us were so smart, but I thought I was better off than he was because he doesn't really know anything, but thinks he does. I don't know anything, but don't think that I do. In this I am better off than he is.” But Socrates says he does know things. He also says that many know a lot about their various crafts. So how could he be saying no one knows anything in this most famous section? I was positively elated! I knew I didn’t know something that so many other people thought they knew! Here was something else I didn’t know! I was excited because I knew I knew less than everyone else!


There is no doubt in my mind that it is important for a community to have members that engage in critical thinking, and the examined life, but I also think it important to point out that it is no good for a community to have too many members doing this.


This was enough for them to kill Socrates for corrupting the youth. This was a lesson not lost on his student Plato who argues in Book 8 of the Republic: That those who enjoy critical thinking should be very careful how they teach dialectic to those old enough to start learning it (around thirty!) Because, he says. “There is a danger lest they should taste the dear delight too early; for youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy-dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them.” Glaucon replies, “Yes, there is nothing which they like better.” Socrates, (actually Plato) continues: “And when they have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy and all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world.”


If too many people in a community enjoyed the examined life the kind of consensus they would come to would essentially result in no decisions being made at all or practically none. They enjoy disagreeing with one another and would rather disagree with one another even when they might have agreed before the other person said what they thought.


Take a look at how this evolves into principles that essentially are abstract to the point of uselessness:



·        The inherent worth and dignity of  every person;

·        Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

·        Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

·        A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

·        The right of conscience & the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

·        The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

·        Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These are absolutely beautiful. No rational person can disagree with them. And that is exactly what is wrong with them! I don’t think even bonobos, dolphins, elephants, or whales would disagree with these principles. The devil is in the details of how all this works out. Most of a community has to be more practical and make decisions that favor people with money.


We have to go back to teach “Know Yourself” in the sense of “Know your place.” Don’t teach critical thinking, or encourage the young to lead an examined life until they have led a productive life knowing what is good and right to do, instead of enjoying knowing that no one knows what is good and right.


I would agree with Plato that:


In fact, the condition of most men's souls in respect of learning and of what are termed [7.344a] "morals" is either naturally bad or else corrupted,--then not even Lynceus1 himself could make such folk see. In one word, neither receptivity nor memory will ever produce knowledge in him who has no affinity with the object, since it does not germinate to start with in alien states of mind; consequently neither those who have no natural connection or affinity with things just, and all else that is fair, although they are both receptive and retentive in various ways of other things, nor yet those who possess such affinity but are unreceptive and unretentive--none, I say, of these will ever learn to the utmost possible extent [7.344b] the truth of virtue nor yet of vice. For in learning these objects it is necessary to learn at the same time both what is false and what is true of the whole of Existence,1 and that through the most diligent and prolonged investigation, as I said at the commencement2; and it is by means of the examination of each of these objects, comparing one with another--names and definitions, visions and sense-perceptions,--proving them by kindly proofs and employing questionings and answerings that are void of envy--it is by such means, and hardly so, that there bursts out the light of intelligence and reason regarding each object in the mind of him who uses every effort of which mankind is capable.


I suppose I may not even get to this point on Sunday, but we shall see.

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[i]  exetastos

[ii] ecstasis, is, f., = ekstasis, a being beside one's self, ecstasy, trance, rapture (eccl. Lat.), Tert. Anim. 45 al.

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