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The Good Life, the Unexamined Life, and the City

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The Good Life, the Unexamined Life, and the City

Socrates is a historical figure. His trial is a historical event. Socrates is often characterized as one of the greatest teachers the world has seen. Socrates himself wrote no books, and we are dependent mainly upon the widely diverging descriptions of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and above all Plato for our knowledge of his beliefs and also for our understanding of his uncompromising adherence to the philosophic life. In Plato’s Apology Socrates presents himself in as someone who questions others about virtue and who examines or refutes them by means of an elenchus when they have answered inadequately.

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Plato’s picture of Socrates is also in some measure his own creation, but it is possible to identify from it some features genuinely those of Socrates: his concern with the difference between true knowledge and opinion which may merely happen to be correct; his search for definitions (What is courage? What is justice?) without which true knowledge is unattainable, in the belief that there are such things as courage and virtue; his particular method of inquiry by question and answer in order to reach these definitions; the question of whether ‘goodness’ (aretē, ‘virtue’, ‘excellence of character’) can be taught, as the sophists said it could; the feeling that goodness is connected with knowledge of the good, and that once one has that knowledge one cannot deliberately act badly (‘no one errs deliberately’).

And all this intellectual examination was aimed, as Socrates insisted, at the practical end of achieving happiness in this life by right living: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’

Socrates has devoted his life – at least since he received the oracle about his wisdom – to this “mission” and to leading what he calls “the examined life.” This aspect of Socrates’ description of his mission has received virtually no attention in scholarly accounts of the elenchos. Other commentators typically see only that Socrates employs the elenchos on propositions, demonstrating the incompatibility of his interlocutors’ beliefs, and (on some accounts) showing others to be more justified. But Socrates does not say that he examines what people say or even what they believe; he says he examines people, and by this he means examining the ways in which they live. Socrates does not say that untested propositions are not worth believing or that unexamined beliefs are not worth holding; he says that the unexamined life is not worth living (Ap. 38a5-6). Of course, he examines lives by getting his interlocutors to express the values according to which they live in propositions that may then be examined. But as he tells, Socrates is interested, not merely in the truth or falsehood of these propositions, but rather in the lives whose values these propositions characterize.

It is clear from the Apology that the improvement of people, the end of good action, can be achieved only (or at least in the main) through the therapeutic effects of philosophical interchange (38a1-8), in which Socrates views himself to be divinely commanded to engage. This is why, after he has been convicted, he rejects a number of counter-penalties on the ground that he knows them to beevils: imprisonment, imprisonment until a fine is paid, exile, and a cessation of his philosophical activities (37b7-38b1). Imprisonment, even until a fine is raised and paid on his behalf, would all but bring to an end his philosophical examination of others (37c1-2). Exile would be no solution because other cities will be far less likely than Athens to allow him to philosophize (37c4-e2). Plainly, voluntary silence in Athens has the same consequence (37e3-38a5). So when Socrates says he must “talk every day about virtue . . . examining myself and others [for] the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (38a1-6), he shows that he requires more than a good soul to make his life worth living; in addition, he needs to examine himself and others. The penalties he considers and rejects in the second speech in the Apology, therefore, are evils, for they would hinder the performance of even the minimal level of activity necessary to make Socrates’ life worth living. Only if we think of Socrates’ conception of happiness in terms of activities, then, can we make sense of his claim that such penalties would be evils. If the relevant condition of one’s soul were all that were at stake, no punishments or misfortunes of the sorts Socrates has in mind – not imprisonment, not exile, and not disease – would be evil or harmful, for none of these is a threat to the good condition of Socrates’ soul. But Socrates says they would be evils (3767-8) and so he carefully offers the only counter-penalty that he says will do him no harm (38b2).

His examinations of himself and others, according to Socrates, have made his life worthwhile. Socrates shows that he regards this activity as necessary for happiness when he says, “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. He goes on to show that he thinks it is sufficient for happiness when he indicates that so long as he could engage in this activity, Socrates would consider himself happy: he would count it as an “inconceivable happiness” (Ap. 41c3-4) if death offers him the opportunity to pursue his mission with the dead in Hades. In order to understand this claim, we do not need to assume that Socrates would miraculously receive virtue in the afterlife – just engaging in this activity alone is enough for Socrates to judge his condition happy. Accordingly, good activity is sufficient for happiness; virtue itself is not needed. But once the opportunity for good activity has been taken away, as it has been by his conviction, and since he considers all of the possible penalties other than paying a fine to be evils (Ap. 37b5-e2), Socrates no longer counts his life as worthwhile, claiming that he will be better off dead, even if death is nothing more than utter extinction (Ap. 40c5). The power of the jury to constrain what Socrates can do justly makes clear that no measure of happiness, however small, can be ensured during one’s life.

Ignorance leads us to an incorrect evaluation not only of activities, but also of goals and principles. So leading the unexamined life is especially dangerous because it raises the likelihood that we will not only pursue unworthy and harmful activities, but also select unworthy policies by which our activities will be governed and according to which our pursuits will be even more certain to bring us harm. One benefit of an elenctic encounter with Socrates, thus, occurs when one is shown that within one’s own beliefs lies (at least one) contradiction. The pursuits that flow from such contradictory beliefs obviously cannot both be fulfilling. As valuable as this awareness is, however, it is not enough; one must then determine which of one’s contradictory beliefs to abandon. Socrates is often helpful in targeting the belief to give up. But only by leading the examined life can one ensure that the “management and rule of one’s life” will not be needlessly self-defeating. Pursuits governed by contradictory principles are bad enough; the proliferation of policies inimical to one’s real goals is even worse. Both fates can be mitigated through the pursuit of the examined life.

In the Apology, Socrates tells his jurors of the mission by which he believes his life has been made worthwhile. The principal feature of this life is his daily examination of himself and others. Once he has been convicted, he refuses to offer any counter-penalty that would bring an end to his mission (37b7-38b1). In considering exile, he is particularly adamant; “a fine life that would be for me at this advanced age,” he exclaims, “passing from city to city and always being driven out” (37d4-6). The reason he will consider none of these things, least of all voluntarily giving up philosophizing, is that he must ‘talk every day about virtue . . . examining myself and others . . . [for] the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (38a1-6). For Socrates to have any chance at happiness, it seems, not only must he examine himself, but he must examine others.

Socrates never tells us how narrowly or broadly he conceives “the examined life.” Does he mean to identify only those lives in which one “neglects all [one’s] own affairs” (Ap. 31b1-3), as he has, and lives only to philosophize? Or might one lead an examined life who, dedicated largely to other activities (farming, for example), also took care to spend regular time in philosophical discussions with others? Because he chastises his fellow Athenians only for caring more about other things than “prudence, truth, and the soul” (Ap.29e1-2), but not for not caring at all for these most important goods, we believe he construes “the examined life” fairly broadly.

One’s health cannot be so bad as to preclude one from leading the examined life. So, because “the unexamined life is not worth living,” the life of one so badly disabled as to make one unable to lead the examined life is not worth living either. And if other pursuits are necessary for a life worth living (though few, if any, seem to be so for Socrates), then one’s health must be good enough to allow one to engage in those pursuits as well. The common cold, however annoying it may be, does not suffice to remove any hope one might have of leading a life worth living. Plainly, Socrates has a much graver condition in mind when he speaks of someone whose body is “worn out and ruined”. So mere poor health does not suffice to make one’s life not worth living; only when it becomes so poor as to leave one’s body “ruined” would one be better off dead.

Let us turn our attention to Socrates’ second alternative. As the Laws see it, if Socrates chooses the second possibility of going to cities with bad and disorderly men, if he flees the cities with good laws and the most decorous men, life will not be worth living for him. Of course, from the Laws’ perspective, nothing can be worse than cities with bad laws, laws that do not instill order and restraint, and with lawless men. The things that occupy for Socrates the highest position such that without them life is not worth living are justice and philosophy – not the company of law-abiding men.

But the constraints placed upon the good-souled person by others and by circumstances may be very great, so great as effectively to prevent even the most minimally good action. Would Socrates view a good person living under such extremely inhibiting conditions as happy? We think not. Socrates does believe, of course, that the greatest harm is always harm to the soul. But in arguing for this very point in the Crito, he states that “life is not worth living with a diseased and corrupted body” (47e3-5). What is significant is that avoiding a life that is not worth living is also the reason one should avoid having a diseased and corrupted soul (47e6-49a2). Having a diseased and corrupted body, then, must be a sufficiently great impediment to happiness that regardless of how one might try to adjust to it, one’s life would not be worth living. As we said earlier, the same point is made with even greater emphasis in the Gorgias, at 512a2-b2, where we are told that one with a chronically diseased body, like one with a chronically diseased soul, is “wretched” and better off not living, since such a person is “bound to live badly.” Even if Socrates thinks that the good person will attempt to adjust his or her goals and activities to some circumstances, he clearly believes that some things could happen – for example, falling chronically ill with a disabling disease – against which one is powerless to defend oneself, and which would be sufficient to make one’s life wretched. Moreover, Socrates’ emphasis in Republic I on the proper functioning of the soul indicates that he does not see happiness as something that can always be fostered merely by adjusting to circumstances. On the contrary, the possession of virtue requires that the soul must always aim at actions that improve and never harm people (Rep. I.335b2-e6). For Socrates, to improve people is to make them morally better. This is precisely what Socrates tells the jury in the Apology: it is a central feature of his divine mission to make people care first about wisdom, truth, and the perfection of the soul (29e1-2). But if “living justly and nobly” and “living well” refer to engaging in various good activities and not merely to the possession of a particular condition of the soul, it is clear that no adjusting to circumstances can ever save the happiness of the good person if circumstances prevent even the minimal involvement in such good actions. This also helps to explain Socrates’ obvious concern for the good of the body, health. Having a diseased and corrupted body makes life not worth living precisely because it prevents even the minimum performance of good action required for the happy life.

We can now see why Socrates believes that those who cannot defend their ethical views lack not only the craft-knowledge of virtue, but virtue itself, and why he believes that “it is virtue that makes wealth and everything else, both public and private, good for a man” (30b2-4). Virtue just is the craft-knowledge of virtue, and the latter, being by itself productive of happiness, does indeed make everything genuinely good or beneficial for us. Moreover, we can understand why Socrates says that by examining people he is attempting to persuade them to share these views. For the arguments he uses to defend these views are intended to rely only on acceptable propositions, on obvious truths.


Aristotle. The Politics Ed. E. Baker. ( New York: Oxford University Press) Book 1, Sections 1252a – 1253a; Book II, 1260b 1263a 1264b; Book III.

Plato, the Trial and Death of Socrates. 3rd edition.ED. g.m.a Grube( Cambridge Hcckett,2001).
Plato, the Republic. Ed. C. D.C. Reeve (Cambrdge: Hcckett, 2004)
Sheldon S. Wolin. Politica and Vision 2nd. Ed. ( Princeton: 2005)


Cite this The Good Life, the Unexamined Life, and the City

The Good Life, the Unexamined Life, and the City. (2017, Jan 20). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-good-life-the-unexamined-life-and-the-city/

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