“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Widely circulated, the meaning of this quote is entirely empty. The meaning of the quote is empty because the meaning of the word unexamined is ambiguous. Is examination chastisement, and self-examination a kind of contrition for life’s sins—as some Christians would say? Or is it, perhaps, the discovery or clarification of personal desire, an attempt to release ourselves from the false desires that are imposed upon us by others—as a disciple of psychoanalysis might suggest? Maybe examination is simply an honest look at our behavior, so that it matches a certain set of political principles—in line with some attitudes that are self-consciously political?
The empty ambiguity of “examination,” and thus the quote, explains its popularity: it flatters the hearer by meaning whatever the hearer thinks it should mean. In this way, ironically, this quote of Socrates, the “gadfly of Greece,” achieves the opposite of examination. In a paradoxical turn, the quote reinforces bias and complacency. “Of course, I, as a thoughtful person, have an examined life. And Socrates says I’m doing life the right way. Socrates was truly a great man!”
This mistake is understandable. How is it possible for someone to know Socrates thought differently? A more contextualized quote: “The greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others. The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” “Virtue and all that concerning which Socrates examines himself and others” are concepts: the concepts of living life. Accordingly, if we know these concepts, we can live properly. So, Socratic examination is aimed at achieving proper living. When placed in context, we see the deeper, radically altered meaning of the original quotation: the improperly lived life is not worth living. This meaning is deeper and provocative. Not all kinds of examination are equal. Even if flattery was an argumentative technique of Socrates, this—criticism—is the true spirit of Socrates. One can find this in The Republic—the text that shows Socratic examination in action. Without this example, “the unexamined life” is a series of three lofty, ingratiating, and uninterpretable words.
And yet how much work was required to establish this interpretation, which is still so little progress, or to know and show that it had an interpretation to investigate at all. This is true. Philosophy is difficult and slow. It can be agonizing. Socrates never reached the point where he stopped examining. He examined to the point of his death at 70. An unswerving dedication to philosophy is what brought about Socrates’ death at 70.
Others have been even less fortunate—Peter Abelard, for example—and had his (its?) balls cut off for philosophy. Philosophy has on many occasions been compared to a woman. Its true that many men pursue philosophy in the same way. Boethius compared philosophy to a goddess. This is a misrepresentation. If philosophy is a woman, then philosophy is a bitch.
Accordingly, like Socrates, pursue philosophy patiently, without hurry, and seriously but not entirely seriously. Socrates had a wife who was, like his profession, notoriously and outrageously difficult to get along with. Philosophy brought him similar grief, yet he never grieved. He could not live without his wife, any less than he could live without philosophy. He was, in short, equipped for philosophy for the same reasons that he was equipped for his wife.