What did Socrates meant by “an unexamined life is not worth living”

Socrates’ reasoning in passing up the chance to escape his sentence after being condemned to death on fabricated charges

Socrates is one of the most influential Greek philosophers, who as influential in ushering the Hellenistic Age. His powers of logical reasoning and the invention of the Socratic method has left a lasting impression on Western philosophy. Although he was a prominent member of the Aristocratic class, his lack of deference to authority would lead to his tragic death. Even when given the choice between a life in exile or immediate execution, he chose the latter as a matter of adhering to principle.

According to Socrates, a commitment to moral reasoning is an essential condition of a well-lived life. An individual should base his actions upon the outcomes of such internal dialogues. The exercise of self-examination and introspection as a way of arriving at moral truths is of paramount importance to Socrates. So much so that he unequivocally declared that “an unexamined life is not worth living” (Vlastos, p.121). This commitment to truth by way of rational, critical enquiry would eventually cost Socrates his life. But, even when in sight of his impending death, Socrates calmly reasoned with his friends and supporters that accepting the judgment of the state is to follow the moral course of action and he refused to escape into exile.

Socrates was brought to trial by the democratic Athenian jury, which had scores to settle with prominent members of the previous regime. Socrates’ association with the previous regime made him a target of persecution, irrespective of the validity of the alleged charges. He was accused of undermining religious and state authority and for also corrupting the minds of Athenians. But in reality, Socrates made no deliberate attempts to bring down the religious and state authorities. Instead, he encouraged his students to adopt a critical approach to moral actions, also suggesting that the Athenian rulers themselves are not exempt from such scrutiny. Hence, Socrates sacrificed his life as a way of standing by the principles he endorsed to others. Despite his tragic death in this fashion, the event has acquired him a martyr status among subsequent generation of intellectuals and philosophers. Starting with Plato, his most illustrious disciple, intellectuals have taken inspiration and strength from Socrates’ choice and have contributed to positive social change.

Two millennium since the execution of Socrates, in the more progressive and liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America, the citizens enjoy a whole array of civil rights. This includes the right to freedom of speech as well – a right that was not available to Socrates. While there is no doubt that modern democracies offer their citizens rights and privileges that were unknown of before, dissidents still don’t find it easy to get their views across. For example, it is fair to say that those from far left of the political spectrum face plenty of hostility from the mainstream establishment. The mainstream media and political institutions simply ignore critical analyses from this quarter. This points out that modern liberal democracies are far from ideal and utopian. There is still progress to be made in terms of fulfilling Socrates’ notion of living an ‘examined life’, which would allow citizens of a state to critically examine their state and its wielding of authority.

Works Cited:

Vlastos, Gregory (1991). Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hanson, V.D. (2001). “Socrates Dies at Delium, 424 B.C.”, What If? 2, Robert Cowley, editor, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY.