The unexamined life is worth living: a Socratic perspective.
My contention here is that this statement was not true when it was uttered and it is not true today. It cannot and should not serve as a universal normative or descriptive truth, though some people find it true for their own lives. For most people, the unexamined life can be preferable and superior to an examined one, and moreover, the examination (exetasomen) of virtue and one's life, as Socrates advocates, implies no special moral obligation or duty to everyone. My position is limited to what Socrates is likely to have said as reported by Plato in Apology and Crito, and not by Plato himself in the other dialogues. Secondly, I shall depart from this narrow perspective to explore the larger philosophical meaning, utility, and evaluation of this statement. First, I shall analyze the meaning of "unexamined" before showing why this life is surely worth living and may be happier than an examined life, and then show major reasons which provoke moral examinations, and finally how a meaningful but unexamined life may be superior to an examined one.
According to Socrates, the unexamined life is less worthy, unliveable, or of no moral value, compared to an examined one. This statement, especially in its literal sense, demands considerable defense and/or evidence that is clearly lacking in Apology. Neither Socrates nor Plato speaks about a "meaningful" life per se, yet this is implied in a sustained moral examination or inquiry. Socrates believed that an examined life involves serious reflection and discourse of moral virtues, especially justice, and the good life, and that it is the greatest good to discuss virtue every day, and other philosophical issues that he talks about. Critical introspection is indispensable using the elenchus with the right individual to guide it. The Socratic meaning is a cross examination, a conversation or dialogue, rather than merely discussion with oneself. "Unexamined" or" without examination" refer to the unwillingness or inability to investigate or inquire closely the meaning of moral terms--their general definitions with cogent reasoning. "Unexamined" does not necessarily imply intellectual deficiency, but it can imply a lack of interest to discuss moral virtue. Originally from the Latin exigere, according to an etymology dictionary, examined developed into meaning to ponder, weigh or evaluate. The argument or inference that examined refers to military examination or review does not appear useful or relevant for clarifying Socrates' views, contrary to Goldman. (1) We must distinguish between two valid definitions of moral virtues and their meanings for the good life, and the second sense refers to the idea that each person should inquire and understand the moral virtues, values, moral assumptions and practices of his/her own life. The first sense is the universal one, later developed by Plato in many dialogues, and less so by Aristotle, and the second is subjective and very introspective, yet it may be based from the first sense. This is less rigorous and much more accessible to every intelligent mature person who is not self-deceived. This more popular meaning is also used by non-philosophers who consider any moral assessment of one's life a fulfillment of Socrates' dictum. Plato's Socrates in Apology and Crito does not make these distinctions, as I think he probably should, but it was unnecessary in his trial. Philosophers in the analytic tradition have developed the first sense with a plethora of illustrations, but it is questionable the degree of progress they have made. This paper shall use both of these senses, but primarily the second one, which is its wider meaning.
Most scholars agree that Apology and perhaps Crito are most likely true to Socrates' own thought, but that we certainly cannot know and must question whether Plato's other dialogues also refer to Socrates' ideas. They were written after Socrates died, and we have no evidence that he ever wrote about, discussed Plato's ideas, or even contributed to them. Vlastos believes rightly that Apology and Crito represent Socrates' thought, (2) but it is doubtful whether the other dialogues actually do. Thus, exercising strict conservative caution, my position is that Socrates himself (excluding Plato, as such) cannot defend his unexamined life statement (ULS) using dialogues that he neither wrote nor probably contributed to, though some of the other dialogues enable readers to understand it more deeply. The Socratic ULS stands or loses credibility based solely on what Socrates himself is likely known to have said without defense from Plato and others. Considering that the ULS per se appears nowhere else in the dialogues, we can presume that it is not typical of Plato or it would have been repeated in those terms and is more likely Socrates' own thought. Of course, it is impossible to know this with any certainty. Most scholars believe that Plato wrote the Apology not long after the trial, thus the historical Socrates is more likely represented because Athenians who were at the trial or heard about it would have known what Socrates said or did not say, and if Plato fabricated the dialogue, the Apology would have been poorly received and perhaps scorned. Although we cannot know the significance of the ULS to the historical Socrates, we know that discussing virtue and justice was crucial to his mission as a teacher/midwife as expressed in Apology and Crito. In that work, he claims that the important thing is the good life, not merely life (48b)--one worth living, a life discussing and caring about virtue, and emphasizes thoughtful honesty, determination and intelligent speaking.
As Brickhouse and Smith argue, "Since there is no compelling reason to doubt the basic accuracy of the Apology and at least some reason to think it accurate, we conclude (as have most commentators) that more probably than not, the Platonic version captures at least the tone and substance of what Socrates actually said in the courtroom ... to the degree that Plato's audience expected historical accuracy, they would have brought to bear in their reading of the Apology a great deal of knowledge about the context of Socrates' trial." (3) The Apology's style and superb literary quality indicates that the actual words are Plato's own. The great irony is the huge literature written about Socrates and his philosophy attributed to him (and his fame), considering he allegedly wrote nothing and insisted that he was not wise.
S. R. Slings' Plato's Apology of Socrates thoroughly examines this dialogue and points out that the unexamined life should be taken only in the passive sense, and that the ULS is at least implied in Menex.246d6 and possibly other brief passages in Republic, and others. (4) The "unexamined life" is not repeated literally in these lines, and the ULS is, at most, only implied with broader interpretations. He also notes that there is no reason to believe that Plato was thinking of the Palamedes of Gorgias. Indeed it is also possible that the ULS preceded Plato in Sophocles' works. Throughout many dialogues, Plato famously shows that the examined philosophical life is one worth striving for, but the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living is not clearly asserted.
In Cratylus scholars believe that Socrates is revealing false modesty when he wonders about his wisdom and whether he can trust himself, (428d), but it is also very possible that he was speaking the truth, in which case critics in search of only the historical Socrates should limit their writings to Apology, Crito, the death scene in Phaedo--and even these may be Plato's thought. It is also likely that Plato used his name in the dialogues both to honor his friend and mentor, as well as to protect himself so that Athenians would not also prosecute him. The genius of Socrates is that he was enormously influential in western thought when the above facts are considered.
Socrates did not expect people to possess moral wisdom in that the whole purpose is a search for it, and the whole activity of the examined life is only the starting point for practical wisdom. The fundamental question is: why is the unexamined life not worth living? What gives the examined life its exalted status? Plato and Aristotle argued that the virtuous life in the end will be happier, more divine and best fits the goals of the city-state. The question whether virtue is its own reward and leads to happiness are a difficult position to demonstrate, partly because it is so speculative and shows little evidence in social observations. Nonetheless, intuitively, it makes sense as a normative, though a not descriptive statement. If it was fact, then the kindest most altruistic people would be among the happiest individuals but that is often not true. Moreover, ethicists and many other philosophers who lead examined lives would also be the happiest. However, the skeptic can smirk and answer that it is better to be Meletus happy than Socrates unhappy. This paper challenges the idea of the ULS, but does not attempt to undermine the foundation of Greek virtue ethics.
The major idea of Socrates' argument may be represented as: If Xos leads a virtuous examined life, then Xos's life is worth living. AND If Xos leads an unexamined life, then Xos's life is unworthy (not worth living).
Xos leads a virtuous examined life OR Xos leads an unexamined life. Xos's life is worth living OR Xos's life is unworthy (not worth living).
(P [contains] Q) [??] (R [contains] S)
P v R/Q v S
P and R cannot both be true at the same time of an individual such as Xos. The same goes for Q and S for an individual such as Xos. Clearly Q is true if and only if P is true. "Not worth living" here implies lacking Socratic value.
Furthermore, Samad points out that the greatest good of man--discussing virtue every day "is available in this life, and this means that any life after death would be better than this life only if one could carry on this activity in the next life with fewer restrictions." (5) Thus, moral examination hopefully will continue after death, toward his relentless search for truth, and so one should be careful of taking risks in this life.
Socrates has been the subject of such considerable adulation that he seems almost beyond reproach, partly because he wrote nothing to argue against, and also because he has become the model or archetype of the Philosopher. Is this status totally justified? Emily Wilson notes that he seems especially parochial and close-minded regarding the best and only life worth living.
He never admits the possibility that the Persians, the Spartans or the Egyptians might have a different and perhaps valuable idea about what courage might be. Nor does he ever imagine that the people of the present might learn something from the traditions of the past, or that his own closed group of men might learn something from talking to their wives, mistresses or slave-girls. (6)
His 'close-mindedness' is a reflection of the predominant Athenian culture, rather than an individual refusal to consider other points of view. Although he was far ahead of his time in the pursuit of moral wisdom, he was only a typical man regarding some of the social/cultural mores, thus he is not open to criticism on that point. Although he appears open-minded regarding morality in some of the dialogues, he seems closed minded in respect to the life worth living.
Socrates also assumes that moral examinations, especially in the second sense mentioned, are of highest importance, regardless of the person's life circumstances, unless he is mentally incapable. The examined life is for everyone (except slaves, children) whether one is happy or unhappy, and even if an immediate cause or inducement is absent, as if one's important life shaping beliefs should be open to question at all times. Yet this expectation or assumption is unwarranted. On a mandate from Apollo at Delphi, Socrates believes that he has a duty to morally philosophize, but as McPherran points out, "... people other than Socrates are under some sort of a uniquely human obligation to philosophize by elenctically examining themselves and others. Nonetheless, the existence of a Socratic duty to urge others to do philosophy does not allow a direct inference that Socrates believed that all others--like him--have a duty to do philosophy." (7)
This distinction is that people do have a moral obligation to morally inquire (philosophize), but not necessarily a duty to morally inquire or examine oneself, or that Socrates held that all others have this duty. At the most, Socrates can infer a prima facie moral obligation to philosophize but certainly no duty, yet he is right to insist that people have a duty to develop their moral virtues throughout their lives. In its literal meaning, the ULS implies this obligation, but in a rhetorical broad sense, the connotation is weaker and no such obligation exists.
It is difficult to know the level of moral discourse in and prior to Socrates' lifetime, (8) but surely moral skeptics have always existed, as well as the multitude who believed in the dominant religion of their time, or minimally, the superstitions, common myths and hearsay tales about the gods and the divine. It is one thing for individuals to investigate the prevailing morality, and very different to accept the dichotomy of good and evil that emanates from the gods. William Stearns Davis claims that the majority of the uneducated in ancient Athens (360 B.C.) merely accepted the old stories and superstitions, but the more intelligent citizens believed, honored and worshipped the gods "because they are the protectors of the good, avengers of the evil, and guardians of the moral law. They punish crime and reward virtue. They (the gods) demand a pure heart and a holy mind of all that approach them, and woe to him who wantonly defies their eternal laws." (9) This implies that the more educated Athenians were passively religious without questioning the wisdom of the gods or good and evil. Davis suggests that the typical Athenian, like most people, was too busy in daily life to spend time on moral investigations. But this is not merely a matter of priorities, but rather unwillingness to seriously question for fear of ridicule or public condemnation. Historically, religion has tended to lull and close one's religious beliefs toward submission. Judging from the archaeological remains, statues and busts of the gods were everywhere, a constant reminder of their real presence throughout Athens. (10) Socrates urged that belief in the gods should be only a starting point for moral inquiry, and by no means sufficient or complete. Because they cannot provide all the answers, believers should be more open minded and questioning while still respecting the divine. As we know, he claimed to be on a mission from the gods, influenced by their oracles and his dreams.
Socrates' claim that the Athenians cared only for their wealth and reputations and not their souls (Apology) is still very true today throughout the civilized world. Yet moral examinations exist and are actively pursued out side academia, but not in the way that he would have approved and would have imagined. Arguably, most or perhaps all people, including those in positions of power and influence, are driven by selfishness--individual ethical egoist actions--because they believe that is the societal norm anyway and it is their relativist aspiration. Contrary to Socratic thinking (akrasia) people may have the knowledge of the right thing to do, such as examining and discussing their moral values and virtues in a cursory way (if only to themselves) but choose not to, or simply avoid this introspective endeavor without clear reasons.
Moreover, Socrates and Plato's adage that virtue is knowledge seems naive, and perhaps that it was also even in ancient Greece. For knowing what is right, and following with the right action are separate yet linked significant issues--which deserve to be addressed in another paper. Moral examination would and should improve their moral compass, but a permanent change for the better is only a hope, rather than a likelihood. Clearly, those who need moral examination the most in order to maintain lawful moral lives are often the least likely to investigate morality, regardless of personal crises or other causes. Curiously, ethicists who teach and/or publish moral theory may themselves lead unexamined personal lives. They might believe in the argument that virtue leads to happiness, and evil to an unhappy troubled soul, and that no one willingly does evil, yet many skeptics and cynics reject that, saying that it merely reflects ancient Greek moral culture.
The pragmatic truth of the ULS is especially vulnerable when utilizing empirical consequentialism though it is obviously not a Platonic approach. From a moral point of view, the concept of a life worth living should be extended to as large and inclusive class of persons as is realistically feasible. This open-ended approach would discourage or reject a possible justification for potential depression, suicidal thoughts, moral hubris, and inferiority feelings among those persons who lead unexamined lives and are rarely engaged in moral discourse, especially if they take the ULS very seriously. It is neither beneficial nor obligatory to narrow the scope of the examined life, such that ordinary persons might question the worthiness of their lives, and consequently cause them to suffer, which could lower their self-esteem if they internalized the ULS. Besides raising interesting theoretical questions, the ULS, if taken as a core belief, could create or keep alive psychological problems or scars, and I think philosophers have an obligation to minimize them. (In addition, broadening the worthiness of lives respects our companion animals and primates.) As it stands, Socrates' ULS is a moral reproach which exalts him and his followers as morally superior to everyone else, even if he did not intend that. Indeed at one time, elenchus meant reproach and examination. (11) This suggests that the elenchus is/was a judging process by which the teacher or sophist would morally and intellectually evaluate his student and others, hopefully in a constructive and useful style so as to encourage rather than thwart the learning process.
Besides, personal moral inquiry might provoke or trigger anguish or mental distress among some people; it could uncover hidden painful regrets, psychological wounds or post-traumatic memories that would have been better buried. Sometimes denial is better left denied, rather than festering in one's daily life. I am not suggesting that ignorance is superior, but we should ask: what is the virtue or benefit in revealing safely hidden memories or secrets of moral choices? It may be beneficial when part of an effective healing therapy, or it can be very damaging over one's lifetime and haunt the individual's thoughts and dreams. (12) It could cause far more harm than would any benefit. Serious moral inquiry could cause harm, as Socrates says, with the wrong teachers, as horses must be trained by the right trainers and athletes by the right coaches
Meaningful and Examined Lives
It is important to question as a "gadfly" whether the Socratic examined life is always superior to an unexamined one. Let us define "meaning" in this context subjectively, as a positive value or worth attributed or conferred on X by a rational agent. This broad definition is highly inclusive for agents in all cultures, and is prima facie very relative. Critics may sharply disagree with this, but minimally, "value" and "meaning" should, I think, have the moral agent's subjectivity as a starting-point, and in this manner, argue from the particular to the universal, not the reverse. The argument follows the hypothetical syllogism. If P [contains] Q/Q [contains] R/P [contains] R
1. If an individual life has significant meaning then the life has some value or worth.
2. If an individual life has some value or worth then the life is worth living.
3. If an individual life has significant meaning then the life is worth living. --conclusion
The happy unexamined life might still possess much meaning, accomplishments, productivity and some virtue, and it would be difficult to deny that this life is worth living because the individual did not engage much, or at all, in moral discourse, question the nature of justice, inquire about definitions of moral concepts and so on. After all, Socrates expected people to inquire into the meanings of courage as well as practice bravery; concept and praxis should be together. As Aristotle said, individuals must practice virtues habitually in order to become good and happy. But to non-philosophers and moral skeptics, Socrates' dictum seems merely self-validating, and then universalized as a moral standard in order to admonish others and assume superiority over them or in, other words it displays questionable elitism. One can imagine an Athenian athlete arguing that a life without rigorous physical training is not worth living while extolling the virtues of health and fitness--claims that are invalid or doubtful. So, too, imagine that an ancient author argued in court that life without reading serious literature is not worth living. It is very possible that people will lead happier more fulfilling lives, full of meaning and satisfied expectations, reasonably virtuous, yet without the deeper reflective examination that Socrates demands. These lives may be devoted to accumulating wealth and a great reputation which he deplores, or they may be poor but happy, and their lives may still possess much meaning without this deeper investigation into virtue and social justice. Clearly, Socrates claims and would argue, that moral examination and deeper questioning are superior and more valuable than a meaningful happy unexamined life, but there is only scant evidence for this value judgment and no argument in Apology.
As mentioned, Socrates hopes to continue discussing virtue and examining moral issues after death, and mentions that he wishes to converse with Sisyphus in the afterlife. Yet even this mythical character known as the epitome of futility could lead a worthwhile life, depending on his thoughtful mental states. Arguably, he could be thinking about the meaning of justice and virtue while pushing his boulder uphill. Or perhaps he is contemplating the good life that he missed. Is he analyzing the scientific qualities of the boulder, e.g., its mineral composition? This very archetype of meaningless existence may not be so futile. Potentially, he could be leading an examined life while doomed forever to push his boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down again, and to happily embrace his fate; not unlike the Devil in Milton's Paradise Lost, who must discuss free will and determinism in hell forever as one of God's punishments. This poetic black humor is not as radical as this famous Greek myth of the meaningless life--utilized so well by Camus and later philosophers like Richard Taylor. (13) From this point of view, the meaningless life prima facie may not be so meaningless, and secondly, this putative futility is not necessarily futile. It may merely be shallow and/or lacking an in depth understanding of moral concepts for the ethical endeavor. So, too, if it is examined, then it is also not futile. Eventually, though, after so many years of pushing up the boulder, Sisyphus would eventually cease discussing morality with himself, as he would repeat the same thoughts over and over compulsively until the moral investigation would simply pall and die.
Despite all the reasons and tradition for intellectual moral examination, skeptics claim that serious moral inquiry is unnecessary, despondent, pessimistic and even pointless. An anti-intellectual reaction deems it merely academic, as if that made it unimportant and dispensable. The Socratic examiner could argue that skeptics refuse to take life seriously enough, and that one should not lapse into a superficial and less meaningful existence. Moreover, a large number of the uneducated or unsophisticated public lacks the logical intellectual ability and moral concepts for this endeavor. Skeptics naively respond that their lives are better off without engaging in moral discourse, if they were to consider it at all, because it is supposedly a cul-de-sac. Anecdotal evidence shows that many individuals take pride in leading unexamined lives. They may say "you take life too seriously" or "don't over analyze the (moral) issue," and some substitute laughter for introspection. This inability or refusal justifies their rejection of the examined life, but this may be a Freudian case of sour grapes or sweet lemons rationalization. They figure that deep logical moral thought is too difficult--too much work or time--for a very uncertain unresolved payoff, and thus they believe that they are better without it. Skeptics believe that ethics provides no definite answers or proof--a result or cause of widespread global relativism that undermine the search for final universal moral truths. If they are correct, then further deep discussions appear irrelevant or useless. Unfortunately, this activity is often perceived as a waste of time, as Russell observed over 100 years ago in The Problems of Philosophy.
Barring many of life's sad and decisive situations, some people, then and now, are able to manage their lives with luck and good fortune remain usually happy, and thus avoid the reasons which provoke serious moral examination in the second sense. This is especially true for short but happy lives. It is important to consider the major motives or reasons that are likely to cause people to examine their lives and life seriously as Socrates implores. It would be rare to make it through life without experiencing one or more of the following seven reasons, not necessarily in this order.
1. Loss of faith in God of theism. This can be the cause or effect of the other reasons, except 6.
2. Deaths in the immediate family, especially tragic, violent or impending. Grief.
3. War and genocide, including the Holocaust and ethnic cleansings.
4. Extraordinary political injustices, including Socrates' trial.
5. Serious deeply felt regret of things done or not done. Chronic counterfactual worries.
6. Unrequited love that forces questions about the meaning and purpose of love.
7. Wise insights from popular and serious art, film, literature, philosophy}14
Each of these reasons has a huge literature of critical and scholarly work, as well as popular fiction, poetry and other artistic expressions. This list is merely an outline without the pertinent details for further development. The essence of these seven is that they raise moral reflections of rightness and wrongness or good and evil. Generally, reasons 1-4 emphasize a significant loss and are often significant life-changing moral events. Six is only a potential loss of what might or could have happened. The first four reasons may provoke the "why?" which turns toward reflecting on the problem of evil. The God fearing theist can explain the crisis of these four as a divine test or punishment, fate or perhaps mysterious wisdom. Reason three can be the most overwhelming and horrific, but the farther back in time of the event, the less impact it has on the collective conscience and memories. Naive relativists maintain that the meaning of war and injustice varies by culture and thus all truths are only opinions and none are final. Reason four includes wrongful sentencing, unjust trials and major attacks on a democratic constitution and civil liberties. Reasons three and six are often interpreted as futile attempts to produce a good end from an evil. Lovers know that their love for the beloved is unobtainable or lost and can never be mutually fulfilled. It is all in vain, for nothing, as it creates only the illusion of hope and wishful thinking. Lovers are crushed by the realization that nothing can be said or done to make a truly positive difference. Reason five is directed toward what is lacking or missed based on perceived needs and desires, and could outweigh the positive values. Reason seven, the least important, often provokes reflection that is unlikely to be sustained for a lengthy period, except when seriously studied and involves the inner self.
Without at least one of these reasons, many if not most people are probably unlikely to be provoked or caused to engage in moral inquiry of their values or virtues, and even these may not be sufficient. They may, however, explore the larger objective definitions and meanings of virtues and vices. Certainly, these individual lives are worth living, regardless of their lack of moral scrutiny. In any case, some individuals do not possess the training or the conceptual understanding or ability for this process. Generally, reasons 1-6 are likely to cause unhappiness, sadness or pessimism over lengthy periods of time. It is apparent that individuals who perceive themselves as happy are less likely to engage in serious moral examination.
My position is that if one is free from physical and mental pain that would totally interfere with daily life, or which devastates the body or consciousness, and if one generally does not commit evils deliberately, then that life is worth living. No further moral introspection or understanding of ethical definitions is necessary. Overall, if one has enjoyed life and has not committed egregious evils, (or has shown honest remorse, and then lead an exemplary life), we should say that this life is worth living. This includes primitives (with some exceptions) in all cultures who would have no concept of the examined life.
Today worldwide consumerism, mass media, Internet, and faster access to international cultures are major reasons for seeking out and enjoying nonintellectual pleasures which provide important meaning and value to human lives. Clearly, Socrates and most philosophers after him argue that popular tastes in no way can substitute for higher mental pleasures and deep honest moral examinations. Philosophy and traditional religion (and some theoretical disciplines) are intended to elevate humans to the highest levels that reason and faith can achieve, but the fact is that people find significant meaning, purpose, and lives well worth living with minimal or no moral examinations. Indeed, academics aside, a majority of philosophers probably fit in this category. Moral examining should enrich these lives but there is no guarantee that it will establish this lasting value. (Longer work commitments shorten the available time for this, as well.) Anyway, the historical Socrates might admit that an enduring undeceived love for family and/or spouse entails a more worthy valuable life than a virtuous one spent alone discussing morality. Empirically, then, the ULS is untrue today and probably untrue in ancient Greece and elsewhere. Socrates, like so many after him, under estimate the vital influence of society and overestimate one's ability, satisfaction and happiness with the examined life.
Let us compare two different types of moral agents. Suppose that Green is totally knowledgeable about the meanings of justice and discusses virtue regularly with neighbors and acquaintances, and is very concerned about leading the good life. He has been psychoanalyzed for years--maybe too much examination for his own good. He has endured pain for much of his life, suffering from disease and a mental breakdown with much anguish. Green has little money and few family members. Eventually, he is confined to bed. His life is worth living, many would agree, but increasingly, with less meaning and less value. We can imagine him becoming a national authority on moral virtue and Plato, but his loneliness and despair only increases and triumphs over him. Contrast him with Black who is the opposite. He has no true understanding of ethics or justice and no interest in that either. His shallow life is happy; he has good friends, supportive family and a decent marriage. He squanders away his time in unproductive activities which are meaningful only to him. Black collects useless junk for no reason, plays trivial games and sleeps half the day. His time is frittered away, and yet he loves it and will not change. Is this life worth living? Socrates must answer negative, but arguably, this life is definitely worth living. Black may watch frivolity on television all day every day and his life would still be worth living, though not one capable of being recommended to others. His life is worth living at least to himself and perhaps to some others, but the vast majority of individuals would object that it is a meaningless waste of time. Green and Black's future patterns of life are able to be predicted for many years, according to inductive reason, assuming that nothing significant in their lives changes. (15) This should offer an interesting analysis for epistemology and longitudinal studies in psychology. Thus, Black and others who live an unexamined life, and appear to waste their time, cannot be reproached, for their lifestyle has much enjoyment which provides important meaning to them. Socrates, then, mistakenly rejects a totally unexamined life as somehow not worth living because it does not meet his unstated level or lack of worthiness.
Moreover, we ought to avoid the false dichotomy of posing the Socratic moral thinker versus the shallow moral agent whose only goals are material things, social status, and ordinary pleasures. This dichotomy represents a kind of moral arrogance in which the Socratic thinker is obviously wiser, yet rarely obtainable, and Black's type is the moral dunce. Realistically, isn't it actually a matter of degree? It is not a dichotomy between an ascetic Socrates (or hypothetical Green) and an intellectually vapid Black, but instead a long horizontal measuring line with the greater majority of individuals much closer to the latter, not the former. On one extreme end are the most meaningless lives, and the other far end includes individuals such as Gandhi, Kant, Augustine, and everyone else is in between toward the middle. More importantly, it is not always possible and often very debatable to clearly distinguish between the lives which are worth and not worth living. It would be difficult or impossible to establish the necessary or sufficient criteria, much less find a consensus among philosophers and others involved in this project. Who could or should make this distinction? In theory, over 90% of human lives would not be worth living if Socratic-Platonic criteria were utilized, so that the ULS becomes basically a moral ideal or rule, but of course, this estimated number does not weaken it. The skeptic could then charge Socratic examiners with moral hubris or arrogance by undertaking this challenge. Physicians in end of life situations have been making these difficult choices for their patients, along with close family members, for many decades now and many have been accused of playing God.
Furthermore, why should philosophers alone be the sole authorities and judges for the examined/unexamined lives? Plato's Republic aside, Philosopher-Kings are not the only answer. Ethicists are not the only credible judges; as mentioned, they may devote all their investigations to purely academic work and not to their own lives. They can be highly successful in the first sense of the word 'examined' but not in the second sense. An excellent ethicist might focus solely on theory, not practice and neglect the personal level.
Theologians and some clergy who provide counseling possess special spiritual insights to those who believe that God is the ultimate meaning. Over 95% of Americans say that they believe in God, and for a majority of them, moral inquiry is conditional, determined by their faith, their understanding of the Bible, and the depth of their belief. Further investigations and questions about moral issues seem unnecessary to them, partly because of their belief that clergymen have the answers to their moral inquiries; the uneducated or unsophisticated members are willing to accept the church's views without further questioning.
Besides, some psychologists, serious playwrights and others contribute eclectic meanings and valuable perspectives. Psychologists and sociologists provide relevant empirical evidence, especially from extensive longitudinal studies, which reveal how and why people repeat the same patterns of moral behavior and beliefs, habitually over years. (16) An individual's integrity may fluctuate, or remain the same, and this would influence his/her various moral choices and the meaning to their lives. Their future choices and actions and even outcomes can be predicted with a strong degree of probability. The unexamined life does not entail that it is meaningless or futile. A meaningless life is a distinctly separate issue. The unexamined life may be very meaningful and a meaningful life may be unexamined in the second subjective sense. X may do meaningful actions without ever reflecting on or examining morality. Y may do few or no meaningful actions, but engages in serious moral introspection and dialogue which itself is very meaningful. However, the class of Y's is very small because almost all actions are at least minimally meaningful to a particular person. (Collecting matchbooks or bottle caps may be very meaningful to some people as souvenirs but to no one else.) One might argue that discussing the definitions of justice for many years while not providing for his/her family's needs is morally unacceptable and not worthwhile, even if that individual is wise and inspiring to others. When moral examinations taken to the extreme neglect other moral duties or financial obligations, objections should be raised.
Rarely do we find lives without any redeeming features and are entirely not worth living. Examples would include some highly addicted drug users, a prisoner who wastes all his free time and leaves prison after most of his life is gone, a comatose patient who will never awake, some lifelong criminals, and a severe psychotic patient who cannot escape from his fantasy life, like the character in the film K-PAX who believes that he is from another planet. These are extreme cases whose lives are hopeless and whose suffering or meaningless activities are worse than their pleasures. As stated, if the person is free from devastating mental or physical pain which seriously interferes with daily life (work, sleep and leisure), and is not committing significant moral evils, who does not suffer from constant hallucinatory delusions, and is capable of clear thinking, then that life is worthwhile, even if unproductive.
This broad inclusive criterion (condition) is not an objective one, though others could argue for its objectivity. It enables or facilitates toleration and a less judgmental position with or without respect for lifestyles considerably more lax and less meaningful than our own. Susan Wolf's argument proposes stricter criteria in her understanding of meaning in life issues. For example, she argues that someone who loves smoking pot all day or doing endless crossword puzzles without restraint does not make her life meaningful. But this is not always true; the pot smoker's mind after smoking may nonetheless be capable of appreciating literature or doing some productive activity. The lover of crossword puzzles is learning definitions of words and perhaps sharpening her cognitive skills. For Wolf, meaning "comes from active engagement in projects of worth, which links us to our world in a positive way ... mere passive recognition and a positive attitude toward an object's or activity's value is not sufficient for a meaningful life." (17) Generally, Wolf affirms two kinds of necessary meaningfulness for the individual. The first view is to find your passion or love, and not to settle for something else; this is subjective (the Fulfillment view). The second is for the individual to become part of something larger and other than him/herself and with independent value, referred to as a Bi-partite view. The latter is "objective," yet she claims that no objective theory of value is argued.
This position may look acceptable or even laudable until it is closely examined, and then numerous glaring exceptions must be admitted from her broad generalizations. If we were to abandon these two criteria, our lives would no longer be meaningful and perhaps not be worth living for Wolf, and this I cannot accept. Secondly, as I have shown, one can easily imagine and may know individuals with meaningful lives utilizing one or neither of these criteria. Thirdly, the criteria will be too idealistic rather than realistic for many individuals. Living one's dreams and following one's passions (do what you love) is a popular platitude, and encourages wishful thinking and often disappointment and regret. Passions for climbing every mountain over 14,000 feet in the U.S., becoming a television star, or perhaps a tenured university professor in an extremely competitive field are praiseworthy and meaningful but are often missed or impossible life projects. J. Raz's review of her book raises many other interesting objections. (18)
As I have shown, the unexamined life can be definitely worth living and striving for, and in many cases, strengthen or bring more happiness and satisfaction to our daily lives and long term goals. Deeply felt moral examinations can bring unhappiness as well as happiness, especially to cases like the hypothetical Green and to very sensitive people. Any of the seven stated reasons may provoke such examinations or perhaps another reason may do so. The examined life, per Socrates, can be certainly worthwhile and rewarding, as well as providing intangible pleasures, but it is not the sumum bonum, a moral duty, except to Socrates. We cannot know whether the ethical roads not taken would have given us more or less worthwhile lives. Certainly, the examined life is very recommendable, but it is not essential or the only necessary or sufficient one for the 6.8 billion people in the world today.
Socrates' ULS was untrue when he uttered it at his trial, and is even more untrue today throughout the world. He held that life should include more than intellectual pursuits, and he is said to believe (wrongly, I think), that moral philosophizing brings happiness to more people. As stated, if this was true, then ethicists would be among the happiest people with the most worthwhile lives. Rather than accept this self-congratulatory acclaim, we ought to be content knowing that we are making the ascent from the cave, hopefully on the journey to gain certain moral knowledge, and we may be no happier when it is attained.
(1.) H. S. Goldman (2004), "Reexamining the 'Examined Life' in Plato's Apology of Socrates," The Philosophical Forum 35(1): 3.
(2.) G. Vlastos (1991), Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 50-51. "Plato makes him (Socrates) say whatever he Plato--thinks at the time of writing would be the most reasonable thing for Socrates to be saying just then in expounding and defending his own philosophy." It is interesting to wonder, as Vlastos mentions, whether Plato heard Socrates discuss ideas from early dialogues, or even if Socrates wrote down his ideas but they were lost somehow and never mentioned by anyone. Moreover, neither Aristophanes nor Xenophon's writings contribute to the ULS for purposes of this paper.
My thesis that Socrates' own thought is confined to Apology and perhaps Crito was confirmed from correspondence with Ronald Polansky, Duquesne University.
(3.) T. Brickhouse and N. D. Smith, Socrates on Trial. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 5, 9.
(4.) S. R. Slings (1994), Plato's Apology of Socrates. New York: E.J. Brill, 374-375.
(5.) E. Wilson (2008), "What Is Wrong With Socrates?" The Philosopher's Magazine Quarter two: 53.
Certainly, it is possible that Socrates discussed moral issues with his wife and other women, but prefers not to disclose that from fear of ridicule. He cannot admit without some shame that he received a wise ethical idea from a slave, woman or "barbaric" Persian in court or among friends without experiencing laughter.
(6.) M. L. McPherran (1999), The Religion of Socrates. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 209.
(7.) Few sources of accurate written information existed, so Greeks relied mostly on oral communications for their news, and probably for the moral implications and insights regarding battles, serious injustices, tragic deaths, adultery, etc. and the moral analysis. If the amount and quality of moral discourse in Athens was so limited and scarce, this is likely the result of their culture and motivating forces, rather than the fault of individuals such as Meletus.
(8.) W. S. Davis (1914), A Day In Old Athens. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 206-207.
(9.) Thousands of Greeks have been visiting these ancient sites in their renewal of faith in the gods. In opposition to the Greek Orthodox Church, a large underground movement uses these sites for baptisms, prayer, and other religious functions. M. Brunwasser (2005), "The Gods Return to Olympus," Archaeology 58(1): 63-70.
(10.) F. Renaud (2002), "Humbling as Upbringing: The Ethical Dimension of the Elenchus in The Lysis" in Does Socrates Have A Method? University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 186.
(11.) In his novel Chevalier D'Harmental, Alexandre Dumas writes: "It is the property of every sorrow which overtakes us to reawaken past griefs which we believed were dead, but which were only sleeping. The soul has its scars as well as the body, and they are seldom so well healed but a new wound can reopen them."
(12.) J. Samad (2011), "Socrates' Pragma and Socrates' Toughness: On the Proper Translation of Apology 30B 2-4," Polis 28(2): 265.
(13.) See R. Taylor (2008), "The Meaning of Life," in E. D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (eds.), The Meaning of Life, 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(14.) For example, Sentimental Education, G. Flaubert, Arthur Miller's plays, J.P. Sartre's "No Exit," V. Hugo's Les Miserables, Shakespeare and many others. Existentialism and Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus, could also become part of a deeper moral examination or inquiry.
(15.) Everyone establishes habits of living which become very repetitive as we age. Life is inherently inductive because of our repetitive causal pattern of living, year by year, over many decades. Understanding this inductive pattern of a person's past provides meaning and insight into our lives. The theory of induction from Hume's Treatise of Human Nature can offer much meaning if one searches for and explores it. We realize that the future may be somewhat closed regarding certain expectations and not as open to change as we would like. In later years, it may not significantly change in that the future depends on the past, plus luck, good fortune and freewill choices. The older we become, the greater is the force (or power) of induction upon us, and the less we can escape from the fixed past. The weight of a long past determines our future to a point; it is a matter of probability or possibles. The unexamined life is likely to continue unexamined until one or more of the seven reasons occurs, and perhaps not even then. This huge field for future study is at the nexus of sociology, psychology and philosophy. My hope is that this research will be soon developed.
(16.) See M. F. Steger, P. Frazier, S. Oishi, M. Kaler (2006), "The Meaning in Life Questionnaire: Assessing the Presence of and Search for Meaning in Life", Journal of Counseling Psychology 53(1): 80-93. Authors claim that poor measurements have hampered research into meaning of life issues.
(17.) S. Wolf (2010), Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 58.
(18.) J. Raz (2010), review of Meaning of Life and Why It Matters, Ethics 121(1): 232-236.
Wilbur Wright College
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|Publication:||Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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