Raya Bidshahri, 13 April 2014
In all of history, there have been very few human beings as intriguing, influential, and ingenious as Socrates. He was not only one of the greatest thinkers of the 5th century but also one of the greatest to have ever lived. Of all his extraordinary views and ideas, one of the most significant and wonderful of them is that of “the unexamined life”.
In 5th century Athens, you would have to have been very ignorant to not know who Socrates was. He was not only a master of reasoning, but boldly challenged and questioned the views of his society. And he did so with a very unique and particularly effective method; he would, very simply, ask questions. If only you could travel back to his time in Athens, you would most probably see the great man in the streets conversing with politicians, lawyers and the youth and questioning them about various things from morality to the nature of knowledge. Most of the time, he didn’t have the answers himself, but that wasn’t what was important. According to Socrates, by questioning and reasoning alone one could pursue the truth.
Unfortunately for us, there aren’t any records of written works from him and we are completely dependant on his students’ writings, particularly Plato, for details. Nevertheless, from the writings of his pupils, we understand that the goal of Socratic interrogation was to help individuals achieve self-knowledge even if this knowledge turns out to be negative in character. In other words, he would use nit-picking reasoning and logical thinking to expose illusions about reality.
However, Athenian democracy, just as most societies did not like to be challenged and were not pleased. They eventually put Socrates on trial, for what they considered undermining their religion and apparently corrupting their youth. What’s utterly admirable about Socrates is that even after being convicted by the jury, he declined to abandon his pursuit of truth. By boldly refusing to accept exile from Athens or commitment to silence as his penalty, he maintained that public discussions of great issues of life and virtue are absolutely necessary for human progress. He believed that debating, challenging and questioning the society we live in is a very necessary part of human life. Even more necessary is questioning our own lives. According to him, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
A life where we don’t examine how we live, is simply, not worth living according to Socrates and for very good reasons. Most of us are so concerned with the little things in life, constantly concerned with all the things we have to do and all the assignments that are due; that we forget to sit back and examine what it is that we’re doing. Very few us sit back to question our own ways and hence, fail to improve upon them. Sometimes we learn best about ourselves from ourselves and unless we sit back and examine our lives, we wont gain this essential self-knowledge. Even more, we don’t simply get to examine our own actions but also those that affect others.
Now some people may find this claim utterly outrageous and unacceptable. Many may state that there are people who live worthy lives regardless of whether or not they examine them. Let imagine a hypothetical situation: there’s a woman in Moldova, who spends almost all of her time raising awareness about the harms of prostitution and protecting women in her city from them that she has little or no time left for herself. Yes, she’s not examining herself and her life, but does that mean that she might as well die?
There are two general responses to this. The first is that Socrates’ claim should not be taken literally and interpreted as; an unexamined life is not to be lived. In other words, it is much better to examine your life but that doesn’t mean you might as well die if you don’t.
Secondly, we can say that maybe if this woman actually examined what she was doing, there would be more benefit not only for her but the women she was trying to help to begin with. What if she pursued the Socratic interrogation with her life and what she was doing? What if she began asking herself the following questions; is prostitution really bad if it was done properly? Does she have the right to stop to consenting adults from doing what they want? What would these women do otherwise? Would they starve in the streets instead? Did they have any other option, to begin with? Was she really doing them a favor?
No one’s to claim that this lady shouldn’t go about raising awareness against prostitution—but with an examined life. There’s no denying that she would be more aware and much wiser about what it was that she was doing.
As you can see, it’s amazing how the views of a great thinker in the 5th century so perfectly fits in with today’s context. In the end, Socrates was sentenced to death, yet he never lost his confidence in the power of reason. With that, he is a real model not simply for future philosophers but also human beings as a whole. There is not a single day that passes by where we don’t have to choose between the convenient conventionality set forth by society and the truth. The next time you’re faced with this choice, think about Socrates.