|||Plato, “Apology” in Plato Complete Works ed. John M. Cooper and trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.|||
If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less. Apology, 38a.
This quote appears near the end of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ legendary defense of his philosophizing before the court of Athens shortly before he was sentenced to death. Though there has been a great deal of debate about the true meaning and significance of these words, one thing that is seldom examined is the refreshing audacity involved in their utterance. As Socrates himself notes in the passage above, his words are of such a nature as to be considered unbelievable by the common men of Athens. Nevertheless, the fact that he considers that the unexamined life is not worth living is a truth about his character that even the least familiar student of his famous dialogues must acknowledge. Why then, did he find his particular situation so implausible to the average citizen?
We will never know with certainty, but one might venture to guess that it has to do with what some have called the bias of common or practical sense. This bias may not be recognized as such, perhaps because it is an endemic to postmodern culture. It is a view that refuses to acknowledge the value of anything except insofar as it is practical or useful. Such a viewpoint would indeed see his philosophizing and boundless questions as a fruitless waste of time, since it yields no immediate benefit. Yet the unexamined life is somehow not worth living, and in this simple yet profound statement Socrates suggests that there is more to life than the immediate satisfaction of everyday needs. Perhaps these satisfactions are themselves unsatisfactory if meaningless, and they are meaningless if they are unexamined. To examine is to search for that meaning in everyday existence, and it is the first step in a long journey that begins in questioning and ends in truth.
About Thomas Chaney
Thomas Chaney graduated from the College of St. Thomas More in 2007, and is currently pursuing a MA in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He currently works as a Scholar’s Associate in Philosophy with the Walsingham Society School of Liberal Studies. Follow Thomas on Google+
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