The unexamined life



So now I am officially addicted to MOOCs as I start my 5th one in a month! This is the first week of Know Thyself. Part of the course includes weekly study questions and I have decided to use my blog as the platform for this aspect of the mooc.

Week one study question;
Socrates claims in the Apology that the unexamined life is not worth living. (“The unexamined life is not worth living, for a man.”) Explain what it might be to examine your life, or your self, in a way that seems relevant to Socrates’.

This got me thinking (I suppose this is what Socrates was after) as it’s not something I have thought of before. Or maybe I have and just not done it consciously.

For Socrates self examination was the foundation of life itself and he sought excellence and virtue of character. It was so important that he chose to die, being forced to drink hemlock after being sentenced to death, rather than give up self examination. He even had a method of doing this called the Socratic method.

Scholars call Socrates’ method the elenchus, which is Hellenistic Greek for inquiry or cross-examination. But it is not just any type of inquiry or examination. It is a type that reveals people to themselves, that makes them see what their opinions really amount to

excerpted from Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I don’t claim to fully understand the method so can’t go into detail in terms of what it is exactly. You can read more about it or Wikipedia

From what I have read it appears to be a dialogue which is deliberately confrontational with a view of getting you to question your own views and perspectives.

The principle underlying the Socratic Method is that students learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic, finding holes in their own theories and then patching them up.

Socrates would consider life without this self examination to be unconscious repetition.

But is it really? I couldn’t imagine going through self examination in the way that Socrates suggests. Maybe I should but I haven’t, yet, felt a need to. I applaud people who do but wouldn’t condone those that don’t. I think what is more important than this dogmatic self examination is awareness of yourself. I don’t mean all the time and of everything but just knowing what your strengths and weakness are is a useful skill that you learn as you get older. Whether its in a quiet moment or after some significant life event we may take stock or suddenly realise something about our selves. Self examination also comes more naturally with age as you have more years and experiences to look back on. So in this regard I agree with Socrates

Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge

I also think that

an unexamined life is not worth living

is going a bit far. There are plenty of people out there who live happy and fulfilled lives that don’t self examine. You have to admire Socrates though. At his trial he refused to give up philosophical questioning and self examining and it cost him his life

…if, I say now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods… then I would be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.

I look forward to learning more and quenching my ignorance!


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