The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living: What Does It Mean?
How many of us who have encountered this phrase have come back to it time and time again, pondering not only its raison d’etre but its significance? Attributed to the great Greek philosopher Socrates, it is packed with a potent, yet equally succinct philosophical punch only deliverable by a champion philosopher. But…what does it mean? Since there are no definitions in terms of the interpretations of a particular philosophy outside of what we make of them, I’ll give my personal definition and explanation of the phrase, and break it down in sequential parts, few as they are.
The UNEXAMINED LIFE Is Not Worth Living
What is an Examined Life?
There is one common denominator that aligns all great minds throughout history. It is a common thread that has held together almost every philosophy throughout all of the ages. Whether it be a classical philosopher like Lao Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, or Socrates, or a great revolutionary pioneer like Abraham Lincoln or Dr. Martin Luther King, or an iconic thought leader and intellectual like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. That one common thread is that all of them, each and every one throughout history, paid an enormous amount of attention and detail to life, the processes of life, what that means, and pursued the examination of it fervently.
What does it mean to examine one’s life? I believe that it involves, above all things, scrutiny. To say that we scrutinize something of course means that we meausure it against something else. In this case when we scrutinize ourselves or our lives, it indicates that there is a bar to which we hold ourselves in measurement. We measure the breadth, width, height, and scope of our performance versus this bar. I believe that to all of these great men and women throughout time that have possessed this beautiful trait, the answer to that question of “what” that bar was against which they measured themselves, the answer was…the highest version of themselves. Their purpose.
Einstein of course laid the framework for relativity theory, famously outlining the recently confirmed theory that everything that existed within the confines of time and space, was relative to everything else that existed along that same plane of time and space. Like marbles capable of clacking into other marbles, due to the closing of the gap in the space between them, all of our experiences are subject to the relativity of how they coexist with every thing that exists outside of that position.
How fitting then, that a man should subject himself to the same relativity as the cosmos.
By examining one’s life, what is meant is that one essentially holds oneself up to the figurative magnifying glass and says, “In relation to that thing over there – where about am I?” The bar in this case, is what Aristotle called Arete – Virtue, in Greek. This isn’t the virtue that we understand it to be in English, but rather, the fulfilling of the full living potential of something. Fulfilling in this case is an enormous word, because it connotes an absolute purpose. We will get to that in a moment.
The Unexamined Life IS NOT WORTH LIVING
How is it that Socrates can make such a bold assessment? How can he say that a life is not worth living, even if it hypothetically weren’t able to live up to it’s full potential? Simple.
In order to understand the point behind the statement that “An Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living,” you have to put aside your relative understanding and knowledge of the common human existence. In order to understand his point, you have to stop thinking in a humanistic way and think from the perspective of Socrates, which would have been from the perspective that every creation, has a form and has a virtue. That every thing that has ever been created to exist has a “fullest potential,” or excellence, which was the purpose for it’s being in the first place.
What Socrates is essentially saying is that a knife with only a handle and no blade, has no reason for being. A cup made of a solid chunk of wood that isn’t hollow and from which you cannot drink, has no reason for being. A tire made of squares that cannot roll is useless. What he is saying is that if one does not hold oneself up to this standard of living in accordance with his purpose – his fullest potential – then there is no point in being here. So reason in this case is relative. It has no reason because relative to what it was made for, it does nothing.
Finally, the phrase “examine” also has a more esoteric meaning. It means that we are not robots, programmed to be excellent at a particular task from the moment we are fired up, like computers, jolting into prime performance as soon as the current of electricity lights our eyes and begins our reason for existing – computing. The need for examination is because, quite to the contrary, we are human, and because of this, excellence requires progress. In robotics, progress only comes with a new iteration of the technology. Humans are not limited in this way. And so, the only way that we can tell if we are “on point,” with regard to being where we want to be relative to that bar, is by the measurement of our progress.
A race, no matter how long, is won only by accumulation of the action of a single step.
So in summary, what this wonderful phrase means, is that a life worth living is one in which we are continually examining our progress toward our purpose, making sure we are ever advancing toward becoming what we were purposed to become; the embodiment of our highest self.
Progress toward Arete, aka Virtue.