Monday, 19 April 2010

Socrates' unexamined life

Plato, of course (ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ; the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being. Apology, 38a). One of those phrases much more often invoked than considered. How can Plato, or Socrates, know whether an unexamined life is worth living or not, unless they think themselves into the position of a human being living an unexamined life? But to do so is necessarily to inhabit the state of mind of an examined life. So, the short version is: they cannot know what an unexamined life is like from the inside, and therefore cannot know whether it is worth living or not. (The alternate position, a kind of externalised 'people who live unexamined lives are not worth keeping alive', crashes on the rock of uncertainty: how do you know whether I live an examined or unexamined life? Lacking telepathic access to my brain, you do not).


Rich Puchalsky said...

No, I think that this one is pretty comprehensible. Plato, Socrates etc. presumably all went through an adolescent period before they learned, or discovered for themselves, that they needed to examine their lives. So they experienced both an unexamined and an examined life, and could compare them.

Neither were full lives, of course, that's true of the majority of lives of people who act as guides for billions. (Was it James Branch Cabell who said something about Jesus would have been a lot more understanding about certain things if he'd ever lived to middle age? He certainly wrote something like that, through a fictive persona, about how if Satan would only get married, that would settle him down.)

At any rate, the unexamined life that these philosophers had as a basis for comparison may have been largely adolescent. Which wouldn't surprise me, as the whole point is kind of adolescent, or at least young adult. You have to get older before you realize that examination by itself doesn't really make that much difference, once the early-life self-definition things are done.

Adam Roberts Project said...

OK, I take the force of that. There's a part of me that wants to say: once you examine your life it's not an unexamined life any more -- which precludes really understanding what life used to be like. Can we really revisit our childish mindset without layering-over the experience with our adult perspective?