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Socrates states in the Apology that ‘the unexamined life is not


worth living’ (Apology, 38a). Outline what Socrates meant by this
expression and consider whether Socrates lived an ‘examined’ or
‘unexamined’ life. Do you agree with Socrates that ‘the unexamined life is
not worth living’?, explain why you agree or disagree.
Aristotle believed that everything in the universe has a telos . Telos prescribes that everything has an
innate purpose or inner goal that it is meant to attain. We could say the telos of a single grass seed is to become
a blade of grass, or the innate purpose of a boulder laying at the bottom of a deep ocean is to eventually become
a pebble on a beach. Human Life too has a telos and Aristotle believed that this was happiness[1]. The pursuit
of living an examined life and the definition of the human telos could be said to be closely linked since the
attainment of truth and wisdom according to Socrates leads to the improvement of the soul. What Socrates
mean by “..the unexamined life..” and how can we attempt to understand his definition?
Firstly we will trace the origins of Socrates' understanding of his physical and spiritual world by
considering the pre-Socratic thinking regarding the dualistic nature of the body and soul, and how this
determined the standard or truth by which he examined his life. Then we will answer if the life of Socrates was
indeed an examined one as defined by his own terms, whether examination of our lives is possible; and question
whether or not Socrates truly fulfilled his telos by living and dying by this axiom.
During The Apology Socrates admonishes his peers for caring “..so little about wisdom and truth and
the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”[2] So it seems the pursuit of
“wisdom and truth” and “the greatest improvement of the soul” were among the primary reasons for his actions,
but where could Socrates' idea of truth have come from?
It seems unlikely to have stemmed from the beliefs of pre-philosophic thinkers. This era of popular myth
and cosmogony (800-600 B.C.E.) relied mainly on the writings of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod's
Theogony ('generation of the gods') to explain the origin and phenomenons of the natural world through
mythology. These mythological accounts only regressed so far into the nature of the beginnings of the
perceptible universe. While Hesiod gives an account of the origins of the Greek Gods; Cronos, Zeus etc., by
describing how the earth and sky separated to from the physical environment[3], he does not pose questions
about nor attempt to explain the stuff of which the earth and sky are made.
An Ionian Greek; Thales of Miletus (625-545 B.C.E.) offered an explanation for the physical make up of
the universe which for the first time did not make reference to heavenly deities or the result of their actions. His
belief was that everything was made from water; which he declared as the principle of all things. This was the
original “First Principle” theory and began a process of rational inquiry[4]. It seems pertinent to emphasise at this
point the importance of this change in direction by the Greek thinkers with regard to the process of explaining
their physical surroundings. This move towards rational enquiry marks the beginning of the type of analysis
which is conspicuous in the Elenchus style of argument later perpetuated by Socrates.
So the process by which the “truth” could be uncovered by Socrates becomes a little clearer once the
perspective of analytical thought to explain the physical world is introduced, and there is another pre-Socratic
thinker who went on to explain what had long been believed to be a basic sign of the influence of the gods in the
physical world; the movement of the clouds and heavenly phenomenon.
Xenophanes of Colophon (circa 546 B.C.E.) claimed clouds were responsible for all meteorological
phenomenon and went as far as to imply that natural science could explain what was previously been deemed
total divine intervention.

She whom the call Iris this too is by nature (pephuke) cloud
purple, and red, and greeny-yellow to behold. (21B32)

Xenophanes says that the star-like phenomena seen when aboard ship,
which some call the Dioscuri, are cloudlets, glimmering because of their
kind of motion. (A39)

It has been argued that Xenophanes introduced a previously unused method of argument here: X is really Y,
where Y reveals the true character of X.[5] So Xenophanes states that this sign from the divine perpetuated
through a heavenly mechanism – Iris as a messenger; the Dioscuri (St. Elmos Fire) providing comfort to sailors -
is in fact a purely natural occurrence. But Xenophanes does not abandon the idea of god. He postulated about
the idea of an omnipresent, all pervading presence in the possession of a divine intelligence which is so complex
even if mortals were to come close to correctly explaining how it worked, they would not realise it since they
were trapped inside a physical prison comprised of opinions that only resembled the truth[6].
“And of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen,
nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things;
for even if, in the best case, he should chance to speak what is the case,
all the same, he himself does not know; but opinion is found over all.”
There are echoes of Socrates' belief that knowledge only validated by the self is no knowledge since he states
that he knows nothing during the questioning an unnamed politician in the The Apology “..I am better off than he
is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.[7]”
A younger contemporary of Xenophanes; Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 B.C.E.) also examined the
concept of wisdom and we will now see how it forms a basis on which Socrates built his notion of what truth and
wisdom are. Heraclitus is particularly noted for bringing forward an idea of unity between day and night which
were previously viewed as opposing forces of nature in the universe[8]. It is this concept of a ubiquitous
understanding containing within it such contrasting realities as day and night postulated by Heraclitus that begins
to solidify the idea of a oneness or “truth” as Heraclitus calls it; The Logos. When writing about The Logos
Heraclitus states that ordinary men will ultimately fail to understand it's true meaning due to to the fact they are
“..oblivious of what they do awake, just as they are forgetful of what they do asleep.” There is an inference that
Heraclitus believes that our physicality is an inhibiting factor in relation to being able to truly understand our
existence, a point more starkly made in this quotation;
“Most men do not think things in the way they encounter them, nor do they recognise
what they experience, but believe their own opinions”[9].
This negative association with the body or physicality is strongly aligned with the beliefs of Socrates who states
“clearly the Philosopher more than other men frees his soul from association with the
body as much as possible.” (Phaedo Section 65)
The writings of Heraclitus imply that in order to try and comprehend the deeper meanings of our reality and gain
an understanding of truth, we must realise the limitations of our physicality.
While Heraclitus' Logos spoke of a truth that transcended the consciousness of both the individual and
the collective (Demos) in order to gain both wisdom and civil order respectively[10][11]; the writings of
Parmenides of Elea (c. 520 – 450 B.C.E.) seeks to extend the question of what is truth or wisdom by
introducing the concept of metaphysics.
“There remains, then, but one word by which to express the [true] road: Is.
And on this road there are many signs that What-Is has no beginning and never will be
destroyed: it is whole, still and without end.” (fragment 7A, in Wheelwright)
This first philosophy of Being originated in Parmenides' assertion that there are two possible ways of enquiry or
perceptions of reality: the way of being and the way of not-being. The way of being can only exist in the state of
the present, not in the past or future. It cannot be created or destroyed but simply “Is”. This causes problems for
mortals though since their perceived reality continually loops through a birth-death cycle of reality but the way of
being knows no beginning and has no end.
There seems to be evidence at this point that pre-Socratic thought on the existence and nature of a
Parmenidean Way of Being, a Heraclitean “Logos” and the idea of “an intellectual power analogous to that of the
mind in human affairs”[12]according to Xenophanes follows a definite idealogical evolution and illustrates where
Socrates idea of intellectual truth and it's relationship with the soul originated. But how does Socrates himself
explain omniscient and immortal qualities of the soul. When the character Cebes in The Phaedo attempts to
cast doubt on the immortality of the soul Socrates counters these doubts by incorporating the role of Forms.
Socrates maintains that Form is the cause of every particular instance that bears its name, so the form of Beauty
causes the beauty of any beautiful thing and the form of Equality causes the equality of any pair of equal things;
since the soul is living, it must participate in the Form of Life, and thus it cannot ever die[13].
Socrates' version of the life which he believed must be examined was a complex and dualistic
relationship between an everlasting and immortal soul which possessed the method and disposition of gaining
true wisdom but was imprisoned in an unreliable preceptor of it's surroundings called the body. He did believe
however that the pursuit of wisdom through the examination of his life while in his physical form through
philosophical endeavour was the only way he could live his life. This is a point starkly illustrated by Socrates'
decision to send his family home and spend his last remaining hours of life philosophising on his impending
death with his friends and colleagues.
In today's world the idea of self-examination by Socrates' definition is probably not a concept
recognised or desired by most. The inane materialism, cookie-cutter lives and self-absorbed ultimate goals
pursued by most in “modern” societies are echoed by an identically urgent compulsion just to survive by the
rapidly increasing majority of the world population. The current personal conditions of the modernised world do
not lend themselves to an environment where philosophical enquiry into the development of our cultures and
societies for the benefit of all is the desired consequence of our actions. Socrates was a man dedicated to the
improvement of his society and strove to achieve it through intellectualism, but I do not believe it is a viable
option in today's world due to the introduction of noise and distractions by those who simply wish to rule but not
improve.
So in this essay we have traced the origin of Socrates' understanding of the “life” that he wished to
examine from the historical aspect of the development of the ideology of the soul beginning with the Theogony of
Hesiod to the duality of the body and soul which Socrates perpetuated. We answered whether or not Socrates
applied his method of examination to his own life and speculated whether or not we can live an examined life in
today's modernised societies.

References:
Cathcart T., Klein D., (2008) , pg 8
Jowett, B., The Apology , (2009) ln 458 -459
Cohen, A., (2008) , pg 1-5
Cohen, A., (2008) , pg 2-1
Cohen, A., (2008) , pg 2-2
Cohen, A., (2008) , pg 2-5
Cohen, A., (2008) , pg 2-6
Curd, P., (2007), http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/presocratics/#XenColHerEph
Kahn, C.H., (1979) , pg 29
Lorenz, H., (2009) , http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/#3.1
[1] Cathcart T., Klein D., (2008) Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar...Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, New York, Penguin.
[2] Jowett, B., The Apology , http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html , ln 458 -549
[3] Cohen, A., (2008) Philosophy 1 Philosophy 1 Foundation Module, Oscail DCU 1 1-5
[4] Cohen, A., (2008) Philosophy 1 Philosophy 1 Foundation Module, Oscail DCU 2 2-1
[5] Curd, P., (2007) Presocratic Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/presocratics/#XenColHerEph
[6] Cohen, A., (2008) Philosophy 1 Philosophy 1 Foundation Module, Oscail DC 2 2-2
[7] Jowett, B., The Apology , http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html , ln 146
[8] Cohen, A., (2008) Philosophy 1 Philosophy 1 Foundation Module, Oscail DCU 2-6
[9] Kahn, C.H., (1979) The Art and Thought of Heraclitus : An edition of the fragments with translation and commentary, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press.
[10] Cohen, A., (2008) Philosophy 1 Philosophy 1 Foundation Module, Oscail DCU 2-5
[11] Cohen, A., (2008) Philosophy 1 Philosophy 1 Foundation Module, Oscail DCU 2-5
[12] Cohen, A., (2008) Philosophy 1 Philosophy 1 Foundation Module, Oscail DCU 2-3
[13] Lorenz, H., (2009) The Phaedo's Theory of Soul http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/#3.1