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Ethics: Know Thyself #1 (The Examined Life)

Socrates famously said "The unexamined life is not worth living." In this Wireless Philosophy video, Mitch Green (University of Connecticut) introduces a few interpretations of Socrates famous statement, and considers what it means to live an examined life.

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Video transcript

My name is Mitch Green and I teach philosophy at the University of Connecticut. Today I want to talk to you about the examined life. Is it the only kind worth living? About 2400 years ago, the philosopher Socrates was put on trial by his fellow Athenians at the age of 70. He was charged with a number of violations including corrupting the youth of that illustrious city. According to our records, Socrates had developed a following among a group of aristocratic young men who were intrigued by the conversations that he engaged in with other esteemed members of that city/state. Again and again, Socrates would get into discussions with such people about matters like justice and knowledge, showing that their views were not particularly very well supported and sometimes not even coherent. In time, Socrates acquired an entourage or curious young men who were intent on learning from these conversations. However, the days the young men spent with him, the days that they were not engaged in learning the arts of warfare, business, or estate craft one can really understand how their parents thought Socrates was corrupting them. Socrates as was usual for the time, speaks in his own defense at his trial. In spite of his best efforts to explain and justify his actions, the jury votes and sentences him to death. To avoid this sentence, he could instead be exiled to another city/state perhaps Corinth or Negara. But Socrates knows that even if he were to relocate, he'd still be unable to keep his mouth shut. He'd still want to ask people questions about what makes for a just society, or how it's possible to know something. He sums up his attitude with the remark, "The unexamined life is not worth living for a man." Greek society at the time was terribly sexist with women having a status as slightly higher than that of slaves. Socrates might have meant his remark to apply only to men, but even for that restrictive application, it is still a strong claim, It would seem to imply that the less you engage in self-examination, your life is worthless. But what about all of those people who lived in Socrates' time or afterwards who did not engage in self-examination but they still did worthy things such as comforting the suffering, creating new technologies, discovering cures for diseases and so on? Should we really say that unless they engage in self-examination such people would have been better off not to be born? Such an attitude seems elitist, yet before rejecting it let's try to get clear on what self-examination is. For Socrates and his contemporaries, self-examination is not a matter of getting in touch with your feelings, delving into your unconscious mind, or finding your true self. Rather, it's more about working to form an analytical, empirical, and indefensible view about how to live the best kind of life. If you're into antique radios, ballroom dancing, or fighting for racial justice you should be able to say why such things are important to you rather than just insisting that they are. If you think others are doing something inappropriate, you should be able to explain to the neutral observer why they should not be doing what they are. Seeking such explanations can force us to ask some hard questions about our own deeply held principles and this can be a humbling experience. Further, as the philosopher Richard Kraut has observed, if you look at the original Greek from Socrates' notorious dictum is translated, you will see that it can be read in a more modest way, namely as, "The unexamined life is not to be lived." To you see how this differs from our first translation we compare it with the "The unmusical life is not to be lived." Someone who avows that third dictum is saying that if you go your entire life without music, you're missing something important. Your life can still be worth living, but it has a gap that a full and satisfying life would fill. Similarly, your life can be worth living if you don't engage in self-examination but you'll be missing something important. Socrates' most illustrious student was Plato who wrote down the dialogues his teacher had with others. Later on in his career, Plato penned dialogues in which Socrates is euthyphroties that are more fiction than real and serve as props in order for Plato to work out is own philosophical ideas. Through many of these dialogues, Plato describes characters that fail to live examined lives in one way or another. Ion, for instance is a rhapsode who goes around Greece reciting Homeric poetry from memory, but Ion doesn't understand what he is saying and so is missing out on many of the great themes explored in the Homeric tradition. Crito is one of Socrates' young followers and attempts after the trial to convince Socrates to escape prison in order to avoid execution. Socrates refuses the offer to which Crito replies, "People will think poorly of me for not "helping you to escape." Socrates points out that Crito should be more worried about doing the right thing than about what others think of him. In saying this, Socrates is suggesting that Crito has not yet fully examined his reasons for caring for his status in the eyes of others. Finally, Glaucon told Socrates that if he could find a ring that would make him invisible he'd be tempted to use it since it would enable him to get away with all kinds of crime. Socrates helps Glaucon to see that if you got things through such ilicit methods his riches would not be worth much to him since they are not earned. While our first impression of Socrates' remarks about the unexamined life suggests that it was too demanding, now that we've interpretted it more carefully, we can see that it is not so implausable afterall. The examined life in the ancient Greek sense of that term strives to make sense of why the things that are important to you are important and encourages us to understand why others have different attitudes from our own. We noted before that it can be humbling to try to explain to someone not already on your side why your point of view is correct or at least reasonable and of course with such an effort intellectual humility can grow and sometimes even take the place of dogma. An examined life then for Socrates and others influenced by him may inspire us to reconsider some of our most firmly held beliefs while helping us to appreciate other view points that before we had rejected. I can't examine my life very well without understanding how and why others live as they do. Subtitles by the Amara.org community