“The unexamined life is not worth living” – What does it mean?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” These were the words that came out of Socrates’ mouth when he was asked to choose between penalty and exile.

Socrates chose his penalty over exile, but why?

Since there had been no further explanation regarding this statement, it sparked several arguments if this holds true or not. When he chose his penalty, would that meant that he gave up?

Amidst all these, the statement is something modern age still listens to.

Philosophers who lived through the years had different and opposing views on how and when to say that one has thoroughly examined their lives.

An examined life for Cicero is based on integrity and service whilst Seneca is to have meaningful goals.

Fyodor Dostoevsky defines examined lifelike human’s resistance from evil and misery. Whilst, Socrates see it as becoming wise and humble as human.

Yet, is there a wrong or a right answer to what constitutes an unexamined life is?

As the answer is all-encompassing, each philosopher raised valid points.

From which, other questions arise.

Would this mean that if you fail to examine your life, you are as good as a walking dead? How do you examine your life?

The philosopher under fire

It’s always easy to go back and look at the thoughts and ideas of past generations with disagreement. For many reasons but mainly because as time changes so do we, so do our ideas. This can become a paradox of sorts as we now see with this famous quote he left us. Even though it is now widely thought of as untrue it still remains a part of large religions, philosophies, and teachings.

Strange right?

With the broad philosophical strokes painted by our genius’s of thought, it can be easy to misunderstand their original meaning.

Meaning is what it really comes down to if validity is questioned. The controversial quote has definitely reached this point, so now we ask: What did he mean?

Is life worth living?

What does anyone of us really know? Honestly? Do we know that the sun will rise tomorrow? Or that the oceans will stay put?

The word “know” is difficult to wrestle with sometimes and tends to be thrown around…

close up woman hand watering a green young plant
Life is worth living!


The past is easier to deal with though, for instance: I know that I woke up yesterday. So to find out the context of Socrates’s “unexamined life” quote we need to know him and his ideals as closely as possible.

Unfortunately, he left zero written teachings behind, so we turn to his students: Plato and Aristotle.

After looking at what they left behind we quickly see that these two students adopted very similar thoughts on life. They both believed in virtue, truth, knowledge and ethical behavior. They also placed immense importance on one of their teachers’ most famous answers: “know thyself!”

Know thyself

Is this so different from the quote that clearly tells us to examine our lives? No.

Then why is one accepted and the other under fire? It is very simple and comes down to the last part of his quote.

When he says “life is not worth living”. People thought this was an arrogant statement given that we are so diverse.

I have always wondered at the quote “knowledge is power”. Why not “the application of knowledge is power”.

Knowledge is useless unless you use it, so what is the knowledge without application? Well, I think Socrates would disagree with me for a very important reason.

Knowledge is a powerful thing in itself only because as conscious beings knowledge becomes part of who we are. It becomes ingrained in us on a level hard to comprehend.

When I say the knowledge I mean true knowledge, not the fact that we read a book and believe some of what it says.

True knowledge is special, and I think Socrates wanted us to understand that.

When we gain knowledge it becomes a new part of us, we become something more. If this is the case, what would you want to understand most of all?

Ourselves? That seems to be a good place to start.

A point of reference

Imagine this: You are born just as you were before but on a different Earth. The two Piles of the earth are the exact same except one thing.

The new one has no light at all. No sun, fire, light bulbs or any way to see anything. If this happened to ask yourself, what would you call the darkness?

Nothing, everything, it would just be. Simply because there is no point of reference to distinguish its existence.

There is no opposite and there is nowhere to start.

Unless we examine who we are, examine our lives, we lose our point of reference.

We will go through life blind, deaf and hardly with any real understanding of this controlled chaos we call life.

How do you examine life?

Some argue that those who tried to examine their life and decides not to go through it all can be considered “examining life” by itself.

Technological advancements pros and cons

Somehow similar to the “falling in love with the idea of love” but not actually “falling in love” itself.

To examine life, do we measure it up versus a certain standard or is it about finding a meaning to it? If it is the former, to which standard should we measure it to? Whereas, the latter asked a profound question of how do you find meanings into your life?

In this age where everyone is on survival mode with barely enough time to ponder on their lives, human, in general, succumb to go with the flow. Following the standard set by everyone else, would that count as an examined life?

It is a standard in itself but would that be enough?

All these questions are under the premise that we have been brought to this life to be at our “fullest potential.” In the quest towards the best version of ourselves, conscientious effort to continuously assess our lives has to be made. The ability to think and examine sets humans apart from the rest of the creatures on Earth.

Failing to use this unique ability to think is like losing your purpose, which equates to dying.

Happiness Versus Fulfillment

In this journey called life, many argued between pursuing one’s happiness over finding fulfillment. Happiness in itself is subjective as it can take the form of tangible representation such as awards or material possession like house etc.

what is moral paradigm

On the other hand, it can also be intangible taking the form of meaningful and deep relationships. As simple as it seems, many find this pursuit superficial. Happiness is fleeting and Earth bounded. Yet, a quest to find fulfillment or your purpose is more fitting towards the worthy life.

Examining life goes beyond having a checklist of your material possession to a profound understanding of current versus ideal state. The ideal as our fullest potential. And, seeking the fullest potential leads to look deeper into our spirituality, acknowledging the existence of a higher being or entity.

That the existence of humankind is not merely to fulfill its earthly desires but in creating a “dent in the universe.” It requires a higher sense of spirituality with the conscious effort to reflect, correct our own mistakes and contribute to society.

Our purpose is our birthright. We then need to go through the purpose of life examination.

The journey towards fulfillment is a never-ending tirade of searching and finding our place is in this vast universe. To make a difference where you are with unquenched thirst towards wisdom and love.

When that time comes when we are stripped down to our bare necessities, it is not what we have acquired materially that matters most but how our presence has contributed to society. The aim is for continuous progress, not perfection.

In conclusion, the statement “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is Socrates’ way of reminding everyone to spare some time for self-reflection. But a mere analysis would not make any progress without action. A life worth living is being mindful that you are a work in progress towards fulfilling your purpose in life in making a difference in this world.