“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates (470-399 BCE)
As with most of our knowledge about Socrates’ this quote came through the medium of Plato in one of his dialogues, Apology. This statement is said by Socrates’ at his trial after being sentenced to death by poison. Socrates was charged with impiety and corrupting the youth for his (now) famous form of logical reasoning and questioning (now known as the Socratic Method). This method called into question established norms of the time. Socrates was given an option to either choose death or to quit his pursuit of Philosophy (Love of Wisdom) and his response to this ultimatum was the above quote. Socrates would rather die doing something he loves and believed wholeheartedly in, namely the search for wisdom, than to go on in exile..
While Socrates was focused on the unexamined life from an abstract, metaphysical view, it is my belief that this quote has real world applications. Whether you are introverted or extroverted, you spend more time with yourself than anyone else and probably argue with yourself more than any other person in your life.
You: “Just ask her out”
You to You: “Don’t do it, she’ll realize how stupid you are”
We are filled with a number of these little arguments on a daily basis, whether it is what to eat for breakfast to whether you should purchase a house or not. When reason wins the argument, the outcome is generally good (from an ethical perspective at least), but when emotion wins the argument it could go either way. If the consequence of these arguments is something major let’s say a break-up or a spending spree, we tend to examine our decision process. While this reflection is good, you are too late! Let me share with you an example from my first real job.
I was hard working, ambitious and putting in 12 hour days to get the work done that I needed, but the outcome and consequences were not paying off, I was trying everything but the outcome was the same. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the decisions I had made and focused generally on the outcome of what happened and tried to figure out why it had gotten this way. While reflection is good, it didn’t seem to get me anywhere until I took my boss out for coffee and asked her “what do you think I am doing wrong? Am I not smart enough? Am I missing something?” What she said to me was simple but hard to wrap my head around… “Self-awareness”. I remember walking out of the meeting cursing her name… “How can you tell me I’m not self-aware, I spend all day and night in my own head!!! I’m losing my mind trying to figure out what is going wrong!!! SCREW YOU, YOU DON’T KNOW ME!!” Well, after I calmed down and thought on it, she was right.
While I was examining my life, I was doing so reactively. It occurred to me that the “unexamined life, was not worth living”! Yes, this parts from the meaning Socrates’ had intended, but still holds true. If you do not review your current surroundings in the moment and examine what and why you are doing things the way you are, you will be doomed to Einstein’s definition of Insanity “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Self-awareness is about stepping out of the situation and living in the present, thinking not only about what you are going to say or do but WHY you are going to say or do it. On a deeper level, one Socrates would most likely agree with, this examination of your own life will lead to greater happiness. You spend so much time worrying about the future or reminiscing about the past that you don’t have time to enjoy the present. Since the only time you will EVER experience is the present, you better get damn well comfortable with examining it! I like to think that if I were in Socrates’ shoes, I would have done the same thing. The unexamined life is not worth living and only by examining your life can you really live at all.