Why An Unexamined Life Can’t Even Be Called A Life?

One of the most quoted sentences or maxim by any philosopher is believed to have been spoken by the great Greek philosopher Socrates in his defense against the charges of “corrupting the minds of the young and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state;” charges he was found guilty of and sentenced to death:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

However, it can be called an aphorism or dictum conveying a deep message rather than a simple statement.

Some scholars are of the view that if we translate the maxim with its true essence, its meaning will be more shocking or thought provoking as it will convey the idea more accurately like this:

“An unexamined life is not livable or can’t even be lived.”

And to decide whether an unexamined life is really livable or not, we first have to discover what is an unexamined life.

Some philosophical pundits suggest it means people have no question or desire to know. They have no curiosity and never question the life as they don’t even want to know the truth behind existence. Moreover, they also don’t know who really they are. They are thus also bereft of any imagination and creativity to unleash the potential of existing ideas in order to create new and valuable ones. They just get up every day, go to work and, when night falls, go to sleep. Or more concisely they get up, survive, and go to bed. This is their everyday routine and they keep repeating the cycle and never wonder what is the meaning or purpose of their life. There remains no difference between them and dud ammunition. Thus they are also unable to make amends or improvements in their life. And as they also don’t bother to search for meaning or purpose of life, they have a directionless life that can end up nowhere.

The above quote conveys an essential warning that you need to start off with purpose, or else you’ll suffer later on down the road. Each and every one of us needs to start off with purpose. However, if we don’t bother to know the purpose of life’s journey we also don’t need to examine our life. Consequently we don’t also have to determine how much progress we have made in the direction of our goal(s).

In other words, people living an unexamined life are like robots and just exist and don’t live. We may also say that simply eating, sleeping, working or just surviving instead of thriving can’t even distinguish us from animals of the jungle who too don’t have to ponder over the meaning and purpose of life and thus don’t feel need of any examination.

On the contrary, to live a meaningful/examined life, one has to wonder how the world works and why. And if it could somehow be improved. But more importantly, one can wonder how he became the person he/she is today or what combined to form who he/she is. Wondering will make one curious too and one will ask questions if he/she needs to be better than they were yesterday.

Thus one’s focus should not be just trying to understand the complications and challenges of the so-called modern world but also on knowing to or learning how to cope with these complications or challenges. We also must endeavor to understand how we got to where we are, digging deeply and fascinatingly into the history of ideas, while at the same time journeying inside to becoming a more enlightened and saner individual. And for this particular reflection, we are going to look at wonder in terms of “self-wonder.” Basically, this will imply a kind of self-wonder that begins with inquiry, a type of curiosity that can’t simply be indulged without emphasizing the importance of the psyche’s depth and breadth.

In essence, not only “who am I” but “how am I?” When the questions are intertwined, one begins to see the co-relationship between being and doing, even though they are not entirely synonymous both in theory and in practice. For instance, if we espouse compassion, then our actions must be a means to express compassion, toward ourselves, others, and the world. Further compassion must be practiced itself as a means to reflect our identity or further develop into an ideal through bringing it about in relationships. To further wonder about compassion in this instance, we would be curious as to why and how the practice of compassion became so important to us. Are we heralding it as a virtue because it was something that was taught? And/or, did the desire to manifest this virtue arise out of our own experiences? Have we witnessed some of the devastating effects associated with anger and hatred? Have we experienced suffering to such a degree that compassion was born from our own pain? Is it a response to ultimately heal others while simultaneously healing ourselves, knowing the inter-being between self and other?

Therefore, when we mindfully reflect upon our lives and our relationships, practicing self-inquiry, self examination and curiosity, we are invited to embark upon the path of wisdom. Yet, self-inquiry and any method connected to psychological analysis is not wisdom itself, but rather, a means to wisdom.

And if we don’t practice the art of self-reflection or self-examination, we can not only risk making the life meaningless but can have to face many other devastating consequences of not doing so.

The consequences or horrors of an unexamined life can also be well understood with the help of an interesting and insightful analogy between the working of a motor vehicle and that of a human life.

People, who own a motor vehicle, usually (or expected to) try their best to ensure that vehicle is maintained properly, for their safety as well as for the safety of other road users. A driver always (or should always) makes sure that, among other things, carburetor is alright, car lights are working properly; tyres are in good condition; brakes work well, etc. In addition the driver makes sure to check engine oil, battery, and water as well, before embarking on a road trip. Further it is also important for drivers of vehicles to ensure the following:

i)Using Safety belts — The driver and passengers are buckle up at all times, even for short distance trips. Babies and young children are strapped into their car seats.
ii) Avoiding distractions: for instance, cell-phone use while driving (including texting, calling or talking/listening to a call) watching a video or listening to music while driving
iii) Observing Traffic laws — Being observant on the road. Knowing and obeying traffic laws (including speed limit) at all times.
iv) Pedestrian visibility — Wearing visible clothing such as white or reflective clothing while walking by the roadside, especially in the evenings and into the night.
v) No Alcohol — Avoiding alcoholic drink when driving!
vi) Windscreen — Cleaning your windscreens regularly before a journey commences. Greasy or dirty windscreens limit a driver’s view.
vii) Vehicle and driver documents — Such as driver’s licenses and Vehicle fitness certificate should be carried at all times when driving. Ensure that they are up to date.
viii) Remaining calm— not giving into road rage.

Moreover, if your vehicle also has a GPS system, you will find it extremely easy to navigate because it tells you the direction for every turn you’re taking

Keep in mind that your life is also like a road trip and you are the driver of your vehicle (your life). Traffic laws are the rules of life.

Thus an unexamined life is like an unfit motor vehicle that can cause damage not only to the person driving the vehicle but also to other road users. And the more unfit a vehicle, the more damage it can cause.

In a nutshell, like driving, living a conscious and enlightened life (to reach your destination without any serious mess) is a deceptively complex activity. It requires the constant use of our all senses, especially, eyes, mind and body. According to a study, in a small number of crashes, investigators reported that the critical reason for the crash was that the driver was asleep at the onset of the journey. Thus if you are not awake or in other words living an unexamined life, chances of a horrible accidents get higher and higher.

And the more you keep examining and maintaining your vehicle the lesser will be the need to go to workshop. Similarly if you are able to do self-examination on regular basis, the lesser are the chances of your ending up in the mental asylum that is like “workshop for out of order/unfit minds.”

And last, but not the least, your goals in life can also be achieved more easily if you have a sense of direction like a good quality GPS installed in your vehicle that works the same way: All you have to do is decide where you want to go by clarifying your vision, then lock in your destination through goal setting, affirmations, and visualization.

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Notes:

[1] Plato, Apology, trans. Hugh Tredennick, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 24c.

[2] Plato, Apology, trans. Benjamin Jowett, 38a.

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Aizaz Baqir

I am a freelance writer and translator based in Multan, Pakistan having interests in reading, writing, travelling and social services.