The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living, or is it?

“to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates, as quoted in Plato’s Apology


You buy a second-hand car. It runs beautifully for the first month. Then it makes a strange noise. At first you choose to wait to see if the noise abates all by itself. But it gets louder. You look under the bonnet, and finding nothing obviously wrong, you take it to a mechanic to investigate.

Your usually attentive friend hasn’t made contact in over a month. You check with other friends; they confirm that she’s MIA. You call this friend out of the blue to find out what’s going on.

This is the strength of the human animal – to not just react instinctually, but to understand, and act rationally. We are used to doing this every day with our objects – cars, phones etc. We do this with our personal relationships.

What about ourselves? When something is not going well with us, what do we do? Many people examine themselves to uncover the reasons for their problems:

Feeling rundown? Maybe my diet is wrong. Maybe I need more exercise. Perhaps I’m overworked, and I need a holiday. Sometimes we just need to add or subtract a certain behaviour from our lives and we’re good to go.

And then there’s another level of self-examination. When we analyse our thinking styles, or beliefs, or even the structure of our own personality, we delve deeper into our problem:

Feeling rundown, but can’t muster the motivation to exercise more or change diet? Might be due to a fear of failure – the disappointment of setting a goal and not seeing it through. Maybe it’s that I feel essentially unattractive, and that no amount of exercise will help. Maybe I worry that if I exercise more, I’ll set an expectation for myself that will be hard to live up to.

This second sort of examination is much more difficult that the first. It’s especially difficult on your own. We only see the world through our own goggles. These goggles might contort reality grotesquely, but we’d never know because we can’t see reality through anyone else’s goggles. We need others, or at least one good other, to help us understand our ourselves and own goggles.

None of us have 20:20 insight. To self-examine well we need a guide. But offering examination to others can be dangerous:

Socrates lived in Athens from 469–399 BCE. He said the abovementioned quote during his trial for impiety and corruption, for which he was found guilty by his peers and sentenced to death. Socrates was, by his own admission, literally a pain in the ass (he called himself a “gadfly” – a type of pest known to bite the backsides of donkeys).

For Socrates, his life mission was to rationally understand what we mean when we use commonly used concepts like bravery and love. And for his trouble in helping Athenians become more semantically rigorous, he was sentenced to death. It can be dangerous to offer unsolicited examination of the lives of others.

Psychologists are trained to use the “Socratic Method”, a style of questioning that mimics Socrates being a pain in the ass. It is not always a comfortable process to be on the couch being asked questions in this manner – even with a kind and empathic therapist. And as for being the asker of these questions – you often keenly feel the discomfort. It doesn’t feel life and death, like it was for Socrates, but it does feel a little dangerous. What’s at risk?

Self-examination is dangerous for your identity, your persona. The goggles you wear, the concepts you use, how you define yourself, your beliefs, these make up YOU. The process of self-examination can and should be transformational.

Transformation is needed at times. And never more so than now, in this changesaturated world. Like the snake that sheds its skin, we are increasingly forced to change our identity.

Is the unexamined life not worth living? I would say no. Examining your life is hard and dangerous, and there is no going back. It’s not for everyone, all of the time.

And for some people it becomes self-indulgent naval gazing. Self-examination tends to follow the law of diminishing returns. After a certain point, we derive less and less understanding of ourselves for every hour spent in self-examination. Better to engage in it when it is really needed.

And when is it needed? Its needed when things aren’t working. When you have the sense that something about your thoughts, or beliefs, or identity, or personality is just not working.

Then seek help.

Just don’t shoot the messenger.

One thought on “The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living, or is it?”

Speak Your Mind


Suite C5
102-106 Boyce Rd
Maroubra Junction, NSW 2035
(02) 8958 2585

Have Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.