Why the Unexamined Life May be Worth Living

“The unexamined life is not worth living” so said Socrates (according to Plato) at his trial in 399 B.C. Yet, what if it was the opposite? What, after all, did Socrates get for his efforts but a death that seemed so pointless and unnecessary?

Socrates the unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates did, of course, win his True Glory, as 2,400 years later, he is still remembered and celebrated as the founder of Western philosophy, yet, was he entirely correct in his prognostication? How much more could he have done if he were simply a bit more reasonable, a bit less fanatical in his devotion to the life he’d chosen? In his trial, he certainly violated Robert Greene’s maxim of using the surrender tactic instead of falling to martyrdom. He also flew in the face of Quintus’ advice in Thirty Seven as to how a wise man should reveal his opinions, remarking that the wise man should take care to conceal his unorthodox, unsettling thoughts to those who are unworthy of them if he would put himself at risk by revealing them. Socrates did not follow this advice, as it was not in his nature to take such a course. Ironically, in his trial, Socrates would bring up the example of Achilles, whose own non-negotiable adherence to his code of honor caused his own early death.

For the record, I largely agree with Socrates’ sentiment (if not the way he conducted himself). Sometimes however, the examined life might get in your way. So I’ll be playing devil’s advocate here.

To live a great life, you do need to examine and find the truth of things, yourself most of all. Yet, sometimes it’s better to just act. Sometimes thinking is the enemy. Sometimes it’s even better to lie to yourself rather than carefully examining the truth. A little lie told to yourself repeated through action can become true, and it’s these desirable lies that are crucial to bending reality to your will, especially when starting out or when trying to turn your life around. Hence the phrase, “irrational self-confidence.”

The examined life, as Socrates would have it, is probably not that useful in the realms of marketing and influence either. Logic doesn’t move people to make decisions. Our brains didn’t evolve that way. Case in point was Socrates himself, who tried to stay on point regarding the truth, only to piss off too many people. By attacking the sophists and other elites of Athens, he attracted a following because they could in certain demographics be seen as a hated out-group, but his influence stopped there, and it wasn’t enough of a coalition to serve his strategic purpose, which was presumably doing more in finding truth. He certainly could have had more work to his name, even if he had won his kleos thanks to the immortalizing works of Plato.

I’ve written about analysis paralysis before. Gorilla Mindset deals with it extensively. To live an exclusively examined life is a recipe for falling prey to it.

Sometimes, you just need to do nothing. It’s spring. Sometimes it’s best for the mind to just go out and see the world come back to life. See the trees bloom in white, pink, purple, and yellow. See a girl enjoying the warm weather and talk to her. Thinking can be your enemy if you want to enjoy these simple things, especially the latter one.

Cleopatra's Needle Central Park spring
Sometimes beauty is self-evident. I wonder if Thutmose III would be pleased with this monument of his.

Sometimes, finding the truth about the world can make you incredibly angry. You’ll know the scam. You’ll know about the degeneracy and the stupidity of the “social justice” mob. You’ll especially get angry because the media wants you to be outraged and angry so you keep giving them clicks and views. Finding the truth, whether about the world or about yourself, is a time and energy consuming endeavor, and the opportunity cost may be better spent on relaxing or more importantly, taking action. This may in part explain why the smartest people aren’t always the most successful. Joe Sugarman wasn’t exactly regarded as the sharpest tack in the shed, but he became a copywriting and marketing legend, and wildly successful in his sales.

Sometimes life is better spent learning a skill and taking action rather than contemplating the cosmic truths, so to speak. It’s a lesson that seems lost on the ivory tower establishment (as I refer to it in Stumped) today.

For purposes of enjoyment and success at life, perhaps it can at times be better to live it in an unexamined fashion.

So there’s our devil’s advocate argument against Socrates’ main thrust.

Yet, the argument falls short of being complete and Socrates does prevail in the end. From our standpoint, this is for the following reasons:

  1. To achieve kleos, you’ll need to ultimately know the truth of yourself, primarily to know and consequently bring forth your talents. You’ll also need to know how to scale them and this will require constant critical self-examination. You can say that this falls into the trope of “finding your calling” (even though it’s more complicated than that).
  2. You may not care about the world, but the world cares about you. Failure to take heed of this fact, and find the truth as to how best to navigate it, is ultimately dangerous. In this regard, Socrates can be said to have violated his own maxim.
  3. As a subset of the above, the world is your market, and all heroes seeking kleos will need to be marketers. You need to know your market for others to be able to hear about you. Otherwise they simply won’t notice you.
  4. Beyond ourselves, we should look to the polis, to our interconnectedness with others, and how to leave a better world than we found it. Not only is this part of your True Glory, but it’s ultimately the only thing that can keep a civilization running. Self-aggrandizement alone is the path of pirates, and ultimately, civilizational collapse.

Those are the strongest arguments to be made to the fact that the unexamined life is indeed not worth living. It is a necessary condition for self-actualization. Yet, take heed to adhere to Aristotle’s Mean – virtue is to be found between the two extremes. The examined life is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for self-actualization. That’s because sometimes examination can set you back. For NT types, which I suspect a disproportionate amount of you are, it’s at times necessary to keep that tendency to examine in check.