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Claim: The unexamined life is not worth living

April 19, 2010

Claim: The unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates is heralded as the first real philosopher in the Western tradition. He embarked on a quest for wisdom. Finding little wisdom, but lots of self-certainty, he began his job as the gadfly of Athens. He asked people questions and publicly revealed that their guise of authority and assuredness masked ignorance and inconsistency. He suggested that everyone undertake the task of carefully examining their beliefs and think for themselves.

His idea that the unexamined life is not worthy living is referenced often. But what did examining life get him? Executed! Maybe the unexamined life is not worth living, but at least you get to live. Original thinkers have often faced persecution, exile and execution. Thinking can be dangerous. Putting your thoughts out into the public arena where they can be acted on can be deadly, for yourself or for others. Ideas about individuality and democracy obviously changed the world, but many died in the process. Ideas about racial purity and the will to power have been behind some very destructive actions.

So, should we all just stop thinking? No. Learning to think clearly and carefully gives us the ability to form and shape our own lives. Without it, we are left following the thought of others. When we don’t think for ourselves we are most likely to follow other people’s ideas without seeing where they lead and without taking responsibility for our beliefs and actions.

Bottom line: Socrates’ fate demonstrates that thinking can be bad for your health, but he was right that not thinking is guaranteed to be dangerous and deadening.

Erin McKenna

Professor of Philosophy

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