Socrates believed that living a life where you live under the rules of others, in a continuous routine without examining what you actually want out of it is not worth living.

This illustration of a lifestyle is what Socrates would describe an unexamined life. Hence Socrates’ renowned statement “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Declaring that humans must scrutinize their lives in order to live a fulfilled one isn’t agreeable to any extent.

Socrates’ statement does instigate discussion, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone’s way of life and what makes or doesn’t make their life worth living. The theory that all lives that are unexamined don’t have a purpose and should not be lived is unreasonable and simply not true.

There is a lot more that contributes to a person’s happiness and well-being besides “examining their lives”. Factors such as life experiences, being with family, things to be thankful for, memories, and reaching success in life. Everything that makes one happy, and a happy life should most definitely be lived whether its examined or not.

Epicurus’ philosophy on happiness, is composed of three things; good companionship (friends), having freedom (being self-sufficient and free from everyday life and politics) and an analysed life (meaning to have time and space to think things through). Epicurus and Socrates have different approaches to the phrase “analysing life”.

Epicurus would advise not to spend money as temporary relief for a bad day but rather take time out and reflect and contemplate. Socrates on the other hand has a different stance. Epicurus believes that analysing your life is one third of what it takes to have a happy life whereas Socrates believes that if you are not constantly reviewing and examining every aspect of your life just so you can get the best out of it, it’s not worth living in general.

De Montaigne was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance and is best known for his skepticism. De Montaigne would’ve had an advancing degree of doubt and disagreement on Socrates’ statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

Socrates said that having a mechanical life with an unthinking routine, under the rules of others without ever examining whether or not they truly want to live with those routines or rules is basically not worth living anymore. However, De Montaigne had a contrary belief on what bring our lives happiness and what makes them “not worth living”.

He believed that human have a tendency to over-think things and that’s mainly where our unhappiness comes from. To be happy De Montaigne knew that we didn’t need intelligence and brain facts, we required wisdom and life experience. De Montaigne urged us to live the best lives we possibly can by simply not worry about our appearance, accept our own and everyone else’s culture, and always endeavour to become wiser.

De Montaigne had quite the opposite approach on how to live a happy life to Socrates. Socrates believed over analysing and examining our lives would lead to better ones, whereas De Montaigne would advise us to spend less time over-analysing and overthinking things as it leads to insecurities that we are all far better off without.

Socrates statement “The unexamined life is not worth living”, is an exaggeration and is predominantly false but does have a degree of truth to it. We must occasionally question ourselves and the world, as otherwise we will act without reason, and be unable to distinguish between good or bad actions, and without this way of thinking Socrates might argue we are no better off than animals.

But with this statement, Socrates promotes the idea that people who don’t examine their lives should not live. Socrates seemed to overlook other factors that account to our happiness and give worth to our lives. In disagreement with Socrates; We all must contemplate now and again but only to a certain extent, as it can be disastrous to overthink and reconsider every aspect of our life.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


  1. I think that the examined life is and integral part of existence. Who would not promote self reflection and self examination? These are key in psychotherapy, most if not all religion/practices as well as self help programs.

  2. Let us reflect on our own life – the only one we can truly experience – and not be over (or under) whelmed by the lives of others. Let us all recognize ourselves in the context of our humanity to ourselves and to each other. Let us look within ourselves to find happiness and purpose rather than in the distractions of comparison and acquisition that consume so much of our human time. Let us take the time to reflect on our own being within the framework of all-being and not separate our self from life.

    • Not only does one not negate the other, but is very possible that the examined life takes one on a road away from family and other default unexamined “virtues” that are in fact socio-cultural cliches that do not stand up under scrutiny.
      Running with the herd is only a virtue if it is in fact a deliberate choice stemming from the examined life. The reality is that it is indeed possible–and highly likely, in fact–that living the examined life (a la psychotherapy, or contemplative hermit, or religious, or just an assertion of personal freedom) will diverge from the herd and one needs to have the courage for the adventure of being to go one’s own way. That Socrates’ life exemplified, not pabulum/bromide about being “safely” tucked in with the herd.
      To paraphrase Fromm, “It is better to live a single day as a tiger than a whole lifetime as a sheep.” He didn’t mean that in the political sense but in the sense of living as a full human being. Living fully in the experience of the courage to be human is to live the examined life. Failing to do so, that life is not worth living.

  3. Socrates was arguing that happiness derived from delusion is fleeting, shallow, and worthless. Happiness from an examined life has far more value.

    • But if the person experiencing the “shallow” and “worthless” happiness is truly happy, why should someone else tell them to be happier? Or live a different way?

  4. You mention that:
    “The theory that all lives that are unexamined don’t have a purpose and should not be lived is unreasonable and simply not true. There is a lot more that contributes to a person’s happiness and well-being besides “examining their lives”.
    Socrates’ argument and yours are fundamentally different in that Socrates was not invoking happiness and well-being. Nay, he was killed for his unconventionality and clearly believed that meaning and purpose superceded happiness and well-being. For some, happiness and well-being are satisfactory drives for living, for others, meaning and purpose are fundamental. And it can be and has been argued that we did not evolve nervous systems for happiness (see TED talk – “The science of mindfulness” by Dr. Ron Siegel). Socrates was prescient and forward-thinking in that he understood that his transgressions were necessary to facilitate positive change within and across cultures. He almost certainly understood that his ostensibly negligent teachings would bring about his own destruction in pursuit of greater good and chose that path anyway. Our tendency toward groupthink, biases, and role confusion about the meaning of our lives is what he was getting at. Life being all about happiness and well-being is egocentric and self-serving, which is entirely your right to focus on. Some have a more nomothetic approach to understanding the functions of species, and some choose the idiographic approach. We certainly need both for each serves important purposes that partially overlap with and diverge from the other.

  5. I don’t think either of the arguments given go against Socrates’ statement that, “an unexamined life is not worth living”.

    Epicurus argues that the examination of one’s life is the most important thing after receiving all the essentials; all that is needed for proper survival. If this was translated into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it would take up the final two stages (after physical needs, safety and love). I don’t understand where your argument on wasting money as a temporary relief has its bases on, Socrates never advises that and it goes contrary to much of what he says.

    De Montaigne argues against overanalyzing one’s life and the dangers it could bring: unhapiness. Socrates also doesn’t say anything about worrying about your appereances or on not accepting other people’s cultures. These arguments are not against Socrates, because he never argued in favor of them. It would also be hypocritical for Montaigne to argue against the analysis of ones life, (which he does not do), since that is what he does in ‘Essays’

    What Socrates argues, at least how I see it, is that we should constantly question ourselves and the world around us so that we can understand what is essential. That doesn’t mean question ourselves on the same subject throughout our lives, but rather look at everything new and important happening to us and try to understand it, through observation . and analysis. I believe the three philosophers named here have very similar opinions on the importance of analyzing ones life, they just argued them in different ways using different words. Analysis paralysis is dangerous, and Socrates never argued in favor of it.

  6. Socrates made this comment in response to a question as to why he could not simply remain quiet. He was talking about his own values, not applying this universally. If I say that life is not worth living without sports, then it doesn’t mean that anyone who doesn’t like sports is worthless or undeserving to live.

    Maybe just report what Socrates said and the context in which he said it and let kids make up their own minds?

    • Didn’t Socrates state that “an unexamined life is not worth living for human beings”. If he was referring to his own values, as you say, wouldn’t he say something like, an unexamined life is not worth living for me.

  7. There are several factors that deserve consideration: what does Socrates (via Plato) mean by “unexamined”, and “Life”, and “worth”. All of these are slippery terms, not helped by the fact that we are dealing with a translation from Ancient Greek language, and a bunch of ideas that may have had VERY different meanings in a small Mediterranean city 2500 years ago.

    It is illogical to presume that Socrates would want the vast majority of people to not live. If, however, we view his (alleged) statement in terms of a regret, or an exhortation, then we can understand that Socrates would PREFER that people might take some time out to consider their existence in relation to some of the big questions… that applies as much today, as it did back then. Does “examination” of one’s life require an anxious OCD approach to each and every decision and action in relation to its philosophical consequences? Or does it rather require us to understand the socio-political forces that create our context, and the historical/cultural influences that shape our opinions, and to acknowledge these when we declare our position?

    And when Socrates talks about a “life”, is he referring to the biography of an average Joe, or is he referring to a “Life” of a person who is fully and actively engaged in all creative and intellectual levels, as a kind of ideal person, being all that they can be?

    This leads to the question of worth: this is an exceedingly relative term. Some things are valued more than others, by pawnbrokers, historians, governments, auctioneers. It depends on who is doing the valuing, and how they are defining the worth of the object. Zen teaches us that great worth can be found even in the most mundane and repetitive tasks, if you can summon the passions and engagement to seek a kind of perfection in what you are doing. The lack of “worth” Socrates may have been referring to could be seen to relate to the classic Marxian condition of “alienation”, whereby people are “just doing stuff” to get by and exist, and in so doing they kind of muddle through their lives, and unwittingly prop up stupid and abusive regimes.

    In summary, we can’t really KNOW what Socrates may have meant by his statement. To suggest that it means that we have to either be angst-ridden navel-gazers, or unworthy of life, is a reductio ad absurdum, and an insult to the challenge that Socrates actually laid out: what might a reflective life mean? How might we live one? What benefits might it offer? How might widespread thoughtfulness influence the evolution of culture, society, mankind?

    Please don’t reduce Socrates’ challenge to cheap intellectual snobbery on his part: have a think about what potentials may lie in his advice, if we’re prepared to nuance our own understandings of his terms.

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