The Unexamined and Unlived Life

Statue of Socrates in front of the modern-day Academy of Athens
Socrates in front of the modern-day Academy of Athens examining our lives.

I have been going on and off to meetings of local Socrates Cafes for three decades. The Socrates Cafe is a topic in itself and I’ll probably write more about it in the future. Basically, it is when “ordinary”  people get together informally to exchange philosophical perspectives based on their experiences. There is really no imperative to talk about philosophers and academic comments are generally frowned upon. The premise is to talk about a question proposed by someone in the group using a version of the Socratic Method.

Last weekend, there was a planned outdoor meeting in Montclair, NJ (the town where the Socrates Cafe began). But the weather canceled the original date and the next day was chilly and only four of us showed up. We didn’t do a real meeting but a famous quote credited to Socrates came up in our brief conversation. Socrates (according to Plato’s writing about his teacher) said at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The words were supposedly spoken by Socrates at his trial after he chose death rather than exile.

When I first encountered that quote in high school, I thought it meant that you need to think about your life more. In my first college philosophy course, I learned that the more common interpretation is that you need to question the knowledge and facts that are presented to you. Don’t accept what you are told by parents, teachers, religions and experts of all types. Examine. Question. Judge the validity of the information.

This doesn’t mean necessarily defying authority, though if authority is found to be false, defying would be the right thing to do.

Socrates died in Athens in 399 BC after a trial for impiety and the corruption of the young. After a one-day trial, he spent his last day in prison among friends and followers who offered him a route to escape, which he refused. The next morning, he carried out his sentence of drinking poison hemlock.

I always wondered why he didn’t question the authority that found him guilty. Were they correct?

Today, you hear about the fear of missing out on life . We have an acronym for it – FOMO.

On I found a quote from a commencement address given by Parker Palmer in which he asks “If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.”

That sounds like a tricky turn of phrase, but what does he mean? He is wondering about the lives we are not living. Maybe those are the lives we are missing out on. Maybe it is the life we could be leading but are not for some reason.

Parker said, “We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has a book about this called Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. He writes about our parallel lives. Like two parallel universes, there is the life we are living, and the one we feel we should have had. Maybe it is a life we think we still might have. Phillips feels the unlived life is an inescapable presence. I’m not so sure. I don’t feel it is a “shadow at my heels” about unmet needs, sacrificed desires, and regrets.

I would agree that some of us are “haunted by the myth of our own potential” and if so, that can make a life one that perpetually falls short.

Phillips suggests that we accept frustration as a way of outlining what we really want in order to make satisfaction a possibility. It may seem paradoxical to suggest that frustration and satisfaction are connected.

Let us go back to Socrates. Examining our unlived lives can help us understand the priorities, values, and desires that structure the life we are living.

Phillips writes, “There is a gap between what we want and what we can have, and that gap … is our link, our connection, to the world… This discord, this supposed mismatch, is the origin of our experience of missing out.”

I’m having some trouble with that idea. What would Socrates say? He would tell me to examine these ideas. He 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.

I believe my life is definitely worth living.




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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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