The inattentive life is not to be lived

Before he was sentenced to death by hemlock, Socrates rejected the court’s clemency because it was offered under the condition that he cease questioning the people of Athens. The philosopher responded that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Many have considered the implications of this and the force with which the unexamined life should be rejected. One translation has it that ‘the unexamined life is not to be lived’ which seems more reasonable*.

The circumstances of Socrates’ trial related in Plato’s Apology make the context of this remark clear. Socrates held an unflattering mirror up to Athenian society and the nobles and serious men of the day. It is often interpreted as meaning we should critique our motives, those of our peers, and the conventions and power structures around us. I always felt fully signed up for the examined life (how could you not be?) but, in practice, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Before you can get started you need to examine what will be examined, how you will examine, how long for, in light of what? All very worthwhile things to consider, of course, that point to a way of being in the world.

Let’s try a variation of Socrates’ maxim that has been said in countless ways through the ages: that the inattentive life is not to be lived. It’s possible to imagine that part of what Socrates means when he proposes an examined life is that we should live in full awareness of our experiences. We shouldn’t let thoughts, sensations, events just happen to us while we daydream or calculate or simply not see. To use the term associated with meditation, we should be mindful (although unfortunately, I am frequently not). Meditation is a route to self-knowledge, and perhaps a good way to satisfy the other, related, maxim expounded by Socrates, to ‘know thyself’. As zen master Keizan said, ‘To practise zazen is to throw light on yourself’.

Attentiveness touches the spirit of how Socrates lived his examined life. It’s the gentle pressure that unravels the thread in his hapless interlocutors’ arguments. The gadfly philosopher was reported to frequently sit as still and mute as a statue in the centre of the market, deep in thought and awareness of what he called his ‘daimon’, which seemed to be a kind of inner convening, perhaps like meditation, that guided the philosopher intuitively.

To live every moment of the day with full awareness and appreciation is an ideal to strive for and it’s not surprising or to be regretted that we often fall far short. But the reward for trying is life itself. If we are not attentive to the unfolding of our lives, then in what sense are we living? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the inattentive life is not lived.


*I learnt this via Mitch Green’s Know Thyself MOOC, but can’t recall the name of the scholar who makes a case for ‘not to be lived’ rather than ‘not worth living’.