8. Socrates and the Unexamined Life


A bronze statue of Socrates shows him sitting and pondering for he always said that the unexamined life was not worth living.
The Thinker by Rodin

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”1

This now famous line, which Socrates spoke at his trial, has rippled throughout Western Civilization. If I could sum up Socrates’ legacy in one maxim, it would be this quote. It is imperative that we know ourselves and by extension the reason why we are here. It doesn’t matter that Socrates got the idea from the phrase, “know thyself (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), that was inscribed on the temple of Delphi.2 Actually, the maxim, “know thyself,” goes even further back, originating with Heraclitus. The point is that Socrates made this phrase his own because he lived it.

From Socrates’ perspective, this can only come through divine insight. It involves, as Aristotle will more fully develop later, a life of developing virtue. There is a wide range of opinions about this quote. Some feel that self-examination is essential to living a good life, and others feel that being too introspective inhibits living life. 

Socrates not only embraced this idea of self-examination, but his goal was to have the city of Athens do the same. That was his purpose. He saw himself as one whose mission it was to raise Athens out of its stupor and to set its sights on the transcendent. Consider the following quote: 

“I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the God’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me. I was attached to this city by the god as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city.”3 

Socrates’ Purpose

Notice that Socrates conveys a sense of purpose in regards to his mission, but also a sense of humility as well. He was charged by the gods to stir Athens up out of its sluggishness, but his role was that of merely a “gadfly.” What Socrates did not realize was that his legacy was not only to stir up Athens, for that would be too small of a thing, but to stir up Western Civilization as well. And that includes us. He is asking us to examine our lives to discover our particular God-given purpose. This, I claim, is his main legacy. 

What gave credibility to this and what separated him from the sophists is that he lived a life of virtue, rather than just telling others to do so. He practiced what he preached. He lived a life of poverty, refusing to get rich off of speaking fees like the sophists. In other words, he didn’t “sell out.” Consider the following Socrates quote: 

“That I am the kind of person to be a gift of god to this city, you might realize from the fact that it does not seem like human nature for me to have neglected all my own affairs and to have tolerated this neglect for so many years while I was always concerned with you, approaching each one of you like a father or an elder brother to persuade you to care for virtue.”4

We can hear echoes of St. Paul in this quote who, in his New Testament writings, said that he suffered much and was deprived in order that he could care for his spiritual children.5 

The Art of Self Examination – Personality

In regards to self examination, many people do not even know where to begin. We don’t even realize that self examination is essential for a fulfilled life. We equate self examination with self centeredness, morbid introspection, or even narcissism when actually it is just the opposite. A self centered person is too self focused to see himself or herself objectively. They are to lost in themselves, to see their purpose in relationship to other people people, their environment, and God. Proper and periodic self examination is the mark of a healthy individual. But it takes a lifetime and it occurs on on various levels of complexity. We all have a sense of trying to find our purpose, where in the world we fit in.

It is always good to start with one’s temperament, with questions like – are you an introvert or an extrovert? The world need both types of people to make things work. But often in an extroverted society like ours in the United States, the introvert, who does not recognize himself or herself as an introvert, usually struggles. An introvert who needs to contemplate to come up with good ideas, will often find that his work environment does not provide for such practices Rather, it is full of “team building” practices that can leave an introvert drained if not moderated. Christian “retreats” are anything but that. They are oftentimes filled with wall to wall activities, leaving no room for contemplation and prayer. For introverts, a good first place to start in self examination is to recognize that they are introverts and to adjust according. The same holds true for extroverts in more contemplative societies or communities. I spent more time on introverts, because we live in an extroverted society where oftentimes introverts are the ones that feel out of place.

From Hippocrates to Myers-Briggs

One can go deeper into understanding oneself by considering the what the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) deemed the four temperaments – sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.6 The sanguine is outgoing, but can be diffuse. The choleric is goal driven, but can be angry. The melancholic is a deep thinker, but oftentimes depressed. And the phlegmatic is calm and stable, but can be sluggish and unproductive. Most people are a mixture of these in different proportions with usually one dominating. I used to attend a church that used these in counseling and found that they can be quite useful, but one can take it too far and start “pigeonholing” people. Like anything else, if used in moderation, it can be very helpful.

Finally, if you want to get real technical, you can use the the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®), also known as the 16 personality types.7 We all know this test by initials such as ISTJ, etc. For more information on this, please click the link below. This is the test most often used in large corporations. I took it myself and found it very useful.

The Art of Self Examination – Theology of the Body

Temperament is just one aspect of self examination. Another aspect of self-examination is in evaluating our talents – what we are naturally gifted at and not gifted at. Really, we could even start with what it means to be a human verses other types of living creatures. For we have seemed to lost our way in defining human nature and thus what makes for a life of wholeness and happiness. This is really important, because there is so much confusion in the West in regards to things like race and sex, that our society is unraveling. I would that this will lead to a time in the not to distance future where philosophers, theologians, and scientists could all work together to develop an understanding of what it means to be human.

We are in a bad place today wrought by much confusion and despair because, in recent times, understanding human nature has been left up to the scientists and psychologists only. By neglecting the spiritual and ontological aspects of human nature, we get a truncated view of what it means to be a human. This is why our leaders, academic, medical, and political, continually churn out, like a defective machine, woefully in adequate answers to life questions.

One organization doing yeoman’s work in this area is the Theology of the Body Institute.8 Please check out the link below that will take you to their website. The nucleus of the organization centers around a work by Pope John Paul, II called Man and Woman, He Created Them, A Theology of the Body.9

Talent and Treasure

Temperament is just one aspect of self examination. Another aspect of self-examination is in evaluating our talents – the things of which we are naturally gifted. But specifically, one can drill down into his or her own proclivities, talents, etc., and to develop those over time. Since we Americans are so pragmatic, we have to be careful not to define our talents too narrowly in terms of what is “useful” or vocationally oriented. One might be good a writing poetry even though they will never earn a living by doing so. On the other hand, if God has given you the ability to make money or had given you a lot of money, then you have many opportunities to help the poor or to donate to worthy causes such as stopping modern day infanticide.

And then there is the component of morality or virtue. Aristotle would have us examine ourselves in relation to the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These virtues and separate yet unified. It is really impossible, if we are to live a life of integrity, to be doing very well in three of the four virtues and terrible in the fourth. For example, we can delude ourselves into thinking that we treat people with justice, are not governed by fear, make decisions with prudence, but are an alcoholic. It doesn’t work that way. Nevertheless, the prudent thing to do is to examine ourselves to find out which of the four virtues we need to work on the most and to work on that. We can set long term goals and short term objectives. For example, if we have a fear of social situations, we can learn over time to expose ourselves to those situations until we eventually overcome that fear.

The best definition of integrity that I know is William Shakespeare’s famous quote from Hamlet, “This above all – to thine own self be true.”10 And the corollary to that statement is – how can one know how to be true to oneself, if one does not know who they are.

Sun Tzu and the Art of War (and Business)

Sun Tzu (544-496 BC), was a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher. We know him as the author The Art of War, that world famous treatise on military strategy. I commonly apply his military wisdom to business competition. One of my favorite sayings of his is that you must know yourself and your enemy.11 If you do, then you will have victory one hundred times out of one hundred. If you know yourself and not your enemy, then you will have a defeat for every victory. And finally, if you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will never have victory. If you are in business, it helps to know what your strengths and weaknesses are juxtaposed to your competition’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t try to match your competition’s strength if that is your weakness. Usually, a certain strength will be accompanied by a specific weakness and vice versa. The best situation is where a specific strength that you have corresponds to your competition’s weakness. When you discover that, you can exploit that all day long.

Self Examination in Christian Tradition

This theme of self-examination has a rich history in Christian thought. St. Augustine picked up on this almost a thousand years later when he said in a beautiful poem, “Lord Jesus, let me know myself and know thee.”12 St. Augustine, along with many other saints, stressed this idea of examining our consciences in order to understand the sinful tendencies that hinder us from knowing God. It also works the other way as well. As we encounter God, we understand ourselves better. This comports with what the Hebrew Psalmist said,

“Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” 

– Psalm 139:23-24

From Self Examination to Self Centeredness in Modernity

Socrates sought virtue and thus lived a life of virtue. Some 20th century philosophers like Aldous Huxley have gone in the opposite direction. They desired to live lives of sexual wantonness and therefore sought belief systems to justify their behavior. Rather than seeking a divine purpose, they sought their own pleasures. Modern man has sought his end, not in a higher calling, but in himself. He is turned inward upon himself into a nihilistic darkness. This is why he is so miserable. Consider the following abridged quote from Aldous Huxley, a 20th century philosopher:

“We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.”13

Nihilism, the End Result of a Self Centered Culture

To deny the divine leads to nihilism. The god that we have created is one of nihilism as Huxley has stated above. It came to the fore in the West in the early to mid 20th century with the likes of Kafka, Camus, and Sartre. They didn’t invent this modern pessimistic philosophy, they simply tapped into the alienation and meaninglessness that proliferated in the West as a result of the prevailing secularism. Today, some people deal with their emptiness by adopting a frenetic lifestyle so that they don’t have time to think about their situation. Others deal with the emptiness by numbing their pain through things like pornography and substance abuse. Some even escape through suicide.

Like ancient Athens, we too need to be awakened out of our slumber and revived from our sluggishness. We too have sunk into the doldrums where we are only seeking the earthly and not the heavenly. Wisdom, according to Socrates, involves reorienting ourselves toward God, to examine ourselves and discover our purpose in light of the divine. Only then does life become meaningful and worth living. Maybe, like Socrates, we could act as gadflies within our culture to this end. Socrates knew his purpose for living. Do you know yours?

Aeschylus, a Greek Playwright, circa 500 B.C.14 said:

“Know Thyself.”

Finally, consider the following question:

It seems that narcissism has replaced healthy self examination. Why do you thing this is so? Please leave a comments below. Thank you!

Deo Gratias


  1. Plato, Apology, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, p. 41, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
  2. From the article “Delphi,” New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Delphi
  3. Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., 30 d-e, pp. 34-35
  4. Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., 31 a-c, pp. 35
  5. New Testament, 1 Corinthians 4:8-17
  6. McIntosh, Matthew A. Editor-in-Chief, “The ‘Four Temperaments’ in Ancient and Medieval Medicine,” A Bold Blend of News and Ideas, October 23, 2020, Please click this link for a thought provoking discussion of the four temperaments – https://brewminate.com/the-four-temperaments-in-ancient-and-medieval-medicine/
  7. https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/
  8. Theology of the Body Institute – https://tobinstitute.org/
  9. https://shop.corproject.com/collections/books/products/man-and-woman-he-created-them
  10. Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3
  11. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by James Trapp, Michael Spilling, Project Editor, Designed by Rajdip Sanghera, p.21, Printed and bound in China, Chartwell Books, Inc., New York, 2012, copywrite by Amber Books Ltd., London, UK, 2011
  12. Kosloski, Philip, “‘Let me know myself’: A beautiful prayer written by St. Augustine,” Aleteia website, 2018, To see the complete prayer, please click the following link – https://aleteia.org/2018/09/16/let-me-know-myself-a-beautiful-prayer-written-by-st-augustine/
  13. Conner, Frederick W. “‘Attention’!: Aldous Huxley’s Epistemological Route to Salvation.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 81, no. 2, 1973, pp. 282–308. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27542724.
  14. Aeschylus, from the play Prometheus Bound, http://classics.mit.edu/Aeschylus/prometheus.html

Sources and Bibliography:

Aeschylus; Vellacott, Philip, Prometheus Bound and Other Plays: Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, Penguin Classics, New York, 1961

Clayton, David, The Vision For You: How to Discover the Life You Were Made For, Independently Published, 2018

Coppleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985

Gerth, Holley, The Powerful Purpose of Introverts: Why the World Needs You to Be You, illustrated paperback, Revell Publishing Group, Ada, Michigan, 2020

Grayland, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019

Hock, Father Conrad, Know Yourself Through the Four Temperaments, Create Space Publishing, Scotts Valley, CA, 2018

Hughes, Bettany, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Paperback – Illustrated, Vintage Publishers, 2012, New York City

John Paul II, author; Michael Waldstein, translator, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Pauline Books & Media, Jamaica Plain, MA, Second Printing edition 2006

Laney, Marti Olsen, The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World, 1st paperback ed., Workman Publishing Company, New York, 2002

Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002

Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Revised Ed., Harold Tarrant (Editor, Translator, Introduction) and Hugh Tredennick (Translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 2003

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by James Trapp, Michael Spilling, Project Editor, Designed by Rajdip Sanghera, Printed and bound in China, Chartwell Books, Inc., New York, 2012, copywrite by Amber Books Ltd., London, UK, 2011

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

Wilson, Emily, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007

Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, Robin H, Editor and Translator; Tedennick, Hugh, Translator, Penguin Classics, Ney York, Revised ed., 1990

Featured Book

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This book answers the question of who we are as human beings. In ages past, the Church worked out important issues such as the Trinity, the nature of Christ, and the definition of the New Testament. The pressing issue of modern times is nothing less than anthropology or the nature of man. In light of increasing confusion along these lines, this book by John Paul II greatly helps to refocus our thoughts in this matter.



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