In the history of philosophy, Socrates is arguably one of the greatest thinkers that have ever lived. From Plato’s accounts, the Socratic method of philosophizing and teachings on how to live are so revolutionary that Athenian leaders see him as corrupting young minds. Though he claims to have no wisdom (in response to the oracle of Delphi’s assertion that there was no man as wise as Socrates), he believes that the essence of life lies in self-examination.
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Socrates’ teachings are often compared to the teachings of Jesus Christ and Krishna. In Hinduism, Krishna is the eighth divine manifestation of Lord Vishnu. One of the grounds of the comparison between Krishna and Socrates concerns the value of life as depicted in Socrates’ famous quote the unexamined life is not worth living. This paper attempts to explain the meaning of this quote and its connection to the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita.
An Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living
To understand the meaning of this quote, it is essential to understand Socrates’ life and the setting in which he makes the quote. Socrates’ teachings in the five dialogues are inspired by the assertion of the oracle of Delphi that he is the most prudent man in Athens. He embarks on a quest to establish if this assertion is indeed true by questioning leaders, politicians, and poets. His methods and teachings are the reason why he is arrested and brought before a jury for trial.
In the apology, there is a debate on what kind of punishment Socrates deserves as Socrates’ trial nears the end. Socrates is accused of corrupting young minds through his teachings. Socrates refers to his case as “lying accusations” (Plato 18b). He does not see any wrongdoing and argues that the minds he allegedly corrupted are principled individuals who have stood with him throughout the trial. Socrates is judged guilty by a close vote of 280 to 221.
When asked to suggest a penalty, Socrates asserts that the just punishment is to celebrate him as a hero because of the contributions he has made to the Athenians. He declines to stop philosophizing and rejects imprisonment or exile. Instead, Socrates prefers death to give up the things that bring meaning to his life. He accepts the death sentence and challenges the jurors to refrain from killing their critics and try to live better lives. Socrates concludes by urging his followers not to fear death.
Socrates refuses to give up philosophizing because he believes that philosophy is not just a profession, but a way of life. The goal of any philosopher is, therefore, to search for the truth and live justly.
A good life involves the use of one’s rationality in questioning a person’s own life as well as the lives of others in the society in the same manner that Socrates does. Socrates knows that, in seeking truth and justice, a person is bound to be seen as a nuisance. Therefore, he advises that philosophers should not fear the consequences (including death) that may accompany life examination.
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The Importance of Life Examination
Any life is not worth living if an individual does not seek knowledge on how to live a genuinely truthful and just life. This knowledge can assist a person to understand the values in life. Socrates, for example, knows that he has lived a good life because he has served the people of Athens in numerous ways. This is why he requests for a reward instead of punishment during his trial. By examining his life, Socrates discovers that, since he has never wronged any person, he must not wrong himself by quitting philosophy.
The assertion that an unexamined life is not worth living forms the crux of the profoundly honorable arguments that Socrates makes throughout the trial in the interest of philosophy and the philosophical way of life.
The lesson that any person can learn from this quote and Socrates’ life is that criticizing and understanding one’s life brings value and sense to that life. Socrates’ arguments imply that devoid of philosophy, human beings cannot be distinguished from other animals. A good life involves making ourselves and the people around us happy. The love of wisdom (philosophy) is, therefore, the most desirable form of living.
The proposition that he should be indulged like a victorious Olympic athlete is among many analogies that Socrates draws between him and celebrated heroes. For example, in the Apology, Socrates compares himself to Achilles since he is willing to accomplish his responsibility in the face of danger (Plato 28c). He also examines the task of exposing the ignorance of others and encouraging self-reflection to the works of Hercules (Plato 22a).
In justifying his request for treatment like the one offered to victorious Olympic athletes, Socrates argues, “these people give you the semblance of success, but I give you the reality” (Plato 36d). He considers his achievements greater because he teaches people to seek perfection in life and to observe morality.
This life examination is similar to the one taught in Plato’s allegory of the cave. The importance of self-examination, therefore, is to assist people to come out of the caves in which they live. This can only be achieved through constant and thorough scrutiny of one’s life and of the society in which one lives.
Comparison between Socrates’ Teachings and the Teachings of Krishna
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is the divine embodiment of Lord Vishnu, Arjuna’s chosen deity. To understand the similarities between the teachings of Socrates on self-examination and Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna during the war against Duryodhana, it is important to understand the context of the war. Arjuna is the third son of Pandu who is anointed to lead the fight against Duryodhana. The battle takes place in Kurukshetra. The main discussion between Krishna and Arjuna is whether Arjuna should wage war against his kinsmen.
This scene is similar to the one in the Apology, where Socrates prepares to conduct a legal battle in which, like Arjuna, he sees himself as a loyal citizen and a pursuer of truth. Arjuna tells Krishna, “I do not want to kill them even if I am killed” (Miller 31). Krishna persuades Arjuna that the looming war is a spiritual war rather than a physical one. Like the battle that Socrates faces, Krishna sees the war as one of seeking the essence of life even if it leads to death.
Socrates perceives the jurors as fellow Athenians (Plato 21a) with whom he has lived his whole life. This is the dilemma that Arjuna faces when he is confronted in battle by his kinsmen with whom he has grown up. Krishna counsels Arjuna against being engrossed in philosophical contemplations about the war. He makes it clear that the war that Arjuna faces is not about Arjuna but a divine war.
According to Krishna, Arjuna is just an agent to carry out the destiny of the gods. This scene is similar to Socrates’ predicament since Socrates also perceives his search for wisdom and meaning in life to be a divine mission. Socrates believes that even in his death, his mission remains significant. This resembles Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna.
Socrates and Krishna explain the battle between honorable and vicious living. In both teachings, virtuous living is described as living a free and worthy life that is immortalized in good deeds. Like Socrates, Krishna advocates for the rejection of life that is restrained by wealth and ignorance. In both cases, we learn that there is more to human life than wealth and acceptance.
Honor demands that one embarks on a search for truth and justice and to risk one’s own life fighting for that justice. Krishna counsels Arjuna into thinking about the meaning of life in the same manner that Socrates tries to advocate for virtue and honor. Through Arjuna, Krishna teaches that it is our responsibility to live honorable lives.
There are some differences in the method of execution employed in the two scenarios. While Socrates chooses to bring meaning to his life by accepting death instead of giving up his principles, Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight his kinsmen to achieve the honor. Socrates chooses to obey the law of Athens rather than fight physically or escape from prison.
Socrates’ assertion that an examined life is not worth living is depicted in the way he lives and dies. It is vital for every person to assess the meaning and value of life and defend what they stand for. There are many similarities between the teachings of Socrates on self-evaluation and Krishna’s teachings on the meaning of life. Despite the difference in approaches, both teachings outline the significance of scrutinizing one’s own life to find meaning.
Miller, Barbara. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print.
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Plato. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. 2nd ed. 2002. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing. Print.