Essay I

Be sure you have read and understood the instructions. If you have any question or puzzle, please don't hesitate to ask by email to Please note that this essay is due in class Wednesday, 9/8, and worth 50 points.

In a justly famous passage in Apology Socrates points out to his prosecutors that,

Perhaps someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? Now this is the most difficult point on which to convince some of you. If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less.

Notice that his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living is made here almost as an aside. There is no attempt at this point in the dialogue to defend the proposition, although it is worth noting that the concept of virtue (areté, or ἀρετή) employed here is much broader than our rather narrow conception. For the ancient Greek, at least, areté refers to any human excellence whatsoever. So the concept includes moral excellence (what we usually take 'virtue' to mean), but it also encompasses intellectual, athletic, martial, and even artistic excellence besides.

Given a very broad reading of 'virtue', then, let us consider the rather extraordinary claim that it would be better to be dead, all things considered, than to forgo inquiry into virtue and "those other things". What reasons might Plato have given, but did not, to justify such an extreme claim? What reasons can you give? What reasons can you give to the contrary—that is, in favor of the unexamined life over the examined life? In light of the Apology and Socrates’ defense as he presents it in particular, what is distinctive or special about the examined life that makes it a life worth living over the many kinds of unexamined lives he discusses and does not think, in the end, worth living? Finally, is Plato correct? Why or why not?