The unexamined life is not worth living

Statue of Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens

Socrates could have saved himself by paying a fine, but instead refused to answer the charges against him, claiming he had done nothing wrong.

According to Xenophon's story, Socrates purposefully gave a defiant defense to the jury because "he believed he would be better off dead". It is also understood that Socrates also wished to die because he "actually believed the right time had come for him to die."

Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. He chose to stay in prison for several reasons:

  1. He believed such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has.
  2. If he fled Athens his teaching would fare no better in another country as he would continue questioning all he met and undoubtedly incur their displeasure.
  3. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his "social contract" with the state, and so harm the state, an act contrary to Socratic principle.

The unexamined life is not worth living

"The unexamined life is not worth living" is a famous dictum uttered by Socrates at his trial for impiety and corrupting youth. The words were spoken by Socrates at his trial after he chose death rather than exile.

Socrates believed that philosophy – the love of wisdom – was the most important pursuit above all else. For some, he exemplifies more than anyone else in history the pursuit of wisdom through questioning and logical argument, by examining and by thinking. His 'examination' of life in this way spilled out into the lives of others, such that they began their own 'examination' of life, but he knew they would all die one day, as saying that a life without philosophy – an 'unexamined' life – was not worth living.

Socrates faced death with courage.

The death of Socrates

In ancient Greece, hemlock was used to poison condemned prisoners. After being condemned to death for impiety, in 399 BC, Socrates was given a potent infusion of the hemlock plant. Socrates took the poison calmly from the executioner and drank it in one swallow.

Socrates' death is described at the end of Plato's Phaedo.  Plato's “Phaedo” is one of the great dialogues of his middle period. Socrates turned down the pleas of Crito (his wealthy friend) to attempt an escape from prison. Plato described Socrates' death in the Phaedo:

“After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his legs felt numb. After he lay down, the man laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said — and these were his last words — "Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt."  'That,' said Crito, 'shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.' To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes."

Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, and it is likely Socrates' last words meant that death is the cure—and freedom, of the soul from the body. Another interpretation of Socrates' last words suggests that Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat; his death was the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes. In this view, the token of appreciation for Asclepius would represent a cure for the ailments of Athens.

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