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.

I know that I know nothing

The Athenians needed a scapegoat. Politically, the city's fortunes were receding in 399 B.C. after a humiliating defeat, five years before, at the hands of its traditional enemy, Sparta. There was one man in Athens who had made himself a reputation for being awkward-the philosopher Socrates. He liked to ask difficult and irritating questions; he mocked those in power and spent his time debating ideas with a band of devoted pupils. Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher. Socrates was one of the most significant thinkers in the course of history and, with Plato and Aristotle, was largely responsible for founding Western philosophy.

A marble head of Socrates in the Louvre. Born c. 470 BC at Athens. Died 399 BC (aged approx. 71)

The gadfly

Claiming loyalty to his city, Socrates clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society. Plato refers to Socrates as the "gadfly" (A gadfly is a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potentially upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities) of the state, in so far as he irritated some people with considerations of justice and the pursuit of goodness. His attempts to improve the Athenians' sense of justice may have been the source of his execution.

Whether anyone was wiser than Socrates?

According to Plato's “Apology”, Socrates' life as the "gadfly" of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi: if anyone was wiser than Socrates.   (An oracle is a person or agency considered to provide wise and insightful counsel or prophetic predictions or precognition of the future, inspired by the gods) The Oracle responded that none was wiser than Socrates. Socrates believed that what the Oracle had said was a paradox (absurdity), because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever.


He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens—statesmen, poets, and artisans—in order to refute the Oracle's pronouncement. Questioning them, however, Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct, in that while so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance.

Socrates' paradoxical wisdom made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. "I know that I know nothing" is a saying derived from Plato's account of the Greek philosopher Socrates. It is also called the Socratic paradox.

Socrates was found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of "not believing in the gods of the state", and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock, a toxic herb that paralyzes the nervous system.