It’s 399 BCE and you, along with hundreds of men clad in white togas and robes, are making your way up a hill to a long, sweeping building, lined with shining marble columns. Passing through their cool shadows, you file past statues of heroes, gods, and philosophers alike. All the greatness of Athens looks down on you as you make your way into a large auditorium.
There, sitting down below, at the bottom of the auditorium, is an old man, bent back and stoic in his appearance. He is watching the crowd file in with a flat, but somewhat bemused look. You meet his gaze, but only for a moment.
Eventually, the room is filled and the proceedings begin. A speaker stands and thanks you all for the duty you face today. It won’t be easy, he tells you, but the work must be done.
This is the trial of Socrates, that great Athenian defiler of youth.
The Most Misunderstood Quote In the World
When one of the world’s greatest philosophers was put on trial for impiety in Athens in 399 BCE, no one knew that it would produce one of the most important thoughts in human history. Standing there, facing his death, the “gadfly” of Athens told the men staring him down the one radical truth that none of them could face. It was his truth, too, and why he embraced death in the end.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
This is probably a quote that you have heard since childhood, but the odds are that your understanding of it is very limited.
After all, we’ve been given to understand that this is a quote of curiosity. It means that you are to go out into the world and ask “why?” of every person and everything you encounter. Right?
The truth is that the quote credited to Socrates is one of the most misunderstood quotes in the entire world. Far from being the battle cry of scientists and philosophers, it remains a core truth that every human being on the planet could benefit from embracing. Mothers, fathers, janitors…