Socrates continually admonished his interlocutors to become more introspective, arguing passionately for self-examination:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

But an examined life is painful, and necessitates an involvement with real problems. This is why it's worth living -- the unreflective are easily trapped into a living death of the mind by mythology, as the reflective sometimes are by ideology. In both cares we are deadened, sleepwalking through our lives blind and deaf, incapable of interacting with the world as it actually is much less imagining the world as it should be.

Now, we know of course that Socrates did not refrain from commenting on the generally unreflective character of his fellow Athenians. This is really the heart of my question. Certain reactionary critics might suggest that it's all well and good to closely examine one's own beliefs and values, but why should you go about examining the beliefs and values of others?

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    I can't even agree with the premise. People who don't self-introspect are often in my experience living lives that are very well worth living as they don't spend time an energy on brooding over their horrible lifes. :-) Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 13:08
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    I think what Socrates meant was that if you examine your life, you will ensure that it does not continues to be horrible in future. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 5:38
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    @Lennart: I wonder if those people are either a) more introspective then they appear, or b) not as happy as they appear. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 20:28
  • @Prateek: Sadly, Socrates paid a hefty price for examinations and exhortations. I don't know if he was overly bothered by that, however. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 20:32
  • Are you asking if it's worth it for an individual to examine the lives of -others-? Or if other people should examine their own lives (like Socrates seemed to imply)? The first one was my initial reading of your title question.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 26, 2011 at 21:03

6 Answers 6


Socrates' statement is an admonition to others that they should be more introspective, that they should look inside themselves to see what is good or bad, what kind of values one has and whether one meets them.

But this is all in the context of others judging -him-. This is simply a more indirect way of pointing out hypocrisy.

(forgive the scripture but...) NIV Matthew 7:

1Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

People are judging Socrates and he is just turning the tables back on to them.

The context of the hypocrisy is that people (in all cultures) are already examining others to such a degree that they judge them left and right without bothering to do so to themselves.

As to more directly address the question, if you are not examining and judging others you won't be able to learn from their mistakes or successes. To deny examining others wold be somewhat unfeeling and distant from reality. The trick is not to be hypocritical or arrogant (which are both lesser failures than outright saying and doing bad things). It is the extent and pettiness of some judgments which earn the admonition that they should look into their own hearts too.

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    Why forgive the scripture? Anyways, that's an interesting way to put it. I think if you combine Socrates idea with the Golden Rule, you could further strengthen your point. If you are not examining and judging others they may not be able to learn from their mistakes or successes either. So dialogue becomes utterly important in achieving this end.
    – john
    Commented Oct 27, 2011 at 17:56
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    How fascinating that I never made the connection between "examining" someone else and "judging" them. It seems like you are saying that if we don't examine others deeply, we are at risk of judging unfairly what we see in others. Conversely, unless we examine our own lives deeply, we won't see enough to be self-critical. Am I close in understanding your answer? Commented Oct 27, 2011 at 20:01
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    @awfullyjohn: 'forgiveness' because some may misjudge the use of a particular Christian writing as stigmatically endorsing the entire set of related concepts.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 27, 2011 at 20:36
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    @Jon: your two points are reasonable and agreeable inferences from what I said. I was trying to be non-judgmental (!), about to go into how one should examine everything but be tolerant, but then judge where judging is necessary. Then also I could make a case for simple living and lack of extended navel-gazing, and plain acceptance of things as they are. But that makes a much more inchoate mess of it all. So I left it out.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 27, 2011 at 20:40

Because meaning is found in difference, and you can't really understand yourself without understanding others. A self-understanding that is fundamentally disconnected from the realities of the world outside of the mind will crumble when confronted with the absurdities of life. An understanding of others without the proverbial walking in someone else's shoes means that you do not understand the ways in which others are similar to yourself—and hence, you don't really understand yourself.

The question arises, however, how much can we really know ourselves? And how much can we really know someone else? Even as we take note of the qualitative difference between the kinds of self-knowledge obtained in introspection vs. the kinds of observations we can make about another person's words and actions from the outside, we all have our own blind spots. We lie to others and we lie to ourselves. We can't bring ourselves to accept the truth that perhaps we really did make that mistake, or that perhaps our intentions really weren't as pure as we originally hoped for.

There are someways in which we know ourselves better than our friends know us and other ways in which we are known better by our friends. I think this covering of each other's blindsides is essential to a fuller understanding of ourselves, and if as these reactionary critics might argue, "It's all well and good to closely examine one's own beliefs and values", then to achieve that end you would need the help of another person to examine your beliefs. Your desire not to be known by another who exposes certain aspects of your character if undeniably true is in some sense an extension of your desire not to be known by yourself.


The somewhat easier target, a little to the deontological left of your question ("why should"-> "why would"), sheds a little light on things. For almost all philosophers believe in something akin to the so called 'golden rule of ethics' (the form most germane here being: "All moral acts remain moral if committed by everyone"), and almost all that practise philosophy do so for some ethical consideration. The syllogism that ends, therefore, in almost all philosophers prescribing philosophy on ethical grounds is a moment's work to complete.

But now, how to skirt the guillotine and leap from is to ought? Perhaps one could avoid such considerations of ought altogether, observing that all people introspect

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...and it is the work of Socrates & co to help them do what they seek to do already more fruitfully.

This feels a little unsatisfying, though: somewhat straw-mannish to claim there is nothing qualitatively different in the self-examinations of the Athenians and those of Socrates. At the risk of incorrectness, then: Mr. Hume- to the scaffold!

Building on the original dummy question ("Why would..."), I would like to reach for my meta-ethical breeze-block of choice, in R.M. Hare's universal prescriptivism, which ascribes the origin of moral injunctions as non-directed imperatives that emerge from a society ("Don't kill!"). In this framework, the morality of prescribing introspection is identical with the morality of introspection itself, which in turn stems (as articulated by the OP) from the imperative that as moral beings we must grapple with reality- something we would fail to do without introspection.

Again, though, (although my use of Hare is based purely on my thinking he happens to be right) I suspect people will think I'm cheating here. So perhaps, to be as general as possible, let's talk the social contracts.

In the end, it is a truism that groups with common goals and common values achieve those goals and actuate those values with greater efficacy than the leading brand. The impulse to spread a cultural more that is beneficial (or at least impossible to get rid of- once you introspect, aside from alcohol or a coathanger up your nostril, there's no going back!), is one that leads to a more cohesive, more productive society, more capable of modelling a universal in-group.

There is selfishness there too, certainly: If I never saw another TV talent show again, I would be a happier man. But, impractical (though possibly correct) calculations of the relative happiness of Socrates and pigs aside, the moral heart that drives evangelism of the examined life is, in one way or other, the picture of humanity as a shared endeavor that only introspective thought can show in its fullness.


This is a great question and I hope I won't be the only person to grapple with it.

There must be a calculation that balances the pain and effort of examining another's life with the cost of not doing so. The argument would seem to be that there is little to no cost associated with leaving others to their unreflective state and substantial cost to examining them. If so, we would be advised to let sleeping dogs lie.

One method to alter the calculation would be to find a benefit that both parties could share which will tip the scales back toward examination. No doubt Socrates would point to the general improvement to the state of Athens as a positive good that might arise from general introspection. If bad habits of thought are routinely subject to the light of reason and analysis, perhaps they will die out. And if Athenians in general are less subject to bad reasoning, they will be able to make wise decisions about their city and fellow citizens.

But I imagine there are deeper reasons to examine the lives of others. In my experience, exploration of how another person thinks gives rise to deeper friendship with that person. How can anyone put a price on friendship? For a good friend would you not make great sacrifices? And though I can't see how to quantify it, I feel like my life is better simply for having a handful of good friends.

I plan to consider this question more in the future—it has great value.


It depends. People are not equal. And people are not unique. So are their lives.

When you examine lives of others - you must get something for you out of that examination. And thus - examining (seemingly) great people, or examining unique people, or examining people, that you don't understand - is often very beneficial for you. But there are diminishing returns - the more people you are examining, and the deeper you examine them - the less (new) information you will get from them.

Same with fake lives of celebrities or fiction characters - examining them is like eating food, made from cardboard.

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    I disagree with the second paragraph except as it applies to the third. If there are diminishing returns, I haven't yet discovered the point where they occur. (There is a cost, but so far I've observed the cost decreases faster than the benefits increase.) And I'd say some fictional characters are worth examining, though the benefit is bound to be less than with someone who is able to reciprocate. Commented Oct 27, 2011 at 19:31

If you wish to live an examined life and you interact with others who do not, you must of necessity examine their unexamined lives - neglecting to do so represents a deficiency in your own examinations of your life.

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