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Past Essay Contests

2009
What does it mean to live an examined life? 

Socrates, often considered the father of Western philosophy, was born in Athens, Greece in 469 BC. Socrates devoted most of his life to questioning the conventional beliefs held by his fellow Athenians. He spent most days in philosophical discussions with the youth of Athens, continually questioning each person's system of beliefs and asking for further justification or clarification. Socrates refused to accept payment for his teachings. While Socrates had a large following of students, some adults in the community were angered by Socrates' questioning of the traditional beliefs and values of Athens. Hence, in 399 BC, the seventy-year-old Socrates was charged by a group of people with corrupting the youth of Athens. A trial of Socrates ensued, and The Apology by Plato is an historical account of the speech Socrates gave in his defense.

At one point in his defense, Socrates says to the five hundred person jury: "If I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living - that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you." The jury of Athens was unmoved by Socrates' speech, but gave him the choice to leave the state as long as he stopped his questioning. Socrates responded, "Men of Athens, I honor and love you. But...while I have life and strength I will never stop doing philosophy. For my aim is to persuade you all, young and old alike, not to think about your lives or your properties, but first and foremost to care about your inner self. ...To talk daily about what makes us good, and to question myself and others, is the greatest thing man can do." Because Socrates was unwilling to stop examining his life, he was sentenced to death by the Athenian jury.

Consider the concept of an "examined life". What made it so important that Socrates was unwilling to give it up, even in the face of death? If we look at our own time, what do you think it would mean to live an examined life in the 21st Century? What role does higher education have in preparing students to live an examined life, as you define it?

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