Socrates’ Most Famous Statement

In Plato’s Apology, the account of his teacher’s defense at trial, Plato has Socrates say that “unexamined life is not worth living.”  This is the standard, the ruling, translation into English.  But let’s reexamine it.

First, the Greek (at 38a in the manuscripts):   δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ. Sounded out, this reads “ho de anexetastos bios ou biotos anthropoi.”  The life that is anexetastos is not livable; but what’s that mean?

Bios presents no difficulty: It means life–any life–and here seems plainly to mean the life we live, or perhaps the way we choose to live our lives.  We moderns would have to qualify this.  We know that much–most–goes unchosen in human lives, and so we might add a lawyerly phrase such as ‘to the extent we can choose’.  The adjective biotos plainly comes from bios, life.  It’s a very gentle play on words: a life that’s livable.  Its usage tends to be negative: not to be lived, not worth living, and so on.  Perhaps we moderns would say ‘not to be tolerated’ or not to be put up with. And, like Heraclitus, Socrates adds anthropoi, to humans.  He thus makes the obvious point: not worth living for us, for humankind.

The decisive word in the statement is anexetastos.  Exetazo still is, in modern Greek, to examine, to give an exam–a school exam rather than a Socratic one.  It comes from a rare old Greek verb, etazo, which, again, means to test or inspect closely.  The root of all this seems to be, etos, a form of what is, what really is.  So the examination, the test, is for a kind of realism.  Notoriously Socrates argued that most of us live our lives chasing after what doesn’t matter, what won’t last, what’s not real.

How then to translate the kind of examination that Socrates wants us to make–or take?  Unexamined is not an ancient word in English; the OED documents its first usage (in a statute) at the end of the 15th century.  Jowett’s translation in the 1890s may well have been its first coinage for Socrates.  Is it the best we can do?

I’m not sure.  It is a good translation, certainly, even a very good one.  It tells us to do what Socrates seemed to tell his students or interlocutors to do.  Think about what really matters in your life.  What’s most important? We know that he thought that above all we should care for our souls. Discuss your thoughts, then, about what’s good and what’s bad for the soul, for living, trying your ideas out in conversations with others, both to get them thinking–examining–and to improve your own ideas.

Still, I think it’s not the only or even the best translation.  What Socrates did was not precisely to examine himself and others.  He challenged everyone.  He challenged harshly, disturbingly.  This led to his trial and death.  The unchallenged life is the one that’s not truly livable.

Among his very last words, as Plato reports them in the Apology, were these (in Jowett’s old version): “When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything other than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, – then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.”

So: punish, trouble, reprove; do them justice; challenge them. The unchallenged life is the one that’s not worthy of us.



1. To me, the most interesting of all the fragments of Heraclitus is the terse one that most collections number 119, after the German scholars Diels and Kranz: ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. Carrying these three words into our alphabet we get: êthos anthrôpoi daimôn.  The only unambiguous word here is anthrôpoi, ‘of or for human beings’.  We still use the word ethos to mean the spirit of a time or place or group.  It points us to something like a subculture–a set of shared attitudes and perhaps enthusiasms in a given setting.  And from the Greek daimôn we take the simple word demon.

The usual translation goes like this: “Character, for humans, is fate.”

How far back this goes I can’t say.  Alexander of Aphrodisias–who lived a couple of centuries before Jesus– cited the fragment in Greek in a work that the Romans later translated as De Fato.  So it makes sense to say it goes back a long way.  But it’s a little odd to take daimôn and turn it into fate.

Anyone who has read about Socrates’ trial knows that he speaks there of feeling sure of his decision to die because his daimôn did not interpose to tell him to stop.  To him and his contemporaries, a daimôn was a lesser and more personal divinity, a kind of guardian angel or Jimminy Cricket.  Such spirits acted as guides, it seems, not just for Socrates but for Homer’s heroes as well.

So how might we retranslate this fragment?

Ethos can and perhaps should be be translated as character, I think; but it is not far from spirit, either, as when we speak of someone’s spirit.

So here are two or three attempts at a more exact translation into English, none I think quite satisfactory:

Character for humans is a divinity.

Or we could say, character, human character is divine.  The trouble with these is that we don’t, most of us, have the Socratic sense of the near presence of divine guides in our lives.  Very religious people can perhaps say with conviction that there are guardian angels in our lives.  That would yield: Your spirit, your character, is your guardian angel.

Your spirit is your guardian angel (or perhaps your guiding angel).

None of this improves, it seems to me, on what we have had.

Character, for humans, is fate, which is to say, character directs us along our way in life.  What the Greeks had that we may lack is a strong sense that fate was real and was divine.  The Romans too had this sense, if more abstractly.

Perhaps the best I can say for a retranslation is this: The glory of Heraclitus is that he remains someone whose ideas we can never quite fix–or translate.  His punning terse Greek remains fascinatingly uncertain and shifting, no matter how much we study or mull.  I tell my students that the best scholars can’t do much better than an amateur can do on first reading.  So I make them learn the Greek: êthos anthrôpoi daimôn.  Once you memorize these three words you can translate and retranslate them as often as you think of them; once you have a sense of them you almost cannot help yourself from trying to understand them better, in different ways.   As Heraclitus said of his Logos, you will never reach the end of it.