An unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates). Do you agree?

This is probably the last essay that I will write before my GP Exam next Monday. I would like to share it not because I believe that it is very well-written (in fact, there may be many mistakes), but because I really like this quote of Socrates, and feel the passion to write my thoughts down. The essay question is adopted from Raffles Institution GP Preliminary Examination.

I would also like to share with whoever is reading this post some of my thoughts on GP as a subject –

  1. Why instead of what – there is no denying that a good GP essay shows awareness of current affairs and impressive knowledge about the topic of discussion. However, how to offer logical explanation and link the arguments with the central issue embedded in the question is the skill that GP intends to develop. I would say that GP is a highly-skilled based subject, and the key to score is to answer the question.
  2. Clarity over complexity – GP is content + articulation, and the later component can affect the former. Markers are looking for clear and easy-to-understand language without unnecessary embellishments and bombastic vocabularies. If you can handle complex vocabularies and sentence structures, good for you but remember not to sacrifice your clarity of expression. Explain the big words which are often quite loaded.
  3. Balance is the key – to score well in GP, you have to understand the beauty of evaluation. Look at things from different perspectives and always question your thoughts and the passage’s arguments in Paper 2. Your evaluation shows your insight into the issue and prevents example-driven paragraphs.
  4. Discipline is important – always remember what you are writing, whether there are grammar errors, how much time left and how many more paragraphs you are planning to write. Do you drift away from your argument or give rush conclusions.

Hope all my friends can do well in the upcoming GP exam! Impress the marker with sound interpretation, exceptional writing skills and rich content knowledge!

In his final trial, Socrates preferred to die rather than to live an unexamined life. His famous quote “an unexamined life is not worth living” may, at the first glimpse, appear to be too idealistic and uncompromising. After all, constantly reflecting on past experiences and carefully thinking about future plans reflect a very intellectual, or even elitist, approach to life, and sometimes they can be destructive to a person’s mind as well. However, in my point of view, the quote is probably flourished by a certain degree of rhetorical exaggeration, and one should not reject the wisdom of this ancient Greek philosopher. Inspired by Socrates, I believe that reflections and introspection into one’s life can lead to less repetition of similar mistakes, a purposeful life that achieves certain objectives and the enrichment of one’s inner soul. As such, one should consistently examine oneself to live a virtuous, purposeful and happy life.

There is no denying that living an examined life is a highly elitist point of view which may not be a suitable suggestion to everyone. In order to successfully examine one’s life, one is required to be conscious about his past experiences, current situation and future plans at all times. Besides, one has to have insight into one’s own personality, interpersonal relationships and responsibilities in society. The action of examining one’s life, in other words, requires a person to be very intellectual, reflective and meticulous. In contrast, there are many people who are less capable of such careful examination and prefer to live for the moment. How can anyone be condemned for living a meaningless life just because he only meets his mundane, daily needs, keeps his children warm, honours the old and appreciates simple acts of kindness? An unexamined life is still worth living as long as people can acquire simple happiness in their lives, which allows them to enjoy every moment. It is probably not necessary for them to follow Socrates.

In addition, an unexamined life may still be worth living because people are then less likely to fall into depression and more likely to take actions to achieve their goals. Excessive examination is sometimes destructive for a person’ confidence and passion as the person may be too critical about his past mistakes or too anxious about his future goals. As a result, the person tends to over-think about everything without taking any action. It can be argued that such a life seems to be worthless as it does not achieve any goals, reach the person’s full potential or make any contributions to society. Under such consideration, an unexamined life is preferable as one can save time by thinking less unnecessary things and worrying less. Psychologically, people who worry less tend to have a higher self-esteem which may motive them to take actions to realise their dreams. An unexamined life can therefore still be worthwhile as it protects one’s ego and courage, qualities that are necessary for one to achieve success.

Furthermore, it would be too idealistic to assume that personal reflections are always beneficial to one’s spiritual well-being because in reality, people may be manipulated, and their introspection may enslave their minds. In those cases, an unexamined life can possibly be worth living as it protects people from further manipulations. During the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, people were particularly required to reflect on whether they were totally obedient to President Mao and following the Communist ideology. Such daily self-examination was in fact a tool used by the government to exert control over its people rather than to help its people grow spiritually. The example shows that people may become puppets of the government once their self-reflection are controlled by the government and subsequently fail to enrich their inner souls. Such destructive reflection actually limits one’s ability to think critically and to make one’s own decisions. Less examination, or even an unexamined life, is more meaningful under such circumstances as it saves one’s free will and protects one’s inner soul from political manipulations.

Although Socrates’ advice is indeed not suitable for everyone and may not always lead to a life worth living, the act of examining one’s life is still essential for a meaningful life. With constant self-examination, one can repeat fewer mistakes from the past, making more conscious choices and more ethical decisions. Ancient philosophers argued that the idea of a meaningless life is about endless and pointless repetition, as indicated by the ancient myth of Sisyphus who pushed a rock to the top of a hill and brought it down over and over again. Repetition of similar mistakes, in my point of view, is pointless and meaningless because it proves that one has not learned from the past and grown mature. Successful self-reflection can prevent such repetitions because people are more aware of their own weaknesses and the consequences of their mistakes. They are unlikely to react in the same flawed way in similar circumstances. Over time, they can become better decision makers who are responsible for their own actions and also the welfare of others. Their lives are meaningful because these people are not stuck with one error; instead, they make use of the error and move on to be more disciplined and responsible individuals.

In addition, a life worth living is a purposeful life which requires people to begin every task with the end in mind and carefully plan for their future. Self-examination is crucial in this forward-planning process as it keeps reminding a person of his goals, abilities and circumstances. The person will likely to be motivated and more conscious in working step by step to achieve his goals. In Singapore, students in junior colleges are advised to carefully think through their talents, interests and career choices even though they have not even stepped into universities yet. Some feel that it is too early for these students to consider such things, but I believe that in order to succeed in a highly competitive society like Singapore, students should consistently think about their future ambitions to acquire direction in their current studies. Thinking through, and even revising future plans are actually a very practical way for people to attain success in their lives, and a successful life is undoubtedly worth living as people make great contributions to society while achieving a sense of fulfillment.

Moreover, an examined life is a happy life that is more worth living than an unexamined one. Examining one’s life is admittedly a tiring, solitary, but nevertheless highly fulfilling process. Shi Tiesheng, a widely respected Chinese writer who was handicapped, thoroughly examined the value of his existence via writing. Despite his physical weaknesses, he had achieved self-actualisation and found happiness in his life after his essays, often about death and the value of life, inspired many young people. Human minds are so powerful that they can transcend the physical limitations of humans, philosophise daily experiences and find meaning beyond the short lifespan of individuals. Through critical, insightful self-reflections, people are able to discover the significance of their existence in this world, or in other words, the value of their unique personalities, their emotions and thoughts, as well as their relationships with others. All these discoveries will bring people comfort, confidence and, of course, enduring happiness, the state of mind that is essential for a fulfilling and well-spent life.

Throughout history, philosophers, including Socrates, love to discuss the importance of one’s inner, immortal soul, an abstract representation of one’s knowledge, beliefs and spiritual life. “An unexamined life is not worth living” emphasises the significance of a rich inner soul for a meaningful life and reflects a very strong belief that Socrates was actually willing to die for. Admittedly, the quote does sound very extreme and intellectual, and examining one’s life may not always lead to positive outcomes. In addition, the worthiness of life is a very broad, subjective concept that is impossible to measure. Nevertheless, no matter how one chooses to define the worthiness of life, one should not ignore the growth of one’s soul through consistent contemplation. Self-reflection and introspection allow people to repeat fewer mistakes, to achieve their ambitions and, most importantly, to attain peace and fulfillment in their minds. They are undoubtedly essential for an enriched soul and a life worth living.

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