The Examined Life

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”—Socrates

In a passage of The Discourses, the Stoic Epictetus recommends a regular examination of conscience:

Let not sleep descend upon your weary eyes before having reviewed every action of the day. Where did I go wrong? What did I do? What duty leave undone? Start here, review your actions, and afterwards, blame yourself for what is badly done, and rejoice in the good (3.10).

The best time for meditation is typically at the end of the day when we can shut the door and seek out some quiet from the distractions that have piled up. Yet how many of us really seek to escape diversions, even intellectual ones? In silence we are faced with ourselves as we really are.

Whatever our aspirations, we are inclined to be hedonists and not always the refined and self-denying pleasure-seekers like Epicurus. Much to our disappointment we discover that we are more apt to be “friends of virtue” than consistently virtuous—so often admiring what we fail to practice. It is undoubtedly a form of hypocrisy, though not necessarily the worst, so long as we are honest about it. That said, wisdom seems to elude us.

Have you been able even to help yourself? And yet you want to convert others to a good life…. You want to be of benefit to them? Show them through your own example what kind of men philosophy produces, and give up your empty talk! (3.16)

For previous comments on Stoicism, see The Purpose and Practice of Living.

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