What did Socrates mean when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”?

Not quite “not worth living”. The Greek is more absolute than that.

I’ve been feeling guilty about Nick Nicholas’ answer to Since the active and middle voices of the 2nd aorist forms of “to stand” are intransitive (ἵστημι – ἔστην vs ἐστάμην), are these forms synonymous?, where I basically dismissed nuance in Ancient Greek as something transitory, and not to get too hung up about. The rendering of Plato’s maxim is an instance where there is a little bit of nuance, and I’m hijacking this question to do penance.

I could have done Sappho instead; her second best known poem, Aphrodite of the dappled throne, has Aphrodite repeat three times δηὖτε, which gets translated as ‘again’:

you, Blessed One,
with a smile on your unaging face
asking again what have I suffered
and why am I calling again

and in my wild heart what did I most wish
to happen to me: “Again whom must I persuade
back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?

It doesn’t just mean ‘again’. It means ‘but now too’. It’s double-emphasised. You can see Aphrodite actually rolling her eyes: “what have you suffered THIS time, and why are you invoking me THIS time, and who do I have to persuade THIS time?”

But I’m alighting on Plato instead. So.

Ancient Greek has participles. It has oodles of participles. It has actives and middles and passives. It has future and past and progressive [present] and perfective.

And that’s not what Plato used. Plato used verbal adjectives.

There are two types of verbal adjective in Greek. The first ends in –teos, and corresponds to the Latin gerundive; it means ‘should be X-ed’. So zētēteon ‘should be sought’ is the term for a logical problem. erastea is someone who should be loved, corresponding to Latin Amanda.

So Plato could have used biōteos, ‘should be lived, is to be lived’. But he didn’t. He used biōtos: ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ, ho de anexetastos bios ou biōtos anthrōpōi. “But the unexamined life is not lived for a human.”

Biōtos, and for that matter anexetastos, are the second type of verbal adjective. They kind of mean the same thing as a passive participle. But a participle is still a verb: it has an agent, and it has a time, and it has an aspect. An adjective doesn’t: it just is.

So if you take the verb passō ‘to sprinkle, to salt’, you could say that fish is passomenos ‘being salted’, or pastheis ‘that was salted’ or pepasmenos ‘that has been salted’. But you don’t. You just say fish is pastos, ‘salted’. You don’t care when, you don’t care by who. In fact, the question of when or by who does not really even make sense; it’s an adjective, it just is.

When it’s negated, the notion of it being a state, and not an event, is even stronger. Anexetastos ‘unexamined’ is such a negated verbal adjective. It doesn’t mean ‘currently not being examined by someone’ (mē exetazomenos), or that it didn’t get examined (mē exetastheis); it’s just unexamined. Examination doesn’t happen around it.

In fact negative verbal adjectives connote so strongly that the event doesn’t happen, they are often translated into Latin and Western languages with adjectives indicating impossibility. ‘Indeclinable’ in Greek is aklitos, un-declined. Because it’s an adjective and not a participle, the notion of who does the declining does not even show up, and the notion of when the declining happens and whether it’s ongoing does not show up. It just is.

Same here. An anexetastos life is not a life that didn’t get examined by someone at some time. It just isn’t examined.

Same with biōtos. Plato doesn’t use biōteos, “shouldn’t be lived”, so a notion of ‘worth living’ isn’t there. He said it is not lived. Not by someone, at some time: it’s just not lived at all. Any more than a preposition is declined, or a whale is examined. In fact, abiōtos gets rendered as ‘unlivable’. LSJ translates it as “not to be lived, insupportable”; the implication is that the situation is no more able to sustain life than the lunar surface.

I mean, sure, ‘worth living’ is sometimes an appropriate rendering. Aristophanes in Plutus says Abiōton einai moi pepoiēke ton bion, “he’s made my life be unlivable”, and the expression has been revived in Modern Greek: mu ekane to vio avioto “he made my life unlivable”. (abiōtos had not survived in Modern Greek, but verbal adjectives have, so Greeks still have an intuitive understanding of the expression) In English, we would say “he made my life not worth living”. But the Greek is more absolute: “there’s no life to be had there”.

And Plato did not say abiōtos either. He went one step further: he said, not ‘unlivable’ (or ‘unlived’), but ‘not lived’ (or ‘not livable’): ou biōtos. It’s just that bit more emphatic.

What did Plato mean? The tone is all wrong, but it comes across as something like: “An unexamined life? That’s not living. For anyone.”