The Examined Life as ‘Good’

by Virginia Craft

The nature of the “good” for both Socrates and Epictetus lies in the examination of one’s own life. Although the good may be something that is unobtainable, they both propose that the process towards a life of virtue, a good life, constitutes a worthy life.

Socrates seeks to know the criteria of the “good” that Euthyphro is basing his accusations off of. For Euthyphro, the good is piety (that which pleases the gods) and the bad is impiety (that which displeases the gods). However, Socrates finds ambiguity in Euthyphro’s account of the good and the bad, and asks Euthyphro to clarify what the pious is and what the
impious is. Socrates reveals Euthyphro’s explanation of the good and the bad as being frivolous and unsound since the gods are always in conflict with each other and a universal “good” cannot, thus, be claimed. “…the gods are in a state of discord that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other” (Euthyphro, 8). What I gathered from this is that piety cannot possibly be, according to Socrates, a reasonable account of the good, not only because there cannot be (as Euthyphro showed through his unsound arguments) any universal “good” amongst gods who are in a state of constant conflict with each other, but also because to leave the matter of the “good” up to terms of piety would be to take one’s own opinions on morality out of the question and to blindly go along with someone (or something) else’s opinions or claims. For Socrates, I believe, this would not be the way to go about an account of the good. Socrates thinks that we should, instead of submitting our thoughts over to be decided by some gods (or people in general), examine our own lives for virtue. Although he does not know what “good” is, he believes that the process of examining our lives and seeking out the good (or virtue) is what really matters. Similarly, he thinks that some things we cannot find the answers to and that it is in the pursuit of that which is unattainable which makes life worth living for him.

Likewise, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates elaborates more on his beliefs that the examination of one’s life, not necessarily the finding of answers, makes it worthwhile. He shows this by speaking with the people of Athens who were regarded by the Athenians as wise and knowledgeable. They all claimed to have known more about matters than they actually did. Socrates states after talking to one of the ‘wise’ men of Athens, “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do now know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know” (Apology, 26). This same statement is found in Socrate’s discussion with Euthyphro on the nature of the good. Euthyphro claims to know what he does not, without finding useful the essence of the process of questioning the ‘good’.

“Some things are up to us, other are not” (Discourses, Epictetus, 287). For Epictetus, what is “up to us,” or what we can control, is worthy for a Stoic life. The things like our “opinions, impulses, desires, aversion” (Discourses, 287) constitute our Self and give us divine, God-like attributes. These things can be found internally, namely in our minds. Like Socrates’ claim, Epictetus believes that our ability to form opinions, experience emotions and ultimately examine our lives make life worthwhile. Contrary to this, the life of an animal is the life that is not worthy, according to Epictetus. This also includes some of the things he states as being “not up to us,” or the things we cannot control. External things such as one’s “body, property, reputation, office” (Discourses, 287) are more ‘mortal’ and subject to corruption. As opposed to the things that are “up to us.” these things are only apparently real, impermanent even. Epictetus feels like we should control those things that are “not up to us” and then, by doing so, we will not be subject to hindrance. By attaining a serene state of mind and allowing ourselves to remain unaffected by the things that are “not up to us” (the external objects) then our minds will no longer be enslaved by them. In Epictetus’ Encheiridion he states, “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgments about these things” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). I believe Epictetus is saying that things themselves, the things that are uncontrollably “not up to us,” should be of no negative effect to us, we should just allow them to be so through our judgments, through our minds which are controllable. He continues by giving an example of this using death, “…the terror lies in our own judgment about death, that death is terrible” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). Death itself, for example, is only but part of what is “not up to us.” If we allow ourselves to be enslaved by the things that are out of our control then, for Epictetus, we will never find freedom (the realm of choice) or happiness.

One similarity I noticed between Epictetus and Socrates is their beliefs that the pursuit of the good, or virtue, is an important and worthwhile process. In Epictetus Discourses he says, “3. Now if virtue promises happiness, an untroubled mind and serenity, then progress toward virtue is certainly progress towards each of these. 4. For whatever is the definitive end
to which the perfection of a thing leads, progress is always an approach towards it” (Discourses, Epictetus, Ch. 4 “On Progress”, p. 12). Epictetus believes that failing to live up to our moral, mental capacity is “shameful.” He says, “20. It is therefore shameful that man should begin and end where irrational creatures do. He ought rather to begin there, but to end
where nature itself has fixed our end; 21. and that is in contemplation and understanding a way of life in harmony with nature. 22. Take care, then, not to die without ever being spectators of these things” (Discourses, Ch. 6, “On Providence”, p. 17). Since we are capable of thought and controlling it, for Epictetus, we are more divine than that of the nature of animals. As a result of our capability to control our minds, we should choose to examine and seek to understand our lives. Just as Socrates thinks that leaving our lives unexamined does not make them worth living. Epictetus shows that the nature of animals differs from the nature of humans in that the former is not worthy and the latter is worthy. The nature of humans is worthy, for him, because we are capable of choice, of mental thought. He thinks that there is a good and we should choose it.

Overall, the inquisition and investigation into our own lives establishes, for both Socrates and Epictetus, a good, virtuous and worthy life. Socrates shows through his inquiries with Euthyphro that the “good” is not something that can be found through any means of piety, instead we need to question and examine our own lives. Although, for Socrates, we will never attain the “good,” the process of inquiry and examination is, alone, what makes life worthy. Similarly, Socrates shows that (through questioning the “wise” men of Athens) acting like we know something when we do not, does not make us good or worthwhile. He says that it is better to know nothing and realize this than to pretend you know more than you actually
do or pretend to know when you do not. Epictetus parallels Socrates’ arguments by stating that a worthy Stoic life constitutes our ability to choose the things that are “up to us” and to control our reactions towards the things that are “not up to us” by taking them with a grain of salt, so to speak. His notion of choice is one that leads us to examine our own lives instead of simply letting the external, uncontrollable things in our lives enslave us. In both accounts of Socrates and Epictetus, the good (whether reached or not) is a life of examination and our choosing to examine.