In Plato's dialogue Laches, Lysimachus and Melesias are searching for someone to teach their sons about courage, so they engage the Athenian generals Laches and Nikias in conversation, with Socrates participating alongside. Socrates encourages Lysimachus to seek an account (logos) of virtue from Laches and Nikias, since they are older and presumably wiser than Socrates himself. When Lysimachus agrees that this is a good idea, Nikias makes a fascinating observation:
You strike me as not being aware that, whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has any talk with him face to face, is bound to be drawn round and round by him in the course of the argument - though it may have started at first on a quite different theme - and cannot stop until he is led into giving an account (logos) of himself, of the manner in which he now spends his days, and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto; and when once he has been led into that, Socrates will never let him go until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the test. (187e-188a)
Yet Nikias does not object to this rather rough handling: "[T]o me there is nothing unusual, or unpleasant either, in being tried and tested by Socrates."
The verb βασανίζεσθαι, translated by W.R.M. Lamb as "being tried and tested", can also mean "being closely examined" (with a clear connection to "the examined life") or even "being questioned under torture" ... rough handling, indeed!
There is a further connection to Aristotle's exploration of the kind of wisdom (phronesis) that guides our actions. As discussed in my post some weeks ago about understanding what you know, Aristotle holds that understanding (episteme) must be "accompanied by an account" (meta logou) in order to be complete. Likewise, complete wisdom (phronesis) and excellence of character must also be accompanied by an account; this implies that you must be able to explain why you act as you do by grounding your conduct and commitments in the universals of human nature and experience. It is precisely this kind of account that the rich and the powerful, the famous and the fortunate believe it is beneath them to provide. (The ancients had a special word for this: hubris.) By contrast, the person who endeavors to live an examined life is always willing and able to give an account of how they live - not necessarily a flawless account of a flawless life, but a well-reasoned account of a reasonable life.
Here are a few brief examples. As Aristotle describes matters, the decadent person has made a thoroughgoing commitment to always pursue whatever pleasure presents itself at the moment; yet that policy cannot be defended with a well-reasoned account of how they live because it does not activate core human capacities for, among other things, long-term relationships and deliberative action. Similar stories can be told about people who crave ever more of things that have no natural limit, such as money, power, fame, and prestige: because they have set no reasonable limit to their actions and emotions, they cannot give a well-reasoned account of how they live.
Returning to Socrates, notice that in Plato's Apology he is quoted as saying "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." It is not that someone who can't give an account of their life cannot remain alive or even be successful by some conventional standard, but instead that they are not living in a way that is worthy of the best within us.
As I wrote almost five years ago in a short review of Edith Hall's book Aristotle's Way, Aristotle (along with Socrates and many others) does not talk down to us or give us a few simple life hacks; instead these great thinkers exhort us to join the aristocracy of the human spirit. That level of excellence is rare and difficult (as Spinoza put it), but eminently worth striving for as a human ideal.
(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)
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