In Plato’s The Apology, Socrates states in line 38A “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He uses this piece of philosophy as an explanation or to support his acceptance of being put to death after his trial. In his mind, there has been no description and there is no certainty of what occurs once a person perishes. Their fate is in the hands of the gods alone so it actually would be quite silly to fear death because if you don’t know about an event, occurrence, a state of being, etc. there is no reason to develop anxiety, alarm or panic over it. In his Ballot or The Bullet speech, Malcolm X claims exactly the opposite, as he states, “the examined life is painful.” Malcolm X’s contention is a key premise in his approach to the political philosophy of black nationalism as he meant black Americans have been the ones to goad the rest of the nation into truly viewing what it means to be a human being and all the dark forces they have employed to not afford black citizens equality.

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For instance, the chasm between blacks and whites in America commenced long before the 13 colonies began to be recognized as such. Many European nations such as England, Spain and Portugal reaped tremendous wealth from selling black people in the New World as slaves. This was the catalyst for the institution of slavery in the United States. Even after the North defeated the South in the Civil War, which legally abolished slavery, rampant inequality existed right up until Malcolm X’s famous speech. Quite honestly, it still exists today.

What Malcolm X was imparting is that black people should take pride in themselves as a race and not identify themselves as black Americans, but as a black nation. They should be the ones with the best jobs, highest educations and in positions of power to rule the country. Why? Because they had long been subjected to lives of inequality, injustice and poverty for the sake of the rest of their countrymen’s betterment. As such, they should unite to right the ship and take what they rightfully deserved. As a result of their circumstances, they had learned how to govern correctly, how to be just and how to maintain an even balance. Since other American citizens were unwilling to take a long, hard look at the situation and right it, that was up to the black nationalists rather than standing by merely accepting their lot.

What is also interesting about Malcolm X’s use of Socrates in his political philosophy for black nationalism is the Socratic method of questioning. In order to come to terms with a course of action or a way to behave, blacks need to ask themselves relevant questions such as why are things this way, what can be done to rectify our circumstances and how that can be accomplished? Malcolm X meant once life is examined in this way, it is something that causes pain because the answers are based solely upon other races acting upon what they think is superiority to promote their lifestyles at the expense of the blacks. His point was the truthful answers to these questions are painful to blacks, but at the same time, they can use that pain to motivate them to alter their circumstances, achieve what was rightfully theirs and banish their years of inequality to the past. Malcolm X’s philosophy was pivotal in his transition away from Islam and was an attempt to link others to the black movement. While it seems negative at first glance, his statement could actually be viewed as enlightening because it should motivate and inspire other members of his race to act versus continuing to do the same thing. It is an intriguing and powerful philosophical statement.

  • Fetter, James. “The Apology of Socrates: A Magnanimous Defense of Philosophy” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Northeastern Political Science Association, Omni Parker House, Boston, MA, Nov 13, 2008
  • Malcolm X: “The Ballot or the Bullet”.” Accessed September 20, 2014.