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Socrates' trial - the unexamined life is not worth living

What is the context and meaning behind Socrates’ statement that the unexamined life is not worth living?

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In Plato’s Apology, he recounts Socrates’ defence against accusations of corrupting the youth and impiety. During his speech, Socrates recounts an event in which his friend, Chaerephon, consulted The Pythia (the Oracle of Delphi) in order to enquire as to whether there was any man wiser than him (Socrates) – to which the oracle replied in the negative. Determined to test this statement, Socrates sought to examine the knowledge of a number of prominent figures that were thought to be wise at the time. He did this using the elenctic method – a process by which propositions are cross-examined against other propositions, generally resulting in proof of their negation and leaving the examined in a state of aporia, or confusion at their own contradictions. Having done this, he concluded that he was wiser than these men, but only insofar as he was aware of his own ignorance and they were not.

This elenctic method is at the core of Socrates’ philosophical life; he believed that it is possible to attain true knowledge, but that it is first necessary to have an understanding of one’s own ignorance, and it is the elenctic method that aids attainment of this self-knowledge. However, being undermined through argument in this way is rather frustrating, and as his young admirers and followers began to imitate this process, it drew some ire – ultimately resulting in his death.

Speaking after his sentencing, Socrates refuses to renounce his pursuit of the truth by critical examination, preferring to die instead. Even in his final moments, he takes the opportunity to dispassionately examine what death will mean for him, concluding that – afterlife or nothingness – it could only be positive in comparison to a life without the pursuit of knowledge.