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γνῶθι σέαυτον Know Thyself!


Know Thyself: Sententia Cotidiana XXI

The question of today’s ‘thought’ is what this phrase really means. Scrolling through a few articles on the internet, I have even found articles saying it is bad advice, as it is self-limiting and precludes an ability to adapt. I certainly see how it can be abused in that way. That someone could say, ‘well I know myself. I am an ‘x’ kind of person, there’s no way I can try ‘why’. I don’t, however, think this is what the phrase means and it how should not be taken this way. I certainly do not think it will hamper our ability to adapt. We are not talking about ‘finding yourself’ in a spiritual sense or rigorous self-searching to find one’s ‘true self’, whatever that may mean. Nor are we talking about discovery of likes and dislikes as something set in stone, not to be diverged from. Here are the lessons that I think should be taken from the phrase:

· Be on your guard against hubris or arrogance.

· Have the courage to be different, whether in tastes or opinions and not follow the crowd.

The first of these lessons is a recurring feature of ancient literature, especially Greek. Had Croesus not been so convinced of his own kingdom’s strength and brilliance, he would have thought twice about attacking the Persian empire. His success had made him believe that he was unstoppable, so when the oracle at Delphi said to him that if he went to war with Persia, ‘a great empire would be destroyed’, it never crossed his mind that the empire could be his. He should have followed up with an accurate survey of Persian strength and success. He would then have ‘known himself’, or rather known how the true state of affairs stood when comparing his strength with that of Persia. ‘Know thyself’ is, therefore, advice to know your limits, not in terms of capability or potential, that would make it a self-limiting concept, but rather to know how a given situation affects you, how you should deal with it, and above all not to go rushing in, blinded by overconfidence when making such decisions.

The second meaning, courage to be oneself, is exemplified by Socrates, not that it particularly did the poor, great man any good (although his prosecution was arguably more political than anything, with his idiosyncratic approach being a convenient pretext). In what way did Socrates know himself? Surely, Socrates went around claiming, ‘I know nothing’. But in that lay the heart of Socrates’ self-knowledge. It hardly proved limiting. It gave him the courage to pursue a course of action that he was aware may make him unpopular. Citing his old friend Chaerephon at his trial, Socrates related the story of how Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi who was wiser than Socrates. The reply came back that no one was wiser than Socrates. Socrates then proceeds to explain how his subsequent enquiries led to his realisation that his wisdom lay in realising he was not wise and knew nothing, unlike some of those he queried who professed ‘expert’ knowledge. All this did was to drive Socrates on further in his quest for understanding, questioning and encouraging others to do the same, not simply accepting what they are told. In doing so, he also eschewed the career course traditionally expected of and Athenian. Pursuing a political career was taking care of ones affairs, not taking care of oneself. I suppose by that Socrates meant, at least in part, that simply going along with your society’s expectations and what it taught you was not necessarily as good for the person as sitting back, questioning, and reflecting. He might have acknowledged his limitations, but it in no way limited his efforts. He was brave enough to be different. He knew his strength was in his ability to search and enquire. He truly knew himself.

Can I say that I have learnt from this maxim? Yes, quite truthfully I can. Pre-sixth form, I was often mocked for 'uncool' tastes. For about a week or two, hurt by this, I tried to blend in. But I was far happier being me and alone versus pretending to qualify as one of the crowd. Eventually, I was respected for it. I might not always be hugely confident, but I have a certain inner courage to be myself.

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