Had you, living in ancient Greece walked up to Apollo’s temple at Delphi you would have been greeted by an admonition: Know Thyself.
How might you have understood the phrase? You might well have believed that, upon entering a temple you should recognize that you are a mortal human being, not a god.
And yet, Socrates, if I recall correctly, believed that the sentence was telling him to introspect, to explore and learn about his own mind. After all, the philosopher once said that the only thing he knew was his desire.
And so it has been for around two-and-a-half millennia.
Philosopher Quassim Cassam explained it all in the New York Times yesterday:
To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense.
Cassam is unhappy that contemporary philosophers have gotten bogged down pondering what it means to know or to believe.
I will not follow Cassam down that path.
I prefer to begin by pointing out that it’s one thing to know your wishes, dreams, feelings and emotions, hopes and aspirations. Similarly, with whatever theory you develop about why you do what you do.
And yet, these have little to do with your character, something you demonstrate in the way you deal with other people on a daily basis.
After all, Aristotle said that you are what you do habitually. By no measure can that mean that you are whatever you think is going on in your mind.
If we were to ask who you really are would we want to emphasize your hopes to run the marathon or your trustworthiness? Is it more relevant for another person to know that you like Mexican food because your grandmother fed it to you or to know that you are responsible and reliable in all matters great and small?
Which one is more substantially you?
Philosophers place a special emphasis on knowing your mind. It’s an occupational hazard. But, why do we believe that knowing yourself means knowing your mind?
Ask yourself this: Which is more important: knowing that you want to play basketball in the NBA or knowing whether you have the talent to do so?
Knowing yourself has less to do with introspective journeys and more to do with an accurate and objective appraisal of your talents, your aptitude and your character.
If someone walks up to you and you want to introduce yourself by telling him who you are, what will you say? Obviously, you will say your proper name. If someone asks who you are, you will not go into a litany about your hopes and aspirations, your feelings and emotions, your motives and your intentions. You will simply state your name.
But, a name is more than a mere appellation. Your name places you within a family. There you will be someone’s brother or sister, husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter.
Of course, these roles are gendered. Knowing yourself means knowing whether you are male or female. Evidently, today’s serious thinkers believe that there is no difference. This means that they do not know who they are and are not to be trusted.
But, a family exists within a society containing numerous other families. Having a name and being part of a family will naturally place you within a community.
This defines you as a social being, not as a pure mind seeking its own reasons, emotions and desires.
As a member of a community you will need to follow certain rules, fulfill certain duties and obligations, act respectfully toward other people.
You may choose to reject these values. If you are willing to pay the price, you are free to do so. And yet, you are defined, not only by your membership in a group but in the way that you conduct yourself toward other members of that group.
But that’s not all of who you are.
Knowing what you do and do not know, knowing what you do and do not know how to do… involves making an objective appraisal of your experience, your successes and failures.
Surely, if you know all of this you know that you are not a god. But you will also be well-equipped to face the world.
So far, so good.
Now, look at the philosophical question in the light of this quotation from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, quoted by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal this morning:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Shifting the context, away from philosophical speculation and toward practical calculation changes the question.
Sun Tzu does not mean that you should know your hopes and dreams, desires and aspirations. He means that if you are entering the arena you should know what you can and cannot do and what your strengths and weaknesses are.
But, to succeed in battle you also need to know your enemy. That does not mean, Stephens notwithstanding, that you need to engage in a Clintonian exercise in empathy. It means that you should calculate your enemy’s strengths and weakness, in roughly the way that a chess player would analyze the possible moves his opponent can make based on the pieces he has on the board, their placement, his skill level and so on.
Victory does not just involve knowing yourself. If you know yourself but do not know your enemy, Sun Tzu says that you will win some and lose some.
Of course, this also suggests that those who know themselves and their enemies will know which battles to fight and which to avoid.