Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Know Thyself!"

Know thyself!

The phrase is so ambiguous that it can refer to just about anything.

Is it an injunction or an admonition? Is it an invitation or an imperative?

It comes down to us through Plato, but it was first inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo.

Addressed to someone who is about to enter the temple it seems to be telling him to know his place, to express proper humility in a sacred space, in a space that honors a god. By extension, it is saying that he does best not to mistake himself for a god.

As you know, therapists have been doing their best to provide their own spin to the term. They have declared it to mean that you should gain self-knowledge, and that self-knowledge will make you healthy and happy.

I can pretty much guarantee that no therapist has ever imagined that knowing yourself meant knowing your proper place. Therapists have never been great proponents of propriety.

They favor introspection. Knowing yourself does not require extensive introspection. In truth, too much introspection will obscure your notion of who you really are. Better to know how others see you than about what you think or feel about yourself.

After all, you are publicly identified by your face. By something that everyone but you can see directly. The best you can do is to look at your face's reflection.

Putting your soul aside, much of what you can know about yourself is public knowledge. Start with your name. You know it; it isn’t a mystery. Since your name designates you as a member of a family, that too is something that you know about yourself. No mystery there.

Next, you can know your place in a network of family relationships. You are someone’s father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister, uncle or aunt.

All of the either/or constructions involve gender differences. It is good to know which gender you belong to. Everyone else will likely know, so you would look foolish if you were the only one who didn’t.

All of that defines your social being, and you are nothing if not a social being. Trust me, it's better than being a mind.

Also, you know which community you belong to. It usually involves a local and a national community. Nothing mysterious there either.

You should also know your place within the community. Are you a pillar of the community or someone whose role is less august?

Entering the Temple of Apollo involves being sufficiently humble to receive whatever the god wants to communicate you. For that you need to know that you are a human being, a social being, existing within a web of relationships.

I am confident that this version of self-knowledge is not the one you were expecting. Yet, if you do not know and grant sufficient weight to these objective realities about your social existence, you will have considerable difficulty navigating the world.

So far I have said nothing about your personality. I am not very interested in whether you are outgoing or contemplative, whether you are cheerful or somber, whether you are talkative or reticent.

Not one of these qualities changes your name or your place in the world.

Setting out to learn about your personality strikes me as a largely uninteresting quest.

Of course, there is more to you than this list. I mentioned it first because most people tend to trivialize it. Beware the therapeutic impulse to trivialize what really matters.

If you were worrying about whether I was going to leave a place for your individuality, fear not. Beyond the qualities I have just mentioned, lies your most important human quality: your character.

Clearly, the Temple of Apollo was prescribing humility and humility is an important character trait.

But, ask yourself this: do you know whether or not you have good character?

Are you trustworthy, loyal, reliable, responsible, and decorous? Do you keep your word? Are you respectful and courteous to others?

Most other people know whether or not they can trust you. Do you?

If you are content to answer that you are trustworthy and loyal some of the time, then you have some work to do.

A person with good character is always trustworthy, always responsible and reliable, always good to his word. A person with good character does not go back on his word when he can get away with it. He does not keep his word only when it is expedient.

If you know how good your character is or isn't, you can correct it. Even if you have the best character, there is always room for improvement. If you think that your character cannot get any better, then you are mistaking yourself for a god.

So far, I have excluded the therapist’s favorite quest: to discover your hidden motives, what makes you run or jump or lust. More than a few people have run aground over the therapist’s imperative to discover what you really, really want.

Following your bliss or your passion or your heart’s desire is a fool‘s errand. As I’ve often said, what matters is not how badly you want it, but how good you are at it.

Knowing yourself does mean knowing what you are good at. Do not undertake enterprises for which you have no real talent.

And if you have real talent, be it for the cello or golf or accounting, you owe it to your talent, or to the divinity that gave you the talent, to guard it, to cultivate it, and to allow it to achieve excellence.


Deadman said...

Mortimer J. Adler, in his Intellect: Mind over Matter (London & NY, 1990) concluded similarly, except that he suggested that the failure to use one’s intellect is equivalent to sinful sloth:
“Sloth is a moral fault [...] that causes the misconduct of the individual’s private life.
“One ought to make good use of one’s intellect in order to lead a morally good life. Stated another way, one ought to lead an intellectual life.” (p. 186)

Dennis said...

I am trying to remember, but a friend said to me a long while ago something like, "Never hide you lamp under a bucket." I understood what he was trying to say.
The talent we have been given should be utilized and not allowed to sit fallow or left uncultivated.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the quote, Deadman. I hadn't thought of it as slothful, but I very much like the idea.

Thanks, also, Dennis. I do think that seeing talent in this light would be a good way for a lot of people to get over themselves.