What does it mean to “Know yourself”?
Is it really possible to know ourselves? Socrates, who often quoted the Delphic maxim, seemed at times to be skeptical that there was any real hope of answering the question.
We know so much about many things, and so little about ourselves it seems. St Paul’s observation, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15), is one which is repeated throughout history by philosophers and theologians. St Francis too, is reported to have cried out, “who am I Lord? And who are You?” It’s often struck me that if St Paul and other great minds didn’t know who they were, there’s little hope for the rest of us.
The great difficulty in answering, “who am I?” is that any answer I give seems so subjective. At the very least, I can say that I think I know myself more than others do; I know my thoughts, desires and motivations better than the outside observer. But even with my privileged self-view, I still don’t know who I am. I can construct an account of myself; I can observe my actions and draw some conclusions at least. But I don’t seem to have any sure way of knowing whether or not these constructions, observations and conclusions have any real parity with the facts of my being.
Knowing oneself seems then to be an intractable problem, a rhetorical question that at best can induce some self-reflection with no real certainty at the end of the exercise.
But perhaps the answer to “who am I?” is not totally insoluble. In Book IV of his Memorabilia, Xenophon recounts a dialogues between Socrates and Euthydemus in which Socrates pushes his interlocutor for an account of the Delphic “Know Thyself.”
Through stages, Socrates leads Euthydemus to concede that he doesn’t know the meaning of the maxim at all and eventually leaves crestfallen (like so many of Socrates’ students).
During the exchange, Socrates touches on the notion that just as the maxim “know thyself” applies to individuals, so too does it apply to the community or state. Just as the failure to understand oneself can lead to all kinds of misfortune, so too can the state’s failure to understand itself lead to all kinds of social upheavals and calamities.
But there is also a gem hidden in here: for we find that knowledge of self is facilitated by knowledge of the community in which one lives and serves. Indeed, it sometimes seems to be the case (just as much now as in antiquity) that the individual discovers more about personal identity through social interaction and observation. And so it is, Socrates goes on, that the person who lacks courage and wisdom seeks out the counsel of one recognized to have these desired qualities. In other words, the individual learns of what is lacking in the self, or what is needed, or desired, through an encounter with others who possess those very desired qualities and characteristics.
The community, for Socrates, is therefore not simply a collection of individuals working towards a common goal: the community is the incubator through which the individual is best able to answer the maxim, “know thyself.”
It is for this reason that the laws of the state are so critical to the formation of the individual. As St Thomas Aquinas noted, the law itself is a teacher: the legal statutes of a nation is the rule by which one measures the value and worth of free action. In societies where cruely is enshrined in law, we typically see a proliferation and acceptance of cruelty in kind (consider for example the harrowing story told in the book and film, “12 Years a Slave.” How many potentially good characters were destroyed and distorted by the legalization of slavery in the South?
The community--beginning with the immediate family and radiating out into the state at large--is the school of the self, the mirror through which we see ourselves and judge what is valuable. We desire what others have, and we aspire to be like those who the community holds up as exemplars of the good citizen.
It takes a remarkable, perspicacious individual who can see beyond the laws and customs of the state and community, who can stand back and judge such a culture as objectively good or bad, and then act accordingly. For most of us, self knowledge is simply and typically an exercise in doing what everyone else is doing and conforming to what everyone else is conforming to.
In the final analysis, knowing oneself may begin in the incubator of the state. But the zenith of the wisdom of self knowledge and understanding invariably means being able to judge the state itself.