“Know Thyself” is an ancient and well known aphorism, but it’s one that is often mistaken, or misinterpreted, with a rather broad meaning. While I could break down the Ancient Greek and dissect the term, I prefer to explore what it means to me in particular.
My studies in Plato and Continental Philosophy have driven me to a very particular interpretation of the aphorism “know thyself,” that which Plato ascribes to Socrates in several of his dialogues, particularly Phaedrus and Protagoras. This splits the meaning of the phrase between two rather similar definitions.
Phaedrus: “Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.” The direct text refers to the “newly” found philosophy of mythology, which Socrates says he has no time for, because he must know himself before exploring such vague, or “crude” tales, which take a great deal of time to study. This in turn details a much deeper trait — that of seeking understanding of the self before that of outside things, because you cannot understand the objective without having an understand of the subjective.*
*This is, of course, my personal interpretation of Plato’s writings here. There are many other ways to dissect this dialog.
Protagoras: “All these were lovers and emulators and disciples of the culture of the culture of the Lacedaemonians, and any one may perceive that their wisdom was of this character; consisting of short memorable sentences, which they severally uttered. And they met together and dedicated in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, as the first-fruits of their wisdom, the far-famed inscriptions, which are in all men’s mouths,-‘Know thyself,’ and ‘Nothing too much.’ Why do I say all this? I am explaining that this Lacedaemonian brevity was the style of primitive philosophy.” Here, Plato focuses on the uselessness of such aphorisms in their common usage — sayings which are expected to have a self-evident definition, yet it is typically unclear how one would live life according to their meanings. These sayings are typical by their broad definitions, and their reliance on personal discover, self-reflection and self-referencing for understanding. The deeper focus here is once again, how the subjective takes focus above and beyond the objective — one must understand such aphorisms, “know thyself,” before being able to apply them outwardly, or attempt an understanding of the outside influences upon them.
So by now you’re probably thinking “okay, what’s your point?”
“Know thyself” is a statement which references the self. Me. I must understand myself before I am able to understand anything else. The aphorism was popularized in modern culture by the film The Matrix (1999), and despite some of the film’s other lackluster attempts at philosophy, it manages a fairly solid interpretation of the phrase: “It means know thyself. I wanna tell you a little secret, being ‘The One’ is just like being in love. No one needs to tell you you are in love, you just know it, through and through.” Take this line to a second level of interpretation, much like when reading Plato, and you’ll find a rather poignant moment of foreshadowing for the film — Neo doesn’t become “The One” until he accepts himself as the role, and isn’t able to fulfill his fate as the savior of Zion until he better understands the manufactured part he plays in the story.
Again, you’re probably thinking “okay, seriously, what’s your point?”
Well here’s the point — lately my own thoughts have strayed close to the aphorism “know thyself.” I’ve been putting some significant focus on discovering who I am so far in 2015. This has been a trying year to date and I have discovered that, in order to better adjust to the necessary changes I have had to make, I need to understand myself better and interpret these life events through the veil of self-reflection/knowledge.
While, I am sure, my personal need to better know myself before seeking understanding in the world around me is exactly that, a personal need, perhaps there is merit in the idea that self-understanding benefits understanding of the Other. Consider this: In his first volume of the Horror of Philosophy, “In The Dust Of This Planet,”* Eugene Thacker explores how the horror genre attempts to think about the world-without-us, a term which describes the complete removal of the human when discussing the Planet (Earth), philosophically, using non-philosophical conventions. For Thacker, the Planet (world-without-us) is a wholly “Other” thing, something which cannot be understood in human terms, making it impossible to even think about it. It is truly “unknown.” Perhaps Otherness can never be understand in these circumstances; however, it is impossible to even attempt an understanding without first knowing the person seeking such understanding — myself.
*As a side note, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is even vaguely interested in philosophy, genre horror, or similar topics. I eagerly await volume 2, which should be arriving any day now.
Whether or not I am able, or even seek, to understand the Other, it is crucial for happiness and living a fulfilled life, that I understand myself. Knowing myself will allow me to know life, and that is an under appreciated skill…