For those of us who don't speak Greek, the above phrase would have been found inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Delphi was considered the center of the world to the ancient Greeks. It was a center of wisdom and learning, and the oracle Pythia resided there. She was sought after from across the ancient world to shed light on things not seen, and to help leaders make decisions. The phrase has been used throughout time and all across the world. It reads, "Know Thyself."
This phrase was widely used by Socrates, an early Greek philosopher. I want to dive deeper into this phrase. I want to understand what it meant to the Greeks, and any other group that might have used it, and I want to understand what it means for us. I hope you will be able to learn as much as I have.
Accounts of the Phrase
As I mentioned earlier, this phrase has been widely used throughout the world and spanning time. There are records of it being inscribed on the temple of Luxor in ancient Egypt as early as 1400 BC, it is the motto of multiple universities across the globe, and it has been used multiple times in current pop culture.
In ancient Egypt, this phrase was inscribed as one entered the complexes of temples at Luxor. The unique thing about these temples is that they were not used for deity worship or to host the burial of dead rulers. This was a place of rejuvenation. It is where the priests gathered to anoint a new ruler. Perhaps this phrase was meant to allow for introspection on the part of the ruler-to-be. Maybe the ancient Egyptians thought it necessary to remind these new rulers of the importance of introspection.
In ancient Greece, this phrase was among those seen as one would enter the temple of Apollo. Apollo was the god of Truth and Prophecy. The fact that the Grecians would choose this phrase makes me happy. For us to truly find truth, we need to first gain an understanding of ourselves. This is a fundamental part of humanity that I will come back to later.
Thomas Hobbes, and English philosopher, translated the phrase as "read thyself" and included it as a critical point in his famous work, The Leviathan. Hobbes wanted to contradict the theory that we can learn more from observing others than from studying books. He asserts to the contrary that by reading oneself, especially one's own thoughts and feelings, we can better understand other's thoughts and feelings.
In the America's, almost two centuries after Hobbes wrote The Leviathan, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled, "Know Thyself" (except written in Greek). It is a beautiful poem, and I would encourage you to read it yourself. In this poem, Emerson writes about the God within each of us. The God inside of us cannot be discovered by those observing us, and it is often missed by the individual as well, but when we take the time to know ourselves, the God within us becomes apparent.
In psychology, there is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is described as the cognitive bias in which an individual mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it actually is. This blog could be a good representation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, but I digress. I mention this phenomenon because it is so prevalent in our world. We fall prey to it without even realizing it. How many times have you been driving and get frustrated with how poorly everyone else is driving? Then you assert to yourself that you are probably the best driver on the road and continue in your rage. What if every individual on that road is equally terrible at driving, as I'm sure we all are. The Dunning-Kruger effect is only minimized when one becomes an expert in a particular field. For instance, a well studied surgeon would be hesitant to operate on a mouse, whereas a student of surgery might insist that humans and mice aren't that different. Plato, one of Socrates' more famous students, wrote an account in which Socrates stated, "I know that I know nothing." In some renderings of the account, this elicits a response from the oracle, Pythia, in which she says, "Socrates is the wisest among men."
Socrates is a complicated individual, and he becomes more difficult to study because we only know the teachings in which his students either recorded or cited him in. Arguably, his most famous contribution is that of the Socratic method. Thinkers from all different kinds of fields employ this method to stimulate critical thinking. The method includes asking and answering questions in order to draw out new ideas and solutions or to expose presuppositions. Typically, the Socratic method is used between two individuals, or an individual and a separate group. In these ways it is a method of debate or teaching, respectively.
In response to the phrase, "Know Thyself," why don't we employ the Socratic Method. Each of us is a product of our environment. The conditions in which we were raised imposed certain views of the world on our minds, which are typically hard to dispel unless we have a dramatic parameter shift. These implicit biases often shape our religious and political views as well as shape the kinds of people we are friends with, date, or marry. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with these biases. Normally, we will never ever recognize that we have them, unless they are blatant and horrific, but imagine how much better of a world we could live in if we shed these habitual chains. I believe this is an integral part of coming to know ourselves. If these biases shape the way we view ourselves and the world around us, which they do, we can never fully understand anything until they are gone. For those seeking truth, we cannot find it until we know ourselves and our weaknesses and biases. By implementing the Socratic method within ourselves, we can expose our presuppositions. When we find these, the world becomes clearer, and we are able to see humanity in a new way.
I invite you to go find an idea that challenges your world view. Don't start with anything too fundamental to your individual, but something peripherary. First, evaluate the idea from your current viewpoint. Second, try and find another viewpoint and assess the idea from that stance. Third, if possible find another viewpoint, and another, and another, until you can't find anymore. Fourth, manipulate each argument until you find common ground. Fifth, evaluate the issue from the stance of the common ground. Evaluate pros and cons, or potential ways to improve the common ground. As you do this more and more, you will find it becoming second nature, and your eyes will be opened to a world which you have never experienced.
I am not claiming to be an expert of this practice. I'm not really an expert at anything. But I know that this will change your life, and consequently the lives of those around you. It will make you into a better person. If you don't mind me bringing religion into this philosophical discussion, it will make you more like Christ.
Thank you for reading.
"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." -Aristotle
I am not too proud to admit that most of my knowledge on these topics came from Wikipedia. If you're curious, there is a whole rabbit hole behind this phrase to be explored.