I’ve heard it said that we’re the last to see ourselves as we truly are – or as others do – or words to that effect. Something about confusing appearances and underlying intention, as though we operate on two levels, one being a suggestive or intellectual level of preferred character while underneath in the undisguised realm and reign of animal instinct things are different. I am not saying there is anything deliberately iniquitous about one’s conduct, just that supposedly what we imagine we’re projecting and what we’re actually doing are often different – at least from the perspective of others.
And while I long ago dismissed whatever corruption of public opinion may prevail – as in my experience it often derives from those whose opinions least matter, I have never entirely disregarded whatever motives or persuasions may happen to either cultivate or dictate my behaviour. The absorption is complicated by the fact that definition of one’s own patterns of behaviour is a formidable challenge. To take a gross example for expediency of explanation, consider the ability one may have to play the piano by ear. How indeed to define such a diaphanous trait?
And even if one were to exhaust one’s interest in such a notably inward dedication on the grounds that it is unforgivably egotistical or perhaps destined to incertitude, I reflect coincidentally that it is by far more impossible to understand the mindset of others whether modern or medieval. As a result the interest which piques this particular topic of self-awareness is more favourably rendered as no more than response to the ancient admonition, “Know thyself!”
The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” is the first of three Delphic maxims inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek writer Pausanias (10.24.1). The two maxims that follow “know thyself” were “nothing to excess” and “certainty brings insanity”. In Latin the phrase, “know thyself”, is given as nosce te ipsum or temet nosce.
The maxim, or aphorism, “know thyself” has had a variety of meanings attributed to it in literature, and over time, as in early ancient Greek the phrase means “know thy measure”.
While it may seem paradoxical that Socrates said both: “Know thyself” and “The only thing I know is that I know nothing” the two statements together communicate a wisdom that is confirmed by modern physical and neural sciences. You do not see the world as it is. The feeling of certainty that you do is an illusion and is the source of the misery you bring on yourself and those around you.
In spite of the inutility of knowledge, a modern variation of the Delphic maxims may usefully translate as,
Know yourself. Curb your dogma. Take it easy.
These simplistic assertions – though more cogent than “Don’t worry, Be happy” – do not succeed to remove my curiosity with what it was in the past that propelled me, and what it is in the present that draws me. Last evening – or was it the middle of the night – as I reflected upon my youthful activity, I divined that I was driven by impulses which at the time I failed to recognize other than merely by performance. That is, the reason or imperative behind the performances was lacking. Yet even now I can do little more than describe the inclination without qualifying the motive or source of the inertia.
No doubt most of us harbour a favourable summary of our exertions and their inner inflammation. The complicated circumstances which surround each of us make the deliberation intricate and far-reaching. To some degree we are but worker bees in the hive, routinely doing what our instinct dictates. And even if we were a drone or warrior I suspect the so-called native energy would compel one’s activity more unwittingly than knowingly. In the result the identity of one’s being is more amusing than otherwise meaningful or inspiring. In addition putative ambitions such as paramountcy, artistic expression or money are themselves very often products of other ingredients which make their unscheduled appearance in our lives.