Getting to know you

But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing some one we know” is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognise and to which we listen.

Excerpt From
Proust, Marcel  “Swann’s Way”

Years ago I heard it said, “We see in others what we see in ourselves”.  The epigram is nicely aligned with another, “Criticism is the best autobiography”. I won’t have the presumption to suggest that Marcel Proust and I are on the same page but he has most certainly invigorated my own assessment of what it means to know somebody. In keeping with my erstwhile legal education regarding the correct manner of presentation of an argument, I’ll begin by stating my conclusion; namely, it is unlikely we ever know another. To this I will add the final edict of argument (“in the alternative even if I am wrong”) by stating that it is nonetheless entertaining if not indeed accurate to engage in such armchair shadowing.

Aside from psychiatric analysis there are no doubt those who devote much time to the discernment of others.  Most commonly however the adventure is but an off-shoot to a casual or long-term acquaintance.  Aside from the quaint similarity of others to ourselves we seldom cotton onto any particularity which is entirely reliable. The reason for this inadequacy is that so often we judge the character of others by the conduct of ourselves, a process which apart from being illogical is tainted with a history of unseen differences. Nonetheless there is one notable exception to this erudition and that is the judgement which arises from instinct.

Perhaps with time and experience you too have learned as have I that instinct is a reliable source of enlightenment.  There is admittedly a bit of taradiddle at work here because more often than not instinct doesn’t necessarily spell what something is, it may simply indicate what it is not.  Depending upon how you prefer to manage your determinations in life – “There are two ways to get down a river: either you know where to go or you know where not to go” – the strength of instinct is binary or imperative. What I have learned from the exercise of succumbing to my instincts is that, like the deer running from the sudden noise in the forest, I may not know what precisely it was that disturbed me but on balance I am better to have avoided an error of discrimination.

An odd corollary to the active employment of instinct is that it applies not only to our refinement of others but also to the shrewdness about ourselves.

The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” (Greek: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, transliterated: gnōthi seauton; also … σαυτόν … sauton with the ε contracted), is one of the Delphic maxims and was the first of three maxims inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek writer Pausanias(10.24.1). The two maxims that followed “know thyself” were “nothing to excess” and “surety brings ruin”. In Latin the phrase, “know thyself,” is given as nosce te ipsum or temet nosce.

These are lofty recommendations! In a discussion of moderation and self-awareness, I am reminded of Socrates.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses the maxim ‘know thyself’ as his explanation to Phaedrus to explain why he has no time for the attempts to rationally explain mythology or other far flung topics. Socrates says, “But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.”

This at first sounds like the modern adage, “Don’t worry, be happy!” but what I take from it is the cautionary tone to avoid getting into “irrelevant things” which I use to encompass endless waffling about either the good or bad of another.  Given our less than deified projection it hardly matters what we know about another. At best it inspires indulgent behaviour, either good or bad, towards another.

I have been prompted in this esoteric dogging by having watched cable news for the past four years. Politics is the perfect field upon which to devolve one’s acquaintance with another. Given the reputed esteem and adeptness of many politicians it partly explains the sometimes venal nature of their behaviour. But it has equally proven the unreliability of doing so.  More than one politician – Senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley most notably among them – has had to “walk back” a prior proclamation upon changing circumstances. This bald bribery of constituents and abasement for political advantage is but one example of the unreliability of so-called “knowing another”; and often with toxic consequence.

Just in case you’re motivated to follow the other maxims here’s a summary:


gnwqi sauton

Know thyself

mhden agan

Nothing too much

eggua para data

Give surety, get ruin


The first two are still well known today and are still excellent guides to life. The third has become less relevant and thus forgotten since surety has been abolished or abandoned. Surety is pledging the body, rather than property, to secure a debt. If the debtor defaults, he or she became the slave of the creditor. In the modern age we might think alternatively of ‘debt is disaster’.

Solon abolished this practice amongst Athenians in the C6 BC, except in the case of an Athenian held prisoner of war elsewhere and ransomed back by an Athenian (the former remained the slave of the ransomer until the latter was repaid). Indebtedness can still lead to ruin in modern times, but the force of the third Delphic maxim was that much greater when what was at stake was the freedom and honour of oneself or one’s family.