Life has so many complications that one hesitates to attach oneself too gleefully to any particular scheme or adage to guarantee happiness. Yet in spite of this caution it is generally accepted that there is substance to the maxim, “Know thyself“.
The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” 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.
Translating what exactly is meant by the aphorism “know thyself” is in my opinion enhanced considerably by the interpretation “know thy measure”. This echoes the Freemason’s well known symbol, the compass.
The Square and Compasses (or, more correctly, a square and a set of compasses joined together) is the single most identifiable symbol of Freemasonry. Both the square and compasses are architect’s tools and are used in Masonic ritual as emblems to teach symbolic lessons.
Some Lodges and rituals explain these symbols as lessons in conduct: for example, Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866 explains them as: “The square, to square our actions; The compasses, to circumscribe and keep us within bounds with all mankind”. However, as Freemasonry is non-dogmatic, there is no general interpretation for these symbols (or any Masonic symbol) that is used by Freemasonry as a whole.
I rather like the business of being “within bounds with all mankind“. While this doesn’t overtly advance a theory of self-knowledge, it is clearly a political theory designed to improve social relations. My guess is that, by “circumscribing” ourselves, we of necessity acquaint ourselves with those pitfalls which contribute to our withdrawing from mankind.
There is however another less factional dissection of meaning, one which is more introverted. That entails what I believe is acknowledgement of one’s instincts and preferences; basically knowing what one does and does not like. While many of us would unhesitatingly adopt this mandate, it is regrettably like any other similar assertion of instinct; namely, it is more often than not repeated only as part of the expanded observation, “I knew I shouldn’t have done that!” In other words, while we pretend to know our instincts, we seldom act upon them. Indeed learning not only to identify one’s instincts but also to act upon them is for most of us a steep learning curve.
Herein lies a further hitch; namely, that even if we know our preferences – and even if we’re fully prepared to and conscious of doing what we prefer – the project is frequently obstructed by our inability to digest as acceptable the variance likely to arise with others. That is, our preferences are thwarted by the dominant influence of others – notwithstanding the legitimacy of that ascendency. Thus the test of our personal knowledge is our ability to sustain it when confronted with potential (that is, real or imagined) confrontation with a parallel universe. Knowledge then becomes not so much a matter of intelligence as a measure of our determination to follow our nose. Projected in that manner, self-knowledge is little more than a battle of wits. This however ignores the deeper truth that no matter how insignificant one may believe one’s personal inclinations may be, it is those inclinations which constitute all that we have. Seen in that respect, self-knowledge is both pragmatic and axiomatic. In other words, there is no alternative.
It is this seemingly stubborn trait of self-knowledge which captures its real purpose; that is, to engender a satisfaction with what exists. If we stick to our guns we’ll not only satisfy our urges but also avoid superfluous hesitancy when dealing with others. To do otherwise not only borders on deceit and obfuscation; it also threatens meaningful and fruitful dialogue. We need only recall our own reaction to those who clearly mislead, even in the smallest of matters.
This brings up the further question of approbation generally. Endorsement must never be the goal of any relationship (at least apart from strictly commercial relations, a vernacular beyond the scope of this inquiry). In personal matters on the other hand, the imperatives of truthfulness and openness are critical to self-satisfaction. Once again it is self-evident that if you do what you like, then you’ll like what you do. That simple precept is a reminder how elemental the mysteries of the world are. Hidden within that saw is another reality; namely, that no amount of conflict or obstruction affords a settlement of the goal of happiness. And make no mistake, the happiness of others is frequently as important as one’s own happiness. So it is part of our self-knowledge (beyond the mechanics of instinct) to reckon the happiness of others.
Putting these inscrutable prescriptions into practice is thankfully far easier than might be imagined. It does however require skill. The skill is nothing more than practice. There was a time when from a distance even walking was a challenge. I like to recall the crude observation, “If so many other assholes have done it, so can you!” Or if you prefer something moderately more elevated, “There’s nothing hard about law; all you need to know is where to find it!” The point is, nothing is insurmountable, least of all the performance of a life which expresses the one thing we all should know – ourselves.