REFLECTIONS ON “KNOW THYSELF”

The dictum “Know Thyself” was formulated by seven wise men of 6th century B.C. Greece. It was engraved above the entrance to the oracle at Delphi. One of Socrates’ favorite principles, it expresses great wisdom with great brevity. We notice that it is not addressed to animals which are incapable of knowing themselves. Neither is it addressed to God or the angels who are unable to be ignorant of themselves. It is therefore addressed only to human beings who are often ignorant of themselves but able to know themselves. This aphorism has many applications, even in theoretical philosophy, but I will limit myself to reflecting on its ethical applications.

Here are two similar aphorisms from different sources:

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” Tao Te Ching

“Do you see the world as it is, or do you see the world as you are?” –Anonymous

We can begin by responding to an obvious objection. How could I be ignorant that I am Robert Augros? If this is what is meant then the injunction is foolish. But knowing your name is not altogether the same as knowing who you are and what you are. I can easily be ignorant of what kind of man I am. Socrates spent his life trying to convince the Athenians not to live as if they were animals, pursuing only the goods of the body. You can’t be true to your true self if you do not know yourself.

The necessity of knowing ourselves is clear in the moral life. I need to know my temperament, personality, and customs before I can undertake a program of moral improvement. I must learn by experience what is the middle for me in food, drink, work and all other matters. I must examine myself with respect to the major subject matters of morals to see whether I am in the middle or at an extreme. I need to distinguish what is in me because of nature from what is in me because of custom, or by choice.

Examples show that it is easy to be ignorant of one’s self. Who spoke the following words? “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.” St. Vincent de Paul perhaps, or some other public benefactor? No. It was Al Capone. “Two Gun” Crowley, a notorious gangster of the thirties was trapped by police in a gun battle when he wrote a note proclaiming “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one—one that would do nobody any harm.” A couple of hours before when he had been pulled over by a policeman, Crowley pulled out a gun and shot the policeman in the face. When he was sentenced to the electric chair did he say “This is what I get for killing people?” No, he said, “This is what I get for defending myself.”

Warden Lawes of Sing Sing prison once said, “Few criminals in Sing Sing regard themselves as bad men . . . They rationalize, they explain. They can tell you why they had to crack a safe or be quick on the trigger finger. Most of them attempt by a form of reasoning, fallacious or logical, to justify their anti-social acts even to themselves, consequently stoutly maintaining that they should never have been imprisoned at all.”

Blindness and stubborn denial are especially characteristic of alcoholics. Former nineteen-term U.S. Congressman Wilbur Mills recounts how he reacted to the suggestion that he had a drinking problem. “Lieutenant Commander Michael Bohan at the Bethesda Naval Hospital was the one who had the unmitigated gall to tell me I was an alcoholic. The first thing that flashed in my mind was, I don’t know how the hell a man like that could ever have been admitted to medical school. How could he ever have graduated? Why would the navy ever commission him as a doctor? One thing certain, he would never get to be captain in the navy. I would see to that myself.” At this time, by his own admission, Mills was drinking two quarts of 100-proof vodka and taking 500 grams of Librium every day.

The lesson is clear: We are not necessarily what we think we are or imagine ourselves to be. We are what we do, and the truth about what we do we easily hide from ourselves. As Aristotle says, “Vice is unconscious of itself” (Ethics VII Ch. 8 ). It is instructive to ask why this is so. Why is it so difficult for us to know ourselves? We can assign at least four reasons.

1. We love ourselves too much.

Because we love ourselves in excess we are reluctant to believe or admit anything bad about ourselves. Pride quickly urges self defense in the face of criticism, even if it is well-founded. We easily flatter ourselves into thinking we possess virtues we do not have. For these reasons it is a principle of jurisprudence that no man is a proper judge in his own case. Psalm 36 points out how disordered self love distorts the judgment of the evil man: “Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart. There is no fear of God before his eyes. He so flatters himself in his mind that he knows not his guilt. In his mouth are mischief and deceit. All wisdom is gone.”

2. What is most of all yourself cannot be sensed.

The dictum is not saying, “Realize that you have two arms and two legs,” or “Become familiar with what your body looks like.” These things are well known to us. We have no immediate knowledge of our souls or faculties but must reason to them. The same is true morally. We can mistakenly think we have a virtue simply because we have not had any temptation yet in that area. We cannot directly inspect acts of our minds and wills. They are not visible to the eye. Likewise virtues and vices. We come to know whether we have certain habits indirectly by looking to whether we are strongly inclined to certain acts. We need to use signs such as pleasure and pain as indicators whether we have this vice or that virtue. A man never has to reason from signs and probabilities to verify whether he has two arms or not. Just as my own thoughts must be spoken or imagined to be known even by me, so too desires and qualities of soul. We easily deceive ourselves as to the true motive of our actions.

3. We are too close to ourselves.


We are also too close to our customs to discover them without help. This is true of body and soul. We cannot directly see our own faces. We have to externalize the face in an image to perceive it, as in the reflection of a mirror. Likewise the mind. For example, we need someone else to read an essay we have worked on for a long time. We are too close to it to pick out its remaining weaknesses and peculiarities. It has become a part of us. Similarly, we are too immersed in the customs of our nation and age to notice them. They are invisible to us but conspicuous to anyone from a culture with contrary customs. In the same way it is difficult for us to see our moral faults, though they are painfully obvious to a spouse or a spiritual director.

Why is it so easy for us to see the faults of others but so difficult to see our own? One reason is self-love, but another is that we are always looking outward from ourselves, so it is hard to look at ourselves. This is why it is easier to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye than the plank in our own eye. (Matt. 7:3).

4. We lack a measure whereby we may know ourselves.

Even if I find a good man to be my model, his good is not necessarily transferable to me. For example, asking “What would Jesus do?” is not always helpful to answer how we ought to act, since Jesus is not exactly like us, and not everything he did are we called upon to imitate exactly. We lack a measure by which to judge our own actions because no one is just like us, and doing what we’re doing. We have no measure that descends right down to the details of our own particular life. Imagine if there were another you, who was visible to you, and who was always doing exactly what you ought to be doing right now, and you knew it. How easy it would be to judge yourself then!

The measures we use for ourselves are often misleading. If a boy living in a remote village in Spain finds that he can outrun all 45 people living there, he might think himself a great runner. Likewise, compared to notorious criminals even a morally mediocre person looks good. We are always better than somebody.

In light of these four reasons we can see the wisdom in the saying that there are three levels of knowledge about any man. There is how others know him. There is how he knows himself. And there is how God knows him.