Know Thyself

Tangent to How to Be.

In my summer efforts to stay engaged and to zip through some of the books I neglected during the school year, I read Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise last night. In the final pages, Amory Blaine, young man fallen from grace (very Fitzgerald-y), explains first to the father of a former classmate and finally out loud to himself the beliefs on society and character he has accumulated through his experiences (sorry for the hefty sentence). At the peak of his self-discovery crescendo, Amory looks to the sky; I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all!” 

This was the second or third time in the past few days (coincidentally) that I’ve stumbled upon the phrase “know thyself” or some variation thereof, and it got me thinking. Originally found in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the maxim has since been attributed to a number of Greek thinkers and writers (the latter once implied the former), none of whom were definitively the origin of what seems to have been a universal piece of wisdom. I’m a big fan of the modern world having some maxims that sound more like “know thyself” – a controversial thing to say, I suppose, in light of the narcissism that the Internet and especially blogging has brought to light, but I’m not really saying we should work hard on egoism. Know thyself connotes a sort of humility, an understanding of one’s own limits and one’s possibilities.What I mean, though, is that working on really being able to define yourself is something that seems to have fallen out of favor. Maybe it’s a problem of time – the world moves so quickly now that time for meditation is scarce. Maybe it’s an emphasis on knowing others – We now live in an age of interconnectedness, where being able to communicate effectively and efficiently is essential to success by nearly any metric of determining success. On that note, Lao Tzu, father of Taoism, is said to have said that “he who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” Is that idea antiquated in the 21st century? I don’t know. I’d like to think not.

This little bit of musing is a tangent to How to Be because of how central that query is to the post. Is it even possible to lay out an effective plan for self-improvement without self-diagnosis? Is it inherently a problem that to know thyself is now called “self-diagnosis,” as though introspection is reserved for locating personality defects and diseases? That didn’t need to be a question – I say it’s definitely an issue. How to “introspect”, though, is its own matter. There’s an excess of available resources on self-improvement and stress reduction (including this interesting bit from the NIH) and I personally find it somewhat difficult to believe any single How-To book could help me “find myself.” Reading is important, though – “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” Franz Kafka said, doing a remarkable job of summing up what I wish I could say. The more ideas to which we expose ourselves, the better equipped we are to chip away at the surface of that ‘frozen sea.’ After all, to know oneself even a little better is to prepare oneself to make changes, to know the strengths and weaknesses that define our relationships and limit our abilities and to be able to overcome those limitations. Probably to learn about oneself is less grandiose than that, but it still must be important.

‘First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.’
– Epictetus

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