According to Pausanias, there is an inscription in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi that reads, “Know thyself”.
At first, I thought that this was very inward, self-centered thinking, and that it implied that the most important thing was to focus on “the self” and, by extension, “self improvement”. I think that my initial impressions were wrong. I now think that it is actually incredibly important advice.
The way I interpret it, is that to “know thyself”, is to understand our own personality, our strengths, our own body, our own limitations, and, importantly, to accept them. Through knowing ourselves, we can come to understand other people, to understand their actions and anticipate their reactions. Knowledge is power, but only up to a point.
To “know thyself” is also to understand our own place in relation to the world, to recognize the way in which luck and our political and economic systems impact upon our lives. We need to recognize the limits of our power. However, what we can control is the way in which we think about ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.
In an infinite number of ways, both subtle and glaringly obvious, we are all taught that there is a “normal” way of being, and that it is to this end that we must aspire. Whether it is to be part of a functional nuclear family, to have x number of shoes, jackets, houses, cars, friends, sexual encounters etc. No one lives up to these illusory, and even contradictory, ideals. However, that doesn’t stop many of us from spending our lives trying. This drives us mad. We strive for a happiness that can never be obtained.
We are also told, and this is very insidious ideology, that it is human nature to want more, to constantly strive to be a better version of ourselves, and to want more shiny things. That aspiration is an essential and a positive trait. This is not true. It is not a natural state, it is ideology that has developed over time, and it is Capitalism’s wet dream.
The leaders of the ancient Greek world traveled many miles to seek ambiguous fortunes told by the Oracle of Apollo, and as they entered, they were greeted with words γνῶθι σαυτόν “know thyself”. The Ancient Greeks knew that it was a key to knowledge, and they were right.