Know thyself and you will know the universe and the gods.
These words are written throughout the ancient greek world. They, in part, grace the the gates of the Temple of Apollo. Plato discusses the words in Philebus. The first philosopher, Thales, is quoted as saying that the hardest thing in life is to know thyself. Pythagoras is known to have used these words himself.
The greeks of all civilizations should know what they are talking about when it comes to philosophy. Every other culture in the world had their thoughts clouded by religion. But due to a quirk of history, the Archaic Greeks (Achilles, Agamemnon etc) stole religion from the Minoans (Mazes and Minotaurs etc) when they plundered the Minoan Civilisation. You see, the Archaics never earned their right to understand the Gods through thousands of years of toiling with unanswered questions like all our ancestors did. The inevitable outcome of unanswerable questions is something like “well, I think the gods must have made everything” or “it was God’s will”. All other cultures have said this, except the Archaics. Their unworthy usurpation of a religion they never toiled for, meant they misused the concept of god. This is evident in the great work The Iliad, by Homer. Within its pages the Gods are something like comic book characters. They are fickle, at times jealous and are occasionally comic relief. Religious figureheads like Jesus, Mohammed or Brahma would never be treated like this.
So when, in time, the Archaic Greeks become the Ancient Greeks (Socrates, Plato etc) it would appear they finally had earned the right to ask the questions “Who made the earth and the heavens?” and “why do bad things happen to good people?”. The difficulty was that they had already used the answer that each and every other culture had come up with, “God did it” just to write a sort of comic book. So when someone asked Socrates “What is the good life?” it was hard to answer “the life required of us by the gods”. Which Gods? Zeus, who killed his father and screwed around all of heaven? Dionysus, who was the god of cheap booze, madness and actors? Or perhaps Ares, the god of war who has two sons Fear and Terror? No, the ancient greeks were not in a position to believe that Gods could answer our most unanswerable questions. All that the ancient greeks could do was try to figure the answers out on their own. Thus was born philosophy.
And the result of a hundred years of the only true, unadulterated philosophy the world has ever seen… *drumroll*
Know thyself and you will know the universe and the gods.
But what does it mean?
I’ve taken them as my personal motto, many have. It’s hard though.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that the statement Know Thyself is worth more than all the tomes on philosophy written since. But he points out “as every advance made by the human species removes it still farther from its primitive state, the more discoveries we make, the more we deprive ourselves of the means of making the most important of all. Thus it is, in one sense, by our very study of man, that the knowledge of him is put out of our power.”. Advancements are (and even in his day were) coming thick and fast. Compared to the present day, 500BC must have been a period when to know himself man only had to look at his father or grandfather. But today, I can remember that homophobia was not only acceptable, but considered manly and admirable when I was in school. Thankfully, not now. Conversely, holding a door open or standing up on a bus for a women was sexist in the 90’s. Now I feel we’ve swung back the other way. In a world where religion’s status as a source of legitimate guidance is on the decline, were to be masculine is to invoke connotations of a bygone era full of rules and norms that are hard to reconcile to today’s beliefs and when transgender individuals are challenging our definitions of gender, can we still know ourselves at all.
Can we still know ourselves at all?
To know ourselves in the 2000’s we must live active lives. We must define ourselves by how we feel about what we do. It is no longer enough to rely on historical definitions of what our gender, race, family are. They are all gone now and we must accept this fact. Each of us must throw himself into the world and clash, collide and immerse ourselves in experiences. These experiences will be how we define ourselves. And now we come full cycle and find ourselves back with the Ancient Greeks, specifically Aristotle. He said, “activity is obviously what man, as an animal, is made for. And he cannot be happy if he is not active.”
So we, as men, should be active. We should build things, climb things and tear down things. We should write books, music and history. We should be the instruments of change, of labour and destruction. And in doing so, we will learn to know ourselves. Do something, anything, to be active in a part of the world you haven’t collided with yet and most importantly, find out about yourself while you are there.
John Locke taught us that man is a blank canvas and comes with nothing pre-learned. From the moment we open our eyes after birth, we experience and we acquire knowledge based on, and only on, those experience. Everything we know, everything we will ever know, will be based on experience. As we experience, we form ideas. A collection of ideas can form complex knowledge.
David Hume carried on Locke’s theory to tell us that everything we understand we do so because we have had an experience that has left upon us an impression. From the impressions we have we form ideas. So we may experience seeing a horse and this will leave upon us the impression of what a horse is and therefore we have the simple idea of a horse. Now if can can experience a rhinoceros’ horn or an eagle’s wings and they leave respective impressions upon us, we can form a complex idea of a unicorn or a pegasus. But ask yourself, when have we ever experienced ourselves? When have we ever been without ourselves, and they found ourselves and that experiences has left an impression upon us? Without the experiences of ourselves, can we know ourselves at all? Hume believed that there was nothing concrete that can be ‘you’ because you have always experienced yourself so the impression you make on yourself is so ambient it is hard to get an idea of. Rather you are just a bundle of impressions. Those impressions that are currently making you up might make you happy or they might make you sad. If you are sad, change the experiences you are having.
Aristotle writes “happiness is action” and “virtue in itself is not enough; there must also be the power to translate it into action” and also “the active life will be the best”. Actually, to be accurate Aristotle believes it is ‘best’ to live an active life.
Nietzche writes “We remain unknown to ourselves, and with good reason. We have never sought after ourselves. So how will we one day find ourselves? It has rightly been said ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’; our spiritual treasure is to be found in the beehives of knowledge.” To Nietzche, “We necessarily remain a mystery to ourselves, we fail to understand ourselves, we are bound to mistake ourselves.”
And if you’re not to moved by very old philosophers, you might be interested to know the origin of the word ‘Happy’, it comes from the root verb ‘happen’. That is to say we are happy when things happen. So make things happen by living an active life.