THE DELPHIAN KNOW THYSELF
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Wise men aver that man’s highest calling has not changed since the day it was inscribed as a maxim on the temple of Apollo at Delphi:
Socrates was duly informed by the oracle that he was the wisest man of all. He was skeptical about that, but having due regard for the prestigious oracle, he sought someone wiser than he. His search for a wiser man failed, for every argument he heard he defeated with another argument. That proved his consummate skill and his native intelligence, but it did not prove his wisdom. It was his discovery that he was the only one who knew he did not know himself that made him wise.
Indeed, it appears that Socrates’ primary mission was to rid men of their wisdom-conceit, for only the knowledge of one’s own ignorance is wisdom when the arguments of the professors of wisdom are proved defeasible when put to the question. As we know so well from the trial and execution of Socrates under the restored democracy, asking embarrassing questions was not appreciated by the traditionalists. We get a sense of his good humor and character when we hear how he accepted the death penalty, insisting on a fee for examining and arguing against the opinions of the Athenians prosecuting him, instead of proposing a legal alternative to the death penalty.
Having found no purpose or ultimate meaning of human life in external nature, Socrates had turned his gaze within. His aim was to know the self or soul of man. He believed man was the microcosm of the universe, hence to know all things one must first Know Thyself. Whereas most sophists of the day espoused free expression of subjective passions and impulses, Socrates sought freedom from them, to be achieved by self-control based upon insight. To that end Socrates engaged his fellows in philosophical discourse, the “speaking between” of dialectics, the art of logical argument. The sophists of the day, like the Brahmins of a much earlier date, were greatly amused by riddles and logic-juggling games. Those games were undoubtedly of enormous service to man’s intellectual development. However, that such a game can be won by a clever juggler does not prove him wise, at least not as far as the greatest teacher of them all was concerned. Indeed, we do find the Socratic dialogues inconclusive on the most crucial and critical point. Know Thyself is a process, then, instead of a final conclusion.
We have learned the Socratic lesson well. Everybody knows he does not really know himself, or he at least he has the good manners to say so. Such a profession of self-ignorance would be platitudinous today. Not that there is anything wrong with platitudes; after all, we do live by them; what is unforgivable is a poorly dressed platitude, for which there is no excuse given the handiness of Roget’s Thesaurus, the Oxford Dictionary, and a lively imagination.
Notwithstanding our good education or good manners in the case of the imperative ‘Know Thyself’, all too often we profess humble ignorance while our proud actions belie our profession. Instead of inquiring into the nature of our selves, we in fact and in faith and as a matter of habit take our individual selves for granted as if we knew them too well to inquire any further. That is, we say we do not know ourselves, but, in order to act confidently and virtuously, we must have faith and then belief in ourselves. Yet we have only blind faith, and not the perfection of belief that is truth.
Since in regards to self-knowledge there is a contradiction between our profession of humble ignorance and our proud acts, we might be called hypocrites by those arrogant fools who do not understand the crisis beneath the actor’s mask and the stage upon which the great drama is performed. Yes, the saying that the world is a stage is a hackneyed phrase called a “hackneyed phrase” by hacks who do not know “hackneyed phrase” is itself a hackneyed phrase, or that the sword they wield in their insecurity as an insult has two sharp edges. Nonetheless, despite the hackneyed phrases and editorial nit-witticisms, the world remains a stage, and as the ancients said of their theatre millennia before Shakespeare’s birth, theatre is a mirror by which one can Know Thyself.
Actors were called hypocrites by the ancient Greeks. Hypocrites wore personas or masks. And here we neoterics are on our darkened stage as hypocrites wearing masks, persons divided against ourselves within, hence divided without as well. Indeed, hypocrites are “divided underneath.” They suffer the diremption, the original wound: The Ideal One overflowed into the Moving Many; by indefinite dyadic operation subjects were divided from their objects; now Sophia longs for redemption. Indeed, any person who does not know that all persons including Yours Truly are hypocrites is an imbecile who, instead of hurling “You hypocrite!” as a Judeo-Christian curse, should trace the term to its Greek origin and paste the command Know Thyself on his mirror.
No doubt fear is at the root of the crisis upon which we place the personal mask. Thus it is said, To Know Thyself, look at the tombs. The human personality is a reaction to fear, not only to the fear of suffering but, since we know we are to die, the fear of non-existence or death. Conversely, it is a reaction to the fear of self-conscious existence, the fear of human life, for life implicates death: life is feared as much and at the same time as the absolute void of non-existence is feared.
When fear is present and the unknown or nothing specific is feared, the term “anxiety” is usually employed, but I prefer the general term. The fact of death is obvious; only non-existence is unimaginable. A personal response to Know Thyself may be to consider, first of all, the ultimate limit of life on this heavenly body named Earth; to wit, death.
When Know Thyself was first taken up as a maxim, identification with the tribe for survival’s sake naturally took precedence over individual liberty. Christians did not invent the so-called “sin of pride” for which the Fathers adopted the term “hypocrisy.” Know Thyself was originally construed to mean that one must know one’s natural and social limits in order not to overstep them and be destroyed by pride. In other words, a person was defined then more by his conditions than by his individual will.
But today, as a result of the reputed historical progress of individual liberty, thanks to Socrates and like-minded thinkers, many more people, despite their presently dwindling proportion to the whole population, do not identify with their limits, at least not in principle: they push the envelopes as far as they can go in all walks of life. Limits are challenges to them. Some like objective challenges, while others like the subjective challenges. Again, maybe some of us would prefer to come to immediate terms with the most general limit of all, death, in order to more fully understand the meaning of life in general. I am fonder of the subjects than I am of their objects.
Alas that objectivism is the order of the day: subjectivists are an endangered species. Knowing things like technological artifacts, for example, and knowing the self as just another thing to be technically manipulated after it is defined by objectivist scientists, is the fascist fashion today. Thus while objectivists fondle the same bundles of things over and over, subjectivists are charged with repeating themselves, especially when they defensively propound on the nugatory nescience of objectivism. As a consequence they are confronted with its perverse numbskulleries; for instance:
“How dare you criticize this company you when you can go to another company. Read our TOS or Agreement-With-Ourself, which states, in part, ‘Thou shalt not criticize this company. Violators will be terminated without pay.'”
But there are no viable alternatives, for all places even churches are strictly commercial, wholly devoted to all-consuming consumption, operating under the same Agreement-With-Ourself.”
As for me, if I (excuse me for referring to the I-Thing) were to believe the comments I receive about my labor of love, I have no right to live and work in this objectivist society. As if insight has no rightful objective in this world. Be that as it may, it is my destiny to continue with my meditation on Know Myself from time to time. Although I often vehemently protest the smothering of the subjective self in objective sand, I do not mean to destroy the world: I merely object to the ostrich hiding his head in it.
I do recognize both subject and object and their relation. I realize that I am a bird flying through the air over a worm. But I object to having my wings amputated after thousands of years of struggle to Know Thyself. I am willing to strike an uplifting balance; I am unwilling to participate in a degrading descent. I do not deny the right of objectivists to breath, provided they stop strangling me. For if each self is similar and is in that similarity essentially the same, and if that Subject of subjects can also be derived from the study of objects as well as insight into the self, perhaps I shall meet my objective counterparts in the Grand Synthesis.