Know thyself is not a question, but a command. The phrase was inscribed at the entrance of the Temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece. People traveled to this temple seeking divine counsel from the oracle of Delphi, the messenger of Apollo. It was there to remind those who entered of their place in this world.
Meghan O’Gieblyn articulated the concept in an article writing that the Delphic maxim was “not a mandate to plumb the soul but rather to accept the role that nature had assigned you, like an actor accepting a role in the theater.”
I’m not a fatalist and don’t subscribe to the idea that we are slaves to our fate; though I also don’t believe we are in complete control. We can steer the rudder as we sail, but we can’t control the wind, the waves, or the weather.
So, let’s extend the maxim of knowing oneself keeping in mind what we can control.
Know thyself means to understand your limits, the limitations of what you know and what you can perform. “Thou art mortal” is another way of expressing this concept, somewhat akin to the Delphic one, but with less fatalism. Herculean strength and vitality is a myth. No amount of pumping iron or taking pills will stop aging or memory loss. Cherish this life and take time to enjoy it because our fate comes sooner than we think.
Know thyself means to understand the long history in which you take part. It keeps you rooted and humble when you compare your life to people who made their mark on the world. Think of Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, and Gandhi, to name a few. Knowing who you are juxtaposed to individuals like these enables you to see why they had the impact they did and how you can follow their example.
Know thyself means to know why you do the things you do and think the way you think instead of following blindly because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Have you ever read something and had an emotional reaction to it, but stopped to ask where those emotions stem from? Are the emotions there because of the influence of your parents, your education, your religion, or otherwise? If so, knowing yourself means realizing the emotions of anyone else is not you. Ask yourself, “Do I truly feel this way or did someone tell me to feel this way?”
This brings us to how we can know ourselves: Self-reflection. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
If you can’t point to an experience or thought of your own that led to the emotion or way of thinking, take a few minutes to reflect on how you really feel about the situation. Control your thoughts and emotions instead of letting them control you.
Look to past examples of human fortitude and follow their examples. Humanity has a long history of accomplishment and overcoming obstacles. You are the inheritor of that tradition. Use it wisely.
If you have never pondered death and what you want to accomplish before it comes, reflect on where you are and what you need to do to realize your dreams. This is the one shot you have to live. Don’t squander it with sleep, video games, or social media. Make it happen.
Once you find out who you are amid all the noise in this world, remember what Polonius the bumbling idiot said to Hamlet: “To thine ownself be true” (Shakespeare).
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