I was recently reminded of a maxim that was inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi – one which has actually been on my mind throughout this entire year. There are 147 of these maxims (you can find them here. Thanks to JC for sending this amazing list to me!), but this particular one has had such a transformative effect on my life that it’s hard to know exactly how to begin the process of sharing this experience. Perhaps beginning with the words might suffice. The maxim simply reads, “Know thyself.” Sometimes the simplest combinations of words can inspire within us the most significant changes, and I guess that says as much about the power of carefully chosen words as it says about the specific effect which they can have in an individual’s life as well as the effect they can have on the course of history.
The first time I really thought about these two powerful words was when I was reading about the philosopher Thales who, according to Diogenes in The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, was the original purveyor of this proverb of “Know thyself.” It was also Thales who said that what was most difficult was to know oneself. When I read these words I felt a sense that seeing as they came from one of the original seekers of wisdom, and seeing as my own wisdom pales in comparison to those giants who have come before me, these words must necessarily be taken on with curiosity, duty, and reverence – these being an excellent combination of modes with which to face a set of words that have the power to transform one’s life. Let me explain why.
We’ll start with curiosity, or perhaps more accurately presented in the form of wonder. Must we not be curious about the transformative effects that words could have on our lives? Is it not completely necessary, if we are to derive any lasting value from words over the course of our lives, to first be intrigued by what those words mean? Or at least to garner a sense of wonder about what they could mean if we were able to fully comprehend and realize the depth of their utility in our own lives? This is what we call inspiration – a set of words that come to us, spelling out a hero’s journey that has yet to be taken, a road that longs to be traveled, an idea that cries out to be developed, experienced, and lifted from the depths and into the light. This is that moment when, despite all your greatest efforts to improve your life and move in the direction that suits what you think is you, a few simple words in a book, a heartfelt comment from a friend, or the lyrics in a song seem to jump out at you and lift your soul while crushing you all at once. These words lift you because they show you a new side of yourself that you’ve never been introduced to before. They show you a new ideal, a new way of being, or a new trove of treasure waiting to be found. But as we all know, every cave full of treasure is guarded by a dragon, and that’s why inspiration, or curious combinations of words, also by necessity crush you; because you’re not who you need to be in order to live up to that new ideal – that new adventure. You don’t have what it takes, yet, and as such you’ll need to let some parts of you die so that other parts of you can be born – parts which are necessary for the task at hand. This is where duty comes into the picture.
You’ve received inspiration, you’re captivated by words that tell a new story, and you’re also frightened by who you’d have to become in order to live up to that new ideal, but a part of you knows that if you don’t accept the call, then something within you will be lost. And the part of you that will be lost is the very part of you that would flourish if you decided there and then to accept the call, and to take the first step. But you don’t take the first step because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t, or because I tell you to, or because your family would judge you if you didn’t. You take those first steps because there’s something within you that knows that to not accept the call of adventure would be a moral crime, not only to the detriment of the people in your life who could benefit from you becoming everything you could become, but it would also be to the detriment of your own soul – the one thing you have access to. This is the duty that is nested within every word, sentence, or paragraph that grasps your attention and makes you wonder, “what could these words mean for me?”. It’s our duty that we all have to grasp those moments and see what they could teach us, not only theoretically, but practically in our lives.
And finally, there is reverence. Reverence is the quality which inspires within us deep respect and gratitude for the divine, as well as a humble admission that no matter how clever or “rational” we think we are, there is always an infinite array of knowledge and understanding that is either not presenting itself to us or that is not even available to us. It is a reverence that helps us to merge our wonder and our sense of duty harmoniously and to face each moment in life with respect, vigilance, and care. Reverence teaches us that whatever it is that we’re all doing here, there are higher powers at play. If curiosity pulls our attention one way or another, and if duty calls us to a higher adventure, then it is a reverence that reminds us that in everything we do and say there exists a kind of eternal and infinite ripple that flows straight from us and out into the expansive branches of eternity. To be pulled into a new idea, a new adventure, or a new calling, and to allow your sense of duty to propel you forward is no menial affair. As such, we need reverence always in order to remember that care and diligence is a prerequisite to success in matters of a divine nature, and seeing as we all possess a spark of the divine fiery Logos, or of the rational nature of the cosmos, there isn’t a single thing that we do which cannot be labeled as divine by nature.
And now, coming back to the maxim of maximal intrigue, to “know thyself.” Don’t these two words just grab you? Don’t they sing into your soul? Do you wonder what they mean? Do you actually take a moment to consider the call to adventure which exists within these two words? Know thyself. Know thyself. Know thyself. What would it mean to actually know yourself? What would it mean to understand who you really are? Maybe it’s impossible, not least because what we are is completely impossible to understand, at least in totality. We’re the most complicated creatures we know, and it’s really difficult to know anything substantial about what humans are or what we’re up to. But maybe with a little wit and wisdom on your side, you could grasp just a smidgen of who you are – perhaps a seed, if you will. Maybe if you placed that seed in some fertile soil, rich in virtuous intention and a touch of wisdom, and maybe if you watered that seed with some care, attention, and contemplative thought once in a while, you could get a sense of the grandeur and force of such internal endeavors, and who knows, perhaps you’ll even come to see that with such caretaking what had started as a seed would soon grow into a towering tree of personal knowledge, giving you the confidence to face your life’s unique challenges and a sense of belonging within this home we call the cosmos. But you don’t get there unless you first nurture your sense of duty to these profound words. “A duty to whom?” you might ask. A duty to yourself, whatever, or whoever that is. A duty to the part of you which yearns do be discovered. A duty to the people who have come before you who somehow knew that to speak words of truth and wisdom would be a worthwhile pursuit, not just for them but for generations to come. And don’t you feel compelled to nurture such words within your soul, and to see where they lead you? Don’t you feel it necessary to dig deeper and to pay such wisdom the attention and care that it deserves? And also, don’t you feel a sense of reverence when you hear these words? Know thyself. Could a more divine path be taken? This is the path to personal enlightenment, and to the liberation of your soul. This is the path that all great seekers and philosophers of antiquity have taken – the path of wisdom that leads to internal knowledge of matters human and divine. If any path is deserving of a reverent approach, it is this one. If any path requires humility in face of its impressiveness, it is this path. But even with curiosity, duty, and reverence, it can be hard to know where to begin when you actually start to take this journey of knowing yourself. Break the task down, and it actually becomes more of a series of questions than a single directive. It turns into the question of who am I? What am I? Where am I? How am I? When am I? It’s hard to know where to begin, but maybe, we must imagine, Nature has equipped us with a certain sense – a guide that can help us to take those first steps. Maybe.
I recently took a three-week work trip with my wife, and on this trip, we knew that we were going to be driving a lot and working quite hard as well. Somehow at the beginning of the trip, we both unanimously agreed that we were going to give in to most of our nutritional desires on this trip, and so we had quite a fun time eating at outback pubs, enjoying snacks, and indulging in fast food from time to time. Wisdom was scarce, and temperance had found its way out through the back door. Do I regret it? No. After all, we were working very hard, and food meant downtime for both of us. In the third week of our travels, however, we decided to stop into a Woolworths supermarket to buy some snacks for the next four-hour drive. As we were walking around my eyes became fixed on the delicious red peaches which were in season and stacked perfectly in the fruit section. I began feeling around to see if they were ripe, and to my utter delight, they were just right. I remarked to Jen that after more than two weeks of eating so many pub meals, snacks, and fast food, there was literally nothing that my body was craving more than these fresh peaches. I thought that this feeling was interesting because what it signified to me was the presence of a certain bodily knowingness that we have which becomes available to us if we’re attentive enough to listen. My body was telling me, “it’s time to get some fresh food in here!” I tell this story because the knowingness that we contain within and throughout ourselves exists not only for the purpose of telling us about the needs of our body. We can also tap into this infinite storehouse of wisdom in the everyday ebbs and flows of our lives, and it’s my suspicion that the relationship that you build with that inner voice that guides your every move may just be the most important relationship you ever build, and I also believe that to the extent that you’re able to learn and develop with that inner voice, you will know yourself – at least more than you do now.
To consider this idea further, you might think about the fact that every creature or plant on this planet seems to have its own sense of knowing, without which they simply wouldn’t be able to manage. To us, it seems to be an unconscious knowing, like the way that the bird simply knows which way to fly in the winter, or how the newborn gazel simply knows that she must walk, or at least stumble, within a few moments of being dumped into this new world. But when we think about such strange matters as how some trees change their color with the coming of each new season, or how the monarch butterflies make a migration of over 3,000 miles each year, it would do us well to remember that at some distant point in our own development, humans were unconscious too, and this understanding, perhaps, is a precursor to the question of enlightenment. How can we get back there? How can we tap into that unconscious and internal sense of knowing which still lies deep within us? This is one of the fundamental questions of Taoism – how can I remove the overthinking middleman and simply do what I need to do in the exact moment when I need to do it? How can I decide to shoot the arrow and release it with my fingers at the exact same moment? Similarly, this is the question that many of the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophers were asking – how can I attain Sage-hood? How can I embody the wisdom of things human and divine such that I could always do the exact right thing in the right place, at the right time, and with the right internal motivations, in accordance with my nature, which is the “Nature” of the whole? In one sense, the answer could be that you’ve already arrived, for if you exist in and as an extension of Nature, which you do, and if you are inextricably bound to the entirety of Nature, which you are, then anything that you do must be in accordance with Nature because you are Nature. But despite our unwitting embodiment of the natural flow of the cosmos, there still exists within us a sense that something might not be quite right. Maybe we’re not acting in accordance with the will of Nature? Maybe we’ve deviated from the true path and now find ourselves lost, and maybe this is why we suffer. This, I believe, is why we find the idea of our containing a spark of divinity so wholly captivating. We know there’s something quite unique about our species. We’re kind of animals, but we’re also pretty close to being gods. We’re some strange halfsie, and any brief overview of the technologies that we have developed in the last hundred years would suggest that we are godlike in our nature. As such we are not merely tossed around by the whims of fate as are the animals and plants, but we’re engaged in and contend with fate. We seem to attempt to twist the direction of fate as much as we are governed by it. We kick against the path of Nature, and as such we find ourselves unable to calmly, as Sharon Lebell would say, take our seats in the theatre of life.
So how do we contend with the deceptive and complex ways of Nature when we’ve been thrust into this state of confusion that we call consciousness and self-awareness? How can we effectively navigate the world around us in as virtuous a way as possible, with virtue being whatever it is that is healthy and cosmologically beneficial, at least as far as we can see? Well, I think it’s clear that the path which leads to thriving in such a situation is the path of self-discovery – of knowing yourself, and of knowing as much of yourself as intimately as possible. This is quite different, however, to meager self-awareness. You can be aware of a person standing next to you, but you may not have a clue about who they are. So with your own self, don’t settle for mere awareness. Who are you? What makes you tick? What gets you going? What is it that Nature, or God, or the Universe, or fate are calling you to become, or to bring forth into the known universe? There’s a powerful line from the Gospel of Thomas which is applicable to this subject, and it goes as such; “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” This passage was influential in Carl Jung’s writing of the idea that the place where you need to go most is the place where you least want to go. That’s the Logos – the flicker of divinity which burns deep within you, waiting for you to listen, and waiting for you to see, and waiting for you to bring it forth into the world. It’s the light that you refuse to shine, and the talent that you refuse to bring into the light. It’s the words you know you should speak, and the paths you know you should take, and yet do not. That’s you. Well, it’s you that could be you if you wanted to be or know you. It’s fate nudging you in a certain direction, and as Epictetus rightfully pointed out, we can either be dragged along by the cruel cart of fate, or we can walk along with it merrily.
So how are we to connect with this part of ourselves? How are we to know the paths that we should take or the words that we should speak? Well, as funny as it is to say this, I actually think that the best advice one could take comes first from The Bible, and second from the movie Frozen 2, which is essentially a retelling of a biblical narrative (if you don’t believe me, look up the meaning of each of the main characters names). First, from Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Sit alone in a quiet room, or find a nice spot in Nature, and ask yourself; what is it that would be most valuable for me to pursue in my life? Who am I, really? What is it that I refuse to look at and that would destroy me if left unattended to? Which light am I refusing to let shine forth from my soul? The rule is this: you may not always like what you hear, but if you truly listen, and if you really want an answer, you’ll get some answers. And then the second rule, as mentioned, comes from Frozen 2. It says, “just do the next right thing.” You might ask, “Right to whom? And what if what I perceive to be the next right thing isn’t the best thing to do?”, to which I’d say that it’s almost certain that the thing which you perceive to be the next right thing will not have the intended effect, but that’s all that you’ve got. It’s the star that we all wish upon in every moment of our lives, and as long as you continue to identify with the part of you which is able to learn, grow and develop throughout each challenge and season of life, otherwise known as the mediating force between chaos and order – the Logos, then things will turn out as well as they could for you, and you will start to learn about who you actually are. And as you get better at listening to that voice, and as you pursue the things which you believe in your heart of hearts you are meant to pursue, and if you build a mutually beneficial relationship with The Logos, then one of two things will happen in each moment. Either a) good things will happen, and doors will be opened for you, or b) someone or something will object to your efforts or words, as they should if there are mistakes being made, and you and the Logos will learn a valuable lesson, in which case you still win – because you learn more about who and what you are.
So find some time to listen to yourself. Take a moment to commune with your inner sage. Who knows, maybe he’ll share some wisdom with you, and perhaps that wisdom will be just what you need right now. It may not be what you want, but if there’s anything I’ve learned this year it’s that real knowledge of yourself is rarely the kind of stuff that you want to hear. In fact, it’s often the stuff that you’ve been trying not to hear for so long, and if you’re curious enough to listen, and if you’re brave enough to accept the call of duty, and if you take each step with humble reverence, then you might just learn about who you really are. Sure, you may become lost along the way, but this may be to your benefit, for it’s only when you lose yourself that it becomes possible to find the real you who was lost, and oh so eager to be found.