Gnothi Seauton: O Man, Know Thyself!

The eternal injunction of the Delphic Oracle resounds through the annals of history:


Γνώθι Σεαυτόν
Gnothi Seauton
O Man, know thyself!

A caravanserai of commentaries follows this timeless phrase in its passage through the aeons, the former like a retinue of minstrels attending an immortal god. Thales recognised this project as “The most difficult task in the world.” Socrates lauded the Lacedaemonian aphorism for its rhetorical advantage—that like a bowstring, it might, with the slightest effort, exert great influence. Indeed, the pith of the Delphic injunction engenders a pivot-point of Archimedean virtue: self-knowledge is the fulcrum that one may circumscribe the entire cosmos withal.

Commentators have interpreted this grand maxim in multitudinous ways. Aeschylus, the pre-Socratic Father of Tragedy, famously placed these words in the mouth of Oceanus in his work Prometheus Bound as an admonition to his fellow titan: “know your place,” we might express the spirit of Oceanus’ warning in more contemporary language. Carl Linnaeus, founder of our modern system of biological taxonomy, in quite a contrary sentiment, employed the term “know thyself” in its Latin translation “nosce te ipsum” as pith-descriptor of homo sapiens, designating our species’ capacity for self-reflexive awareness (which distinguishes it from a tree-frog or a paramecium). The great Ralph Waldo Emerson, alternatively, offered a transcendent interpretation of “know thyself” in his poem “Gnothi Seauton:” 

Then take this fact unto thy soul:

God dwells in thee.

In this respect he echoes both the words of Christ in The John Gospel:

At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you….

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

as well as the realisation of the Hindu mystic Adi Shankaracharya, who exclaims:

चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहम् शिवोऽहम् ॥१॥

Citt-ananda rupa Shivoham! Shivoham!
I am Shiva, I am Shiva
I am consciousness & bliss without end

Or in more traditional phrasing, “Atman is Brahman.”

How are we then to reconcile these apparently paradoxical interpretations? In fact, it were better that we don’t; rather let us enter the portal of this paradox without indulging our literalistic intellect, which is like a hatchet whose compulsive urge is to fell the forests of mystery because they are unruly. Even as one might strive to level the Pillars of Hercules merely because they counterpose one another about the Strait of Gibraltar, so in the ordinary thinking of our day, paradox presents itself as a condition to be resolved. By entertaining the interplay of contradiction, however, we may know ourselves “in the Biblical sense;” we may fructify our intellects to give birth to higher knowledge. Here on the threshold of unknowing, we encounter two faces of this eternal maxim: Man as subject & Man as object.

If in our aspiration to “know ourselves,” let us first consider the latter aspect to the human being: Man as object. What does this actually mean? Is it possible to study the human being in this way? Actually, no: like an ever-receding horizon, the kernel of truth continually recedes before our investigation. Only consider that neither physical descriptors, nor a catalogue of biomarkers, nor behavioural assays, nor anthropological studies will ever capture the essence of the human being. Conventional science, in this regard, can only tell us what Man is not. The reason for this perplexity is because subjectivity defines the human condition & it is the nature of subjectivity not be be an object. In other words, just as water cannot make itself wet, so subject & object mutually imply one another.* In fact they come into being together; they are ontologically reciprocal. To recapitulate, the object of inquiry IS the subject who inquires.

Thus confounded in our initial advance, let us approach the question from the opposite side; what is Man as subject? Again, when I recursively examine by own experience, even at its core & innermost kernel, in the instant I discover anything, this culmination itself immediately renders the subject into an object—the seer becomes the seen. To recapitulate our findings, when we seek subjectivity, we discover objects & when we inquire after objects we discover everywhere subjectivity.

We can wax suspicious, therefore, of this dualistic epistemology that is the inheritance of our Western intellectual tradition, which persistently pits the self as subject against a world of objects.** As the “Father of Modern Philosophy” René Descartes famously described the human condition in Meditations IV & VI, “I am lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel….” He then continues to present the metaphysical dualism that remains the hallmark of our worldview today:

The mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body….

Each substance has a principal attribute…the attribute of the Mind is thought, while that of Body is extension….

[Body] is by nature always divisible, and the Mind is entirely indivisible.

“Objects are by nature divisible while the subject or subjectivity is not”—the testimony of reality demonstrates that this is simply wrong: the dichotomy is false; the categories are entangled. Only when we dive straight into this epistemic chiasmus (considering the subject objectively & recognising the subjectivity of apparent objects) do we consumate the Delphic injunction. Self-knowledge is world knowledge.

By this inquiry have we fructified our souls, “known ourselves,” conjoined divergent aspects in an hieros gamos of Self & World, even as the First Couple onetime wed in Eden. We have considered a thesis—the human being as object—and its antithesis—the human being as subject—&, as one passing between the twin Pillars of Hercules, we enter the great Ocean beyond.

Willst du deinen Selbst erkennen
Schaue hinaus in der Weltenweiten
Willst du die Weltenweiten durchschauen
Blicke hinein in das eigene Selbst.

“If thou wouldst know thyself
Look outward into cosmic spaces
If thou wouldst fathom cosmic spaces
Look within thine inmost self.”

—Rudolf Steiner


*This ontological reciprocity also lies in the very crux of the conundrum of quantum uncertainty.

**Certain inspired thinkers of our tradition have, nevertheless, pierced the veil of dualistic thinking & beheld the transcendent truth. Heraclitus, for instance, declared that

Hades is Dionysus

Plotinus writes in The Enneads

When we look outside of that on which we depend we ignore our unity; looking outward we see many faces; look inward and all is one head. If a man could but be turned about, he would see at once God and himself and the All.

Similarly, Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations, Book IV:

Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being.

Act V (i.e. post-epiphany) Hamlet responds to Osric, “I dare not confess that lest I compare to him in excellence, for to know a man well were to know oneself,” in this way also indicating that true knowledge is an epistemic chiasmus where self & world are ultimately not two. Like Shakespeare, J. D. Salinger was an artist whose genius transcended his craft to achieve this non-dual apprehension that is the pinnacle of self-knowledge. In his novel Franny & Zooey, the latter protagonist recounts an episode in which, after protesting that he didn’t want to shine his shoes because “the bastards [his audience] won’t know the difference,” his elder brother Seymour insisted at he do it anyway, “for the Fat Lady.” Then Zooey, speaking with his younger sister, reveals:

There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is?…Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.


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