Long, long ago… in a land far, far away, there lived a great and wise teacher whose name was Socrates (pictured above). Socrates lived in ancient Athens, Greece which was at that time the most powerful and influential city in the world. Socrates applied his critical thinking and ability to question deeply to unlock the deeper truths of life and to challenge existing thinking. His maxim ‘know thyself’ has inspired students of life throughout the ages. Today I’m going to share some of my own feelings about the significance of these two simple words… ‘know thyself’.
Before I do, it is interesting to note what some other great people have said in relation this subject. For example, Confucius (pictured above), who was a great philosopher from ancient China once said: “When we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.”
While Lao Tzu (pictured above) once said: “It is wisdom to know others; It is enlightenment to know one’s self.”
And according to the scriptures, Jesus Christ (pictured above) said, “When you know yourselves then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father.” (Thomas 3:4) From this quote it is clear that we are made in the image and likeness of the Divine and that to ‘know thyself’ is to realize that we are all sacred beings. That must bring us closer to God.
‘Know thyself’ is a call to look within in order to more fully appreciate and understand life and the world around you. No-one can force you to do this. It is has to be something you see the urgency and need for. It is like a stepping-back from the world in order to observe
yourself acting in the world from moment to moment. It requires seeing the link between your own daily life and the struggles of the world around you. It involves taking complete responsibility for your self and the world around you. That’s what motivates you to look. It is the act of selfless awareness whereby one observes one’s thoughts, feeling, physical posture and surroundings without any judgement whatsoever. That requires your total attention, just as when you are engaged in something that you love doing. Perhaps it is a computer game, playing a sport, or reading a favourite book. You are not self-conscious at all in those moments. It is an attention where learning is rich and progress quick.
If we turn that energy inwardly then it reveals things about ourselves that we may never have fully understood before. As a result of self-awareness we begin to change, our focus becomes sharper; we become more sensitive to the world around us as well as to the relationships that bind us. When we begin to see ourselves as we actually are, rather than as we would like to be, then we begin to change. Our thoughts are like flowers. They emerge from the soil of our memory, take root, grow and flower before eventually withering and dying and returning to the earth from whence they came. Most of us are only barely aware of the brightest coloured flowers in the background of our busy lives. We might ask ‘where did that thought come from?’ or ‘why does that thought hang on?’. If we observe our own thoughts without judgement, we begin to see the fuller picture and then we understand better when and why thoughts arise. Just as if you want to understand flowers better, you should watch them closely from the time you plant the seed to the time they flower, die and return to the earth.
There is a saying that ‘the more we understand ourselves, the more we understand others’. Why is that? Partly, it is because everyone shares the same brain and human consciousness. It is the same brain. It is an ancient brain that has recorded man’s memories and experiences, hopes and dreams from the beginning of time. It is within each of us and therefore our responsibility is to understand it during our lifetime. To ignore the world within is to live in a narrow and shallow place without compassion or spirituality, or depth, or beauty. The universe within us is the equal to the universe without. You don’t need to ride a space-ship to the distant stars when they are with you wherever you go. In fact knowledge as we experience it in our studies and daily lives is simply a pointer to what already lies within you. A scientist who has no awareness of themselves has little to offer the world other than boring lists of facts.
(Picture above: The universe is within you)
What prevents you from taking up the responsibility to ‘know thyself’ right now? There may be several reasons, but the central part of any reason is the ego, or self. With its fear, hopes, experiences, dreams and prejudices, the self is always looking for ways to avoid taking up this responsibility because to truly ‘know thyself’ is to go beyond the self.
One of the great thinkers and writers of the 20th century, Aldous Huxley (pictured above) once wrote, “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.”
In Western mythology, the self is often represented by an angry, powerful dragon that threatens whole communities. A hero is chosen to face the dragon knowing that many have failed before him. The hero must leave the comfort of family and friends, face the darkness of the forest and eventually enter the dragon’s cave where the smell of death is heavy and danger lurks in every shadow. He must face his deepest fears totally alone and slay the dragon. He can feel his heart pounding inside his chest as he listens for the slightest sounds. His attention is total in this moment. He doesn’t think, but rather acts from his instincts which are pure and unfiltered by thought – the self. He slays the dragon because his focus is total, his heart is pure and his ego has been transcended. When he returns to his village, his life is transformed and so is the village from whence he came. In other words, learning about yourself and transcending the ego is an act of heroism that benefits the whole world because such heroic acts are rare and such heroes become leaders or great teachers, like Socrates, or simply great fathers to their own children. Until we take up that responsibility we are like the other villagers in the myth, living in fear and afraid to venture beyond the bounds of safety. True leaders go beyond the safety and security of the known world and especially their own self-interest. They do selfless acts.
In some ways the time you spend at school is the same as the journey of the hero who slays the dragon. When you enter secondary school, it is like a new world – perhaps like the dark forest of the story. You are young and the world seems very big and sometimes frightening. As you progress through the forms, you learn things about yourself and the world which give you a certain confidence to engage the world and the responsibilities that
go with being an adult. Some of the best learning experiences happen outside of your school time. Why is that? Is school simply what happens to us while we are learning about ourselves? Finally, when you graduate you are able to live independent of others and that gives you a certain confidence. But why wait until that day for that responsibility to be handed to you by others? Is it possible to take real responsibility for your life and the world today? After all, the journey of self knowledge begins with a single step! It is possible to take that step in this moment. Know thy self! Seize the moment!
All of which brings us back to Socrates. In ancient Athens, there were some powerful people who felt that Socrates was a threat to their existence because he encouraged people to question everything – including their authourity. Out of fear, they arrested him and put on a false trial where they accused him of undermining their authority with his questioning. They gave Socrates a choice: death, or a life without freedom. They demanded he give up his fascination with the truth of things and conform to their own corrupted view of the world. It was an easy choice for Socrates. He chose death. After all, to Socrates, a life without truth and the freedom to look was a life without meaning, a life without beauty or depth or relationship with God. Ironically perhaps, today the Socratic Method of Inquiry is the basis of all scientific study as we seek to understand the world around us, but remember that for Socrates this method begins with the inward journey of self-knowledge!
Finally, I’ll leave you with this quote from Jesus Christ (pictured below), “One who knows everything but lacks in oneself lacks everything.” (Thomas 6:7)