Who am I? is the only question worth asking
and the only one never answered.
– Deepak Chopra
The exact origin of this command is uncertain, but it is certainly ancient! Self- knowledge is a well sought after, but often elusive prize. It has been equated with wisdom, goodness and even freedom itself. “No one is free who has not obtained the empire of himself. No man is free who cannot command himself.” (Pythagoras)
What do you value that is worth dying for? What value is worth sending someone else off to die for it? What should the aspiration be? Are we as a human race increasing our value? Are we cultivating virtue? Are we dying having lived a flourishing life? What have we learned from the past? Every life sees conflict! That conflict can make us bitter or it can make us better. How are we spurred to action? What conditions should we be avoiding or eliminating? What conditions should we be promoting because of the praiseworthy response they engender in us?
While considered extremely valuable, knowing oneself is not considered very easy. “Thou must keep in view what thou art, striving to know thyself, the most difficult thing to know that the mind can imagine.” (Miguel de Cervantes) Perhaps even more difficult is to live with or live by what one knows about oneself. “I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” (Hermann Hesse)
To “know thyself” is, among other things, to know what we have done. This includes not only a personal history, but a collective history. History does more than just record the events of a day or a season or a time period. It records the causes of the events and patterns of motivation. It illuminates the very commonalities that constitute human nature itself.
History teaches us. The past is actually a prologue. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. What we know about our personal and collective past is an indicator of what is to come. History can predict how we are likely to behave under certain conditions and stressors and how those conditions or stressors should either be promoted or avoided depending on whether the likely behavioral response is praiseworthy or reprehensible. The knowledge gained from history ought to spur us to action.
It seems to me that by far the majority of what is written into the history books is about conflict and war. What does the voluminous record of human history teach us about the causes of those wars, about the patterns of motivation, about human nature itself? War is not caused by hatred, but by irreconcilable differences in values.
Plato said, “I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self would be ridiculous.” Examine yourself. Do it often. Do it daily. Who are you? What are the causes of the conflicts in your life? What are the patterns of your motivations? To what do you aspire? Are you leading a flourishing life? Are your behaviors praiseworthy or reprehensible? What are you learning from your past, even from the past day? What actions are you spurred to take?
I know myself now, and I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience. (William Shakespeare)
What did you notice about yourself this week?