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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Posts from — April 2013

Self-Knowledge

Self-Knowledge

Western philosophy has its roots in a dictum inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? It even makes a kind of intuitive sense, perhaps because if we don’t know ourselves, all of our other knowing must lack a foundation. Yet it seems fair to ask, in knowing ourselves, exactly what is it we know?

The Delphic directive has enjoyed (or suffered) a variety of interpretations. Some have suggested that it was a caution against hubris, against believing ourselves to be more than we are. Others have taken it as a reminder not to regard the opinions of others too highly. As we work with clients, we see how the lack of self-knowledge, of self-awareness, produces a kind of opacity in the psyche keeps out the light of truth, without which there is no inspiration, creative expression, or forward motion. In these terms, ignorance is anything but bliss.

These may sound highfalutin, as philosophy can. Yet they also can point to essential aspects of living well, of happiness, of what the Greeks called “the good life.” By “truth,” for example, we don’t mean something esoteric reserved for the priests and priestesses, but simply the truth of our own nature—the “yes” and “no” of who we are. In session after session, we see people suffering for no other reason than a lack of clarity about this “yes” and “no.” They don’t know where their own lines are; consequently, they keep crossing them or allowing others to cross them, and the result is that they suffer. Not knowing our “yes” and “no” may lead us to accept something unacceptable, or draw swords over issues that could in truth be overlooked. We end up saying “yes” when the truth is “no,” or “no” when the truth is “yes,” and in denying the truth, we deny ourselves. It is a failure method, for as Socrates tells us plainly in the Gorgias, the truth cannot be denied.

This one, simple thing—clarity about what’s a “yes” and what’s a “no” for us, where the truth of who we are allows us to be flexible and where that truth requires that we stand our ground—this alone would go a long way toward resolving even seemingly intractable and chronic problems. At the end of the day, “Know thyself” is a call to honesty that, followed diligently, allows things to find their own level. It implies a willingness to trust in the rightness of life and of our own nature. We can come into the company of this self-knowing with no more than the willingness to check in with ourselves before we speak or act, to pay attention to the inner voice and honor it, and to let the rest sort itself out. When living in cooperation with who we are becomes more important than outcomes, more important than what other people think of us, more important than the many things to which we may become attached, then our word carries the authority of our self-knowing, and many good things follow.

April 24, 2013   Comments Off on Self-Knowledge