You do not know what your life is–nor what you are doing, nor who you are. Euripides, The Bacchae
In my early twenties I learned that Apollo’s great temple at Delphi bore a famous inscription: “Know thyself.” And I thought, “How banal can you get?”
Yet legations from all over the Mediterranean world visited Delphi to consult oracular powers there. Well, if the maxim was a fair sample of available sagacity, they should have spared themselves a trip. During my young-and-stupid phase, “Know thyself” seemed more a joke than advice worthy of Apollo. One’s own self? What could be easier? “Hey, I already do! None better.”
Slowly as years, I began finding that maxim to be a unisex maze, a sort of labyrinth precisely the size of each life. And shape-shifty. At times, a snare cunningly hidden in plain sight, though lately I see it as a door opening to us only if we’re already inside. Which takes a while. Wise is the man who knows his own mind. Are there any?
Those roundabout travels and wrong turns befalling everyone on the way to self-knowledge acquire an especially paradoxical twist because our human nature is written right and left of us, on each side of the road, and also within us as part of time’s story. Clues lie thick-sown wherever in our lives we happen to glance, including our genetic heritage of cells that have journeyed, Proteus-like, through eons of animal forms to be the life of your eyes, just now doing the looking.
We know. Our role makes part of the tale, one written in the skies and right under our noses, but, like the Sphinx’s riddle, we suppose it’s decipherable only by some deep thinking savant. Tracing evolution backward may be the least of it, which, in the technical and laboratory sense, must nowadays be left to biochemists. Certainly, even for a specialist, all-inclusive self-decryption must forever reside light years beyond any lifetime. This is so because what we are depends on where. A Zuñi boy guarding his father’s cornfield from rabbits and crows in, say, 1539 is one thing. Three years later, that same Zuñi youngster seeing horses for the first time — with the land’s first Spaniards astride them — becomes quite another by virtue of his new context. Even to place him within a European year-number transmutes the boy he actually was to historical artifact. Thus, any holistic deciphering of “me” needs to consider our actual situation in time and space, whose dimensions aren’t solely themselves but, in some rather spooky ways, each other. Oh, no doubt of it, context alters content.
After all, how can the part be fully known without knowing the whole? And doesn’t fully knowing the part change our sense of the whole? For example, in embryo we each had a tail like a tadpole, which survives vestigially as the coccyx, a funny come-uppance when you think about it; all of us walking round while waggling, under the skin of our pretensions, little bony stumps of tails.
Then, too, knowledge of the whole changes what the part truly is. For example, awareness that evolution hasn’t stopped, is in fact ongoing, subtly alters our sense of our own bodies; that’s true just as surely as my tongue runs on sun sugar devised by the mind of a forest, and surely as our lives depend on a star. Among mental circularities I value the ongoing widening of that part/whole spiral more than any other line I might follow.
Yet it’s a line none of us can trace very far. Astronomers must speak of “the observable universe” only. Given the possibility of multiverses, that’s not saying much. Oddly, as a lessthan-minuscule side effect of all that, I rather like being surrounded by the unknown and unknowable.
Happily, however, you can’t lose ‘em all. In groping round my backyard inch or two of planet Earth I do sometimes sense my ignorance becoming the size of a cosmos, and like that feeling as well. Or at least believe I believe I do. (When it comes to the self, can we ever be sure?) It’s a sort of fool’s errand, working to enlarge your unknowing, yet I enjoy the attempt. Odder still, my expanding awareness of being nearly infinitely ignorant strikes me as an achievement of sorts. In a world where one riddle is tucked into the next, it’s not easy to grasp even a rough sketch of what went into expressing you.
If your ignorance has an activist bent, however, certain wider dimensions of “Know thyself” do begin to grow familiar. As a matter of radical fact, for example, we living creatures are expressions of Earth, just as we in return express it — though in thought and word only. Not coincidentally, therefore, the word “matter” is traceable back to Latin mater, or “mother.” Hence, we and our maternal planet are a kind of Möbius strip, each alive inside the other. As I walk and look around, it enriches me to feel how that is so.
What’s more, the origin of “express” gives the word new life. Its etymology gets reenacted every time one of those high priests of caffeine forces steam through finely ground coffee for your cup of espresso. An everyday phrase like “expressing yourself” can feel witty, as if the self gave off tinted vapor, variously colored according to mood.. Less remotely, of course, your heart’s red “expressions” are actual squeezes and spurts of your life’s blood. After instilling that heart, your mother, in labor, then physically “expressed” you as her newborn, whereupon your personality further became (metaphorically) her “expression,” augmented by family, schoolmates, and others, however remote in time and space. Plato, for instance; or the Biblical story of Job.
Inevitably, therefore, just as Earth “expressed” us, we in turn “expressed” the gods. No less a deity than Apollo, although a god of self-knowledge, echoes the blurred impulses of his creators by becoming — in Greek thought and ritual — now an ethical guide; now a devious womanizer; now an archer fatally accurate; now the god of harmonious music; now a benign healer or fell avenger. Quite a repertoire. Yet it’s common for a god or goddess to be simultaneously, or by turns, herself and her opposite. Aren’t we all? Apollo simply wore whatever face his human creator/worshipers needed to see at the time, thus echoing on a grand scale our own labile and various selves.
So experience, which is sometimes called (a bit uncomfortably for me) “the school of fools,” has by now shown me that Delphi’s “Know thyself,” may be the trickiest counsel ever imparted. Among its implicit aspects is knowledge of the universe whose creatures we are. In pursuit of our relation to it–meaning our relation to everything that is–I often end up at the wisdom of the ages. That, too, has many sources, though perhaps none more historically important for this scientific age than a highly intelligent Greek named Thales, who has been called “the first scientist.”
If we imagine people of the ancient world as old, we’re forgetting that, on average, most were younger than we are, so I picture Thales as a fit fortysomething, and very, very smart. Alive today, he’d be a Nobel laureate in theoretical physics. Even back in the sixth century B.C. his versatility as astronomer, cosmologist, and geometer led to his reputation as a deep thinker, one often consulted by fellow Greeks. Yet when this proto-physicist was asked, “What is most difficult?” Thales didn’t answer as you’d suppose, by naming some abstruse problem in star-science or trigonometry. Instead, he replied, “The thing most difficult is to know yourself.” Small wonder that he was reputed the wisest man in Greece.
Given his wide interests, it’s at least plausible to suppose that his idea of self-knowledge meant going beyond a mere inventory of our strictly personal illusions, our hang-ups, our talents, and our vanities. Conceivably, such a versatile man must have felt that true self-knowledge includes our relation to our natal soil, to this planet, to its nearest star, and beyond. That’s why I’ve come to see Delphi’s “Know thyself” as the most inexhaustible imperative ever imparted. Its necessary context is our entire natural world.
But don’t take my word for it. Pretend this voice isn’t mine, doesn’t come from a few atoms dreaming they’re someone less than a six-billionth of his kind now alive. Imagine instead it’s Apollo calling: “If you truly knew yourself that way . . . would you still be who you are?”