“Know yourself” is perhaps the most famous philosophic dictum. It’s often attributed to Socrates, but it actually first appeared as one of the one-hundred and forty-seven Delphic maxims, which include such sage advice as:
Φίλοις βοήθει (Help your friends)
Σοφίαν ζήλου (Long for wisdom)
Κοινὸς γίνου (Be impartial)
Γυναικὸς ἄρχε (Rule your wife)
Ἄρρητον κρύπτε (Keep deeply the top secret)
Εὖ πάσχε ὡς θνητός (Be well off as a mortal)
I happen to agree that “Know yourself” is sound philosophical advice. However, most interpret it as a call to introspection, as opposed to a desirable end state. It’s understood as a process, not an outcome. Which is a problem.
Generally speaking, when you attempt to “know yourself” you are faced with a simple choice. Imagine a spectrum with 100% Reality on one end and 100% Narrative on the other. The choice is between which end you choose to move towards. If you head towards the “narrative” end of the spectrum you are selecting the route of self-help, which in my reckoning is the imposition of order upon life’s inherent chaos. It is the conscious search for meaning, for a story, for a metaphor, for a narrative to live by, and it’s possible to acquire and live by one without doing untold harm to yourself or others in the process. There’s few problems heading in this direction.
The problems occur when you head towards the other pole, when you try to introspect towards the reality of the self. It’s possible to move without harm in that direction for a little while—coming to terms with the chaos of existence is what philosophy is all about, after all. But go too far and you realise that the reality of the self is ungraspable. As Venkatesh said on RefactorCamp.org:
“You’ve heard about the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’.
There’s also what you could call ‘the unreasonable depth of reality’
Reality just has such mindboggling depth of mindless detail you can keep modelling to infinite weariness.
It just never ends. No matter how much artifice you impose on a piece of reality, 9/10 of it is still left, showing up as territory noise in your knowing map.
And knowing is so fragile. Poof and you’re liminally entangled in unfactored reality again.”
In fact, in your grasping for reality you mistakenly pick up a narrative. Attempts to introspect to the reality of the self actually take you further way from it—towards a narrative of the self. Take half an hour and sit with yourself. Just breathe. What do you notice? Ephemeral impulses and strange thoughts rising out of the muddy water of the mind, probably. Do this daily for a long enough period and you’ll find patterns in your thoughts, commonalities in what you reach for and what you push away. This pattern recognition gives rise to narrative creation and pretty soon you have a compelling story that imbues your actions with energy but arises from attempts to denarrate. It’s an illusion, though. You are no closer to knowing yourself. You’ve just found a convenient story.
This is not to say that you can’t know yourself. You can, but not via introspection. Boggarts, basketball players and concentration camp survivors indicate why.
If you’ve read the Harry Potter novels you’ll know what a boggart is. It’s a magical creature that, when faced by a witch or wizard, assumes the shape of that person’s deepest fear. And how does one defeat it? Confusion and humour.
In the The Prisoner of Azkaban, during a Defence Against the Dark Arts class, Lupin’s students all line up and take it in turns confronting the boggart. As it is forced to rapidly transition between shapes, it becomes vulnerable to assaults of humour. Why? The magical students are disorientating the boggart by manipulating the tempo at which it has to change its form. It’s a Wizarding World utilisation of the OODA loop. For another example, consider this video.
Stephen Curry creates a temporal disparity. In the video, he was on the three point line with a defender rushing towards him. Curry faked a shot, then faked a dribble as if he was going to move past the defender, but instead of moving closer to the basket he stayed in his original spot and drained the three. The defender realised he was caught out by the fake, then saw Curry moving towards the basket so he turned to chase him down, but Curry wasn’t there.
This is analogous to how you catch out a certain type of person; the courtier. In medieval times, and modernity, the aim of the courtier is to be all things to all people. This works, but only if the courtier can perform relationships in private. Imagine that the courtier shows contempt for the king to one person and admiration for the king to another. Such a two-faced strategy falls down when he has to interact with both those people at the same time. He will likely have to reveal his inauthenticity to one person or the other, or rely on ambiguity to guide him through the impasse. In this case, the complexity of a situation strips the mask away against the courtier’s will.
Another example. Special forces training. We’ve all heard of things like “hell week” where candidates are deliberately deprived of sleep, where their dignity is purposely stripped away, where they are exposed to isolation and humiliation. The motive behind such uncivil treatment is not, as many think, sadism or cruelty. It is pragmatism. Under extreme duress all affectation falls away. S.A.S. officers, for example, don’t care how you act when times are good. They want to see what you do when you haven’t eaten for two days and are trapped in a hostile environment and have minimal resources and are up against titanic odds and are severely fatigued. They want to see the best of you in the worst of times.
The above examples are about the revelation of character via adversity, which reveals in a way that introspection alone cannot. As Primo Levi says in The Drowned and the Saved:
“No one can know how long and what torments his soul can resist before crumpling or breaking. Every human being has reserves of strength whose measure he does not know; they may be large, small, or nonexistent, but the only means of assessing them is severe adversity. Even without invoking the extreme case of the Sonderkommandos [the inmates responsible for removing corpses from the gas chambers post annihilation], we survivors commonly find that when we talk about our experience our listeners say, “In your place, I wouldn’t have lasted a day.” This statement has no precise meaning; you are never in someone else’s place. Each individual is an object so complex that it is useless to try to predict behaviour, especially in extreme situations; we cannot even predict our own behaviour.”
We exist in a permanently masked state so all attempts to look in a mirror, no matter how precise or long the effort, are fundamentally flawed. It’s as useless as trying to dig through a concrete floor with your fingers. We can’t see past the mask we wear. But others can. Which has consequences for the concept of self-knowledge.
One of the simplest ways to test a network is with a ping command. Quite simply, you send out packets of data to a URL or IP address and the time they take to come back—minimum, maximum and average—gives you an insight into the functioning (or malfunctioning) of the network you’re testing. This is how self-knowledge works too. A device will ping a URL or IP address; we have to ping existence and other people. Restated: others observing and responding to our existence is how we accumulate self-knowledge.
Consider the strategic cliche, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Have you ever considered the logic behind it? Well, if we do and we do so with the unachievability of introspective self-knowledge in mind, then it becomes apparent that the reason to keep your enemies close has less to do with knowing about them than with what they can teach you about yourself. What is an enemy’s objective? Inflict tremendous chaos at a rate greater than we can possibly handle, initiating our ultimate downfall. Thus, a good enemy will unwittingly plant the seeds for his own defeat—by exposing us to chaos and adversity, he allows chaos to unmask us, and by his consequent actions reveals to us what he finds, and so gives us an opportunity to leverage that gift of knowledge. A friend is less likely to do this—they shield us and unwittingly harm us, preventing us from gathering self-knowledge and continuing to obscure the things we most need to know about ourself—specifically who we are in our naked, mask-less state.
This is how we have to go about knowing ourselves. Not via hermit-like retreats into the forest or solemn contemplation in a Buddhist temple atop a mountainside. Not even by half an hour of vipassana meditation every morning—that only helps us look out into the world with clarity, not into the self. No. We must seek interaction with the adversity that existence presents to us and derive information about ourself from our relationships with others—both strangers and intimates, both allies and enemies.