A couple thousand years ago, the maxim “Know Thyself” was written above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. Since then I’ve read in too many books that I’ll never be successful until I do just that. “Know Thyself,” they tell me, “and all your dreams will come true.” It’s always exciting, and every time I think the author might actually explain what it means to “know thyself.” Inevitably, though, it ends in disappointment.
Current authors usually point to some kind of mystic introspection. Like maybe if I just pay enough attention or really face myself, then I’ll finally know myself.
Then a couple years ago I came across a footnote in an obscure history book (the phenomenal Roman Honor: Fire in the Bones) that finally made sense. Cicero, who was around when the Temple of Apollo was more than a couple crumbling columns, believed “know thyself” to be more about action than introspection. From the footnote:
The Pythian Apollo’s dictate “Know thyself!” is interpreted by Cicero as an admonition to learn the strength of one’s body and spirit (nostri vim corporis animique) and to follow the way of life that enabled one to make fullest use of that force.
This has been a much healthier view to me.
It doesn’t force you to believe that the real you is somewhere inside, you just have to look closer. I’ve been on these witch hunts before, they’re not fun or productive. It’s like trying to grasp air–there’s nothing to grip onto.
You don’t find out who you are under some hidden rock inside. You discover who you are as you create yourself.
This means that we can learn more about ourselves in the struggle of daily life than we could in a cabin in the woods. In 197 AD, Minucius Felix wrote in his book Octavius:
“As gold is proven by fire, so are we by ordeals.”
To truly know thyself, you must be challenged. You must push and be pushed against.
You know yourself (and will ultimately be known by others) by the actions you take.
Instead of frustrating yourself with questions about who you are, try Cicero’s advice out and “follow the way of life” that tests your strength.