Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thoughts on a Maxim

Know thyself! A maxim as pernicious as it is ugly. Whoever observes himself arrests his own development. A caterpillar who wanted to know itself well would never become a butterfly. ~Andre Gide

"Know thyself" is the most common translation of (arguably) the most famous of the Delphic Maxims. The Delphic Maxims are inscribed at Apollo's Temple in Delphi and are said to have been delivered by Apollo Himself. The Maxims are suggestions for pious living rather than commandments. According to legend, they were written down by The Seven Sages who are usually identified as: Solon of Athens, Chilon of Sparta, Thales of Miletus, Bias of Priene, Cleobulus of Lindos, Pittacus of Mitylene and Periander of Corinth.

Now, I've had trouble reconciling myself to some of the maxims in the past, but this was not one of them. When a friend posted the Gide quote above earlier this week it forced me to question a concept that I had not even realized I had accepted without question.

I will readily admit that choosing to investigate my thoughts on this subject seem to support the very foundations of the maxim "Know Thyself", but I'll leave that paradox aside here for the sake of further exploration.

Would a caterpillar who wanted to know itself never become a butterfly? Does it do harm to the development of my butterfly/psyche to hold it under constant scrutiny? I can understand how that could be perceived as the case. My illness, bipolar disorder, thrives on the constant narration and criticism of my mind about my daily activities. I achieve a certain state of grace when I meditate singularly on my breath and not on the chatter and self-talk of my mind.

Perhaps in chastising "Know Thyself" Gide was recalling that old adage about not staring too long into the abyss lest it stare back into you. We observe ourselves, and observe ourselves observing ourselves. We see flaws that mirror back at us like the abyss, like the demons of the Goetia. We see strengths that we hold ourselves up by. We create an identity based not on who we are being, but on what we are perceiving ourselves to be.

It is important to note that "Know Thyself", although a popular translation, is only that, a translation. The maxim itself is Σαυτον ισθι which can also be translated as "Be Yourself", the advice given to us by our mothers and countless characters on Sesame Street. "Be Yourself" is a much kinder way to live than "Know Thyself". It challenges us to discover our True Will, to ultimately become whatever sort of butterfly we are intended to be.

*gets out Thelemic soapbox (it is composed of two perfect cubes and is exactly at navel height for everyone)*

Therefore, damned for a dog be "Know Thyself". There is no law beyond Do What Thou Wilt. Be Yourself. Love is the Law, Love Under Will.


  1. Interesting thoughts. :) They mimic what I have been studying in seminary this month. We've been going over the idea of stepping back from ourselves as helpers, and "observing ourselves observing." The idea is to see ourselves watching the world as if on a television screen, sort of a "once removed" viewing. It's a difficult practice, not meant to be done constantly, but more as a peek once in a while to see we're not getting caught up in our own internal messes.

    I always see "know thyself" as meaning to understand and be aware of our pros and cons, our foibles and fantasies. I'm not spending vast amounts of time staring into my navel, but I am taking time once a day to meditate on what I've done throughout the day, and ask myself if I am living up to my own ideals. :)

  2. You know, I was starting to formulate an intelligent response to this, but then I got to the Thelemic soapbox. Sorry, all rational thought was then drowned in a sea of LULZ. :D

  3. @temperance: Thanks! Feel free to use the Thelemic soapbox whenever you need to. I find it particularly useful for housecleaning. ;)

  4. @Rev. Allyson: Yeah, I had thought of "Know Thyself" as more understanding and less navel gazing, but the Gide quote really shook me up. I know that I fall prey to self-talk constantly (which is, in its own way a part of knowing myself) and benefit greatly from the kind of detached observation you discussed.

  5. I know, I'm late to the party, but "know thyself" does not represent a static concept to me, because the "self" is not a static thing. Also it's been said that the highest intellect is to know that you really *know* nothing. "Know Thyself" to me just means that you should recognize the potential for mutability and change within yourself. :P Omnia Mutantir, Nihil Interit. Or something.

  6. My own illness causes this constant self-talk which can be maddening. It also makes meditation difficult. Still. I believe that my constant re-examining of my life and where it is going is a positive, I doubt that I could really "Be myself" without critical examination of where i am, where I have been and where I am going. On the other hand, maybe it just makes me nuts,or more so. Now I've gone and confused myself! :)

  7. I'm confused; I thought that the maxim was gnôthi seauton, "know yourself"; where did you find it recorded as seauton isthi?

  8. @henadology: I found it here...
    I admit that I know very little Greek, and cannot vouch for the validity of this link.

  9. Okay, I've been looking into the matter quite closely, and here's what I've learned.

    The maxim gnôthi seauton, "know thyself", is far too widely attested as a Delphic maxim by ancient authorities to be dismissed. (For a start, try "Know Thyself" in Greek and Latin Literature by Eliza Gregory Wilkins, which is available in Google Books; but the documentation has grown since Wilkins' day--the saying is attested in its traditional context, for example, at the gymnasium of the ephebes at Thera, 4th c. BCE (IG XII 3.1020 4).)

    The maxim seauton isthi, "be thyself", by contrast, occurs in just one place, the list in Stobaeus of the sayings of the seven sages as reported by Sosiades [or 'Sosiados'] (3.1.173). Stobaeus himself, however, includes gnôthi seauton among the sayings of the sages as reported by Demetrius Phalerus (3.1.172), who specifically attributes gnôthi seauton to Chilon of Sparta; and Stobaeus devotes an entire chapter of his Florilegium (chap. 21) to what various authors had to say about the phrase gnôthi seauton, in which it seems to be taken for granted that it is a Delphic maxim.

    Now, strictly with regard to the alternate list given by Sosiades, it may be valid to ask whether seauton isthi has replaced gnôthi seauton; but if it has, this list is a minority of one in doing so, and no one to my knowledge has ever made the claim that seauton isthi stands in place of gnôthi seauton.