I have always heard of the wise advice "Know yourself (thyself)." I have truthfully wondered how anyone could possibly do this. The task seems enormous, just simply an impossibility for a mere mortal. Often, as is my practice when I desire greater simplicity, I return to the root for a greater understanding of complexity. In doing so for this entry, I traveled to ancient Greece and found the advice of the Seven Sages.
Everything I discovered in my journey seemed so relevant to me and relevant to the times that I felt an unusually warm reward for my efforts. As you read this, I ask you to think about someone who could benefit from the message -- a timeless gem of knowledge. I doubt if that person can easily forget words that ring so clearly.
Origins of "Know Yourself"
According to Wikipedia, "The ancient Greek aphorism "Know yourself", Greek: γνῶθι σεαυτόν gnōthi seauton (also ... σαυτόν ... sauton with the ε contracted), was inscribed in the forecourt on a column of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi." This was one of the three maxims that the so-called Seven Sages engraved upon the column. The other two maxims are "Nothing in excess" and "A pledge, and ruin is near."
The Seven Sages were early 6th century B.C. philosophers, statesmen and law-givers who were renowned for their wisdom. According to Diogenes, the Seven "were neither wise men nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men who had studied legislation." Credited for pithy sayings, the wise men were also apparently famed for practical inventions. Being students of the Spartan education, the sages displayed their wisdom by the brief but memorable remarks they each uttered when they met.
The Seven Sages showed by example what it meant to be wise. Others remembered their public enactments and learned from them. Their works occurred more than a century before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
According to scholar Isaac McPhee, the period in which the Seven Sages emerged was one of rebellion amongst the people of Greece, mostly illiterate workers who greatly despised the scholars and thinkers of the day, even going so far as to assassinate those who were thought to be members of the Pythagorean school. The time was right for a great social change as the common man wanted to rise up against the upper class.
The pith and simplicity that the sages employed could be readily understood by even the simplest of peasants (which perhaps saved them from death). Speaking not more than a few words to each person who sought out their advice, they provided all that was needed -- a breath of fresh air.
Their work initiated the kinds of reforms that allowed Greece to begin to build itself up as a world power. "The institution of democracy, solving ethical dilemmas, forming some of the first coherent philosophies… the importance of these seven men is hard to overstate." (Isaac M. McPhee, "The Seven Wise Men of Greece," Suite101.com, February 18 2008)
Wisdom of the Seven Sages
According to the Greek Mythology Link, a website created by Carlos Parada, author of Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology, 1997, "Know yourself" referred to some specific understandings of the Greeks.
"Some have believed that by this maxim they exhorted men and women to become educated and to acquire prudence. For, they say, those who are ignorant and thoughtless used to think themselves to be very clever. And this disgraceful feature has been considered to be the worst of all kinds of ignorance, since such people consider wicked men to be good, and believe the honest to be of no account.
"It has also been remarked that some fail to follow this maxim by believing they own greater wealth than they do, or by believing they possess better physical qualities than it is the case, or by erring about the qualities of the soul, thinking themselves to be wiser than they are.
"Others have affirmed that to know oneself is to exploit the gifts one has got, and that only the man with self-knowledge will be able to love wisely. They have added that if nature has made him handsome, he should flash his best profile, that the good singer should sing, and the good drinker drink. This they considered to be Apollo's counsel.
The saying "Know thyself" by extension may refer to the ideal of understanding human behavior, morals, and thought, because ultimately to understand oneself is to understand other humans as well.
However, the ancient Greek philosophers thought that no man can ever comprehend the human spirit and thought thoroughly, so it would have been almost inconceivable to know oneself fully. Therefore, the saying may refer to a less ambitious ideal, such as knowing one's own habits, morals, temperament, ability to control anger, and other aspects of human behavior that he/she struggles with on a daily basis.
The aphorism may also have a mystical interpretation. In this interpretation,"Thyself" is not meant in reference to the egotist, but to the ego within self, the I AM consciousness. Sometimes, conflict between the fears of the ego and the power of the spirit occur. This belief holds that the ego has no power against the higher vibrations of True Self because the ego is a mental construction, a by-product of living with others. The self, on the other hand, is created by mere existence. To know one's self requires defeating the ego to find real humility and a true center that has been created by appreciation, love, and care.
In these times, it is good to remind ourselves of the examples of humility. Daniel B. Levine in a speech to the University of Arkansas Teaching Academy (November 13, 2002) reminded teachers of this need. We may need to consider very closely the respect that the Seven Sages had for each other. This respect endured despite their different ways of teaching, different areas of expertise, and different geographical regions.
We should see many ways exist to get at the truth, and we might recognize that no single person has all the answers. Humility is the basis of wisdom, and intelligent cooperation is paramount to understanding.