Inscribed over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself”. Certainly good advice. But before we can follow it, we need to dig deeper into the nature of the ‘self’ that we wish to know.
This is harder than you think. In the West there is no consensus of what is ‘self’. Add that to the Eastern tradition that ‘self’ is a mirage and it’s little wonder we’re confused (or should be if we took time to consider it).
For argument’s sake, let’s assume, that the following is necessary for ‘self”: (1) continuity of perception, (2) awareness of such perception, and (3) ability to recall such perception across a time/space continuum. Further, if we are to ‘know’ this ‘self” we must assume capacity for both self-reflection and verbalisation of those reflections.
How might this all fit together to form the ‘self’ as we experience it everyday? The fashionable narrative theory offers a fascinating perspective . The idea is that as we become socialised, we make narratives about ourselves and how we interact with our environment. For example, when Mom says “you went to school today didn’t you Johnny?”, Johnny nods and adds this idea of being a ‘school-goer’ to his definition of himself.
So far so good. It’s easy enough to imagine ourselves as the product of the stories we (and others) tell about our lives. But what about revision?
As every writer knows, a good story is the product of numerous drafts and revisions – a process, which for the sake of holding the reader’s attention necessarily alters mousy brown hair into something more exciting – i.e. the “long silken tresses the colour of freshly mown hay on a crisp autumn morning” type of thing.
Revision is good stuff for fiction. We don’t know how good it might be for our notion of ‘self’. However one thing that is certain is that the more we tell and retell our narratives, the further we move away from an accurate picture.
Perhaps instead of seeing ourselves solely in terms of our history, we might acknowledge that although things did (or did not) happen to us, we can still understand ourselves as something more than a product of our past. In other words although we may refer to ourselves in terms of what we have or haven’t done, we do not need to define ourselves by it.
This require a more detached view of the ‘self’ than most Westerners currently take. But it is possible to change. Instead of being so wrapped up our accomplishments that its nearly impossible to view ourselves as separate from them, we might instead learn to take a more happy-go-lucky, see-what-comes point of view.
I suggest that until we can do that, we stand no chance of meeting the challenge to ‘know thyself’ – as the ‘self ‘ that actually is rather than the ‘self’ we would like to be.