When asked what was the most difficult thing, Thales replied, “To know thyself.”
When asked what was easiest, he replied, “To give advice.”
—Thales of Miletus (c. 624 BC – c. 546 BC)
was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, one of the Seven Sages of Greece.
THE MOST BASIC AND ENDURING ADVICE WE’VE BEEN GIVEN THROUGH THE AGES has been the admonition “Know Thyself.” The crux of this advice is that the Self exists as a potential to be realized, a hidden treasure available to all of mankind. Consequently, self knowledge is held to be the summit of knowledge and the ultimate personal challenge, a task available to all yet pursued by few, but essential for our spiritual evolution and growth. It is said that philosophy is the art and science of dissecting soul from body. As Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 B.C.) wrote, “All men have the capacity of knowing themselves,” implying that the burden of self-realization rests on our own shoulders.
The ancient aphorism Know Thyself was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the sacred oracle of the Greeks that dates back to the beginning in the Mycenaean period (1600–1100 BCE). Ancient Greeks consulted the Delphic oracle on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs. Plato used the term Know Thyself in his Socratic dialogues, even though the term most probably had been in use far earlier, maybe originating from the Coffin Texts of ancient Egypt, texts that adorned burial sarcophagi of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. It is possible that these texts themselves may have been drawn from an even earlier time, from Egyptian dynasties dating as far back as 3000 B.C., before the creation of other scared texts and traditions such as the Hindu Vedas and the Chinese I-Ching. One of these early sayings tells us: The body is the temple of the God within you; therefore it is said, ‘Man: know thyself.’
This idea of the importance of self knowledge found its way across the world, to Asia, Africa, and Eastern and Western Europe, from Chinese dynasties to the Hindu teachings, to Islam and the Sufis, and to those conquerors of Europe, the Romans, who introduced the Latin term nosce te ipsum (Know Thyself) into standard use.
A survey of the literature and philosophy of Western and Eastern civilization reveals the universal nature of man’s quest for self-knowledge, cited by philosophers and religious mystics such as Confucius, Lao Tsu, Heraclitus, Jesus, Pindar, Saint Thomas, and Muhammad, and titans of world literature, including Rumi, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emerson, Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, and Walt Whitman.
The Task of Self Examination
“There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”
Few will argue that it’s a hard task, digging deep to find out who we are and what we are made of. But it’s true that the task is made easier by having a support group—parents, family, friends, teachers—who understand us, who see us for who we are. This is the greatest gift someone can give us, and that we can give to someone else. And I think we can all agree that there is no need to make life’s challenges any harder than they need to be. Knowing we have a kind of blueprint that underlies our beliefs and behavior patterns aids us in the task of learning to understand ourselves by giving us important clues to self knowledge, and the tools to make necessary adjustments.
It’s by identifying our inherent abilities and aptitudes that we can begin to understand ourselves. Our gifts and talents are intended to be used as a form of self-expression, not only for our own needs, but also for the benefit of our society, our culture, our civilization. No one is born by accident, no one’s Soul Software was designed by chance. Each one of us has a purpose, and we have the ability to find out what that is.
For some people it’s simple—they shine as an athlete or an academic or a musician from an early age, their path through life is assured, and there is no question that they aren’t expressing their own particular gifts and talents. But there’s more—we are not just what we do what we do, what we have a talent for, is only part of our expression of who we are. The expression of our physical and mental attributes must be informed by the spiritual component of our soul. Being a great athlete only really matters if you can connect with the source of your gift, and if you can rise above the competitive nature of the sport, as the great baseball player Ted Williams was able to do. Being an academic only matters if you can impart knowledge to others with a joy for learning and with compassion in your heart, or if you can tap into a mine of new knowledge that can benefit society, as Albert Einstein did. Being a great musician is about expressing reverence for the message, the emotion, behind the music, resulting in the transcendent experience of hearing Luciano Pavarotti singing a Puccini aria.
“Of all knowledge, the wise and good seek most to know themselves.”—William Shakespeare