poetry, prose, and other strings of words · 1993 - 2003
"Know Thyself" and "The unexamined life is not worth living"
September, 2006: This piece was written while a senior in high school, but taking sophomore university world literature. I still find it interesting, and to judge by the statistics, so do others on the Internet. In fact, this is one of the most popular single pages on my entire web site. In the ten intervening years, I would like to think that experience of life has given me a broader perspective. While I still largely agree with what I wrote at the age of 18, I suspect that it is couched in a more Western context than I realized, and thus does necessarily have the universality I once imagined (what hubris!). Spiritual Journey – Endpoint is a more recent musing that gives a fuller understanding of where I stand today.
"For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims." — Friedrich Neitzsche
"Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to life." — Bahá'u'lláh
Why should we examine our lives? Why should we not just simply go with the flow, live life and not worry? "Ignorance is bliss" they say. How does examination of the self lead to actualization, and thereby to existence? These, of course, are those timeless questions that so many have continued to ask throughout history and so many have answered and not been listened to by more than a few. Wherein lies the significance of the phrases "know thyself" and "an unexamined life is not worth living?" What is the connection to the spiritual self, or soul? Why should these invectives be followed by me or anyone else??
True ignorance (lack of any knowledge) does not exist. From a human perspective, ignorance can only be nearly total in an animal-like state. If we view the fall of Man as a metaphor, then we can see that Man has already, by virtue of being Man, been tainted with the fruit of knowledge. A true state of ignorance can only be found in Locke's State of Nature, which only existed in the Garden before Man's temptation. Therefore, we can see that, as we are human, then we must think, we must possess at least some limited knowledge. I have not lived as or within any other animal communities, and I therefore cannot make mention of the prevalence of thought among the "lower ones." However, it seems clear that Man must think, Man does think, and Man will continue to think. The life of a human is a life going beyond just being part of the flow, part of the Way. It is, at its highest point, a life separate from the Way and yet engaging the Way in complete fullness. Because we do think and do have knowledge, in order to be human, we have to act human.
A human is a creature with a strong spiritual connection to its soul. It is a creature that can truly think. Whereas a mere animal may have both reason and emotion, perhaps that creature does not have the capacity to do other than its set role in life. This is the free will of Man. The human has the ability to develop itself in ways other than those that animals can, and is thereby unique. In order to separate oneself from the animals, as a member of the species of Man, one must develop oneself. This requires the Socratic ideal of "know thyself." Within this idea also lies the concept of existence. As a mere animal, a creature that appears to be a human would simply be going about the day to day existence without developing itself. In this case, appearance is not reality. In order to truly be a human, one must stop and take the time to develop oneself. Otherwise, what is a man or woman who does not fulfill the role of being human? Do they exist as a human? Do they truly live? No. Living the animal life of continuance and no thought as to what will come next is not the life of the human. Introspection is therefore required of Man in order to be a full-functioning, whole human. Delving introspection and reflection are the roots of "know thyself" and "the unexamined life." Introspection, when its results are carried forth into action, then leads so self-actualization and self-approval, thus hopefully satisfying Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Therefore, in order to lead an integrated life, it is necessary to "know thyself."
Just what does "know thyself" mean? It means being in touch with one's spiritual side, attempting to understand it as separate from the animal and a part of the animal in us. The spiritual side's possibility for development is what separates us from the animal. This is the nature of the psyche. By unleashing the psyche, one allows one's true self to become, and, eventually, to be (to put it in Platonic terms). By knowing oneself, one truly understands one's desires and fears, and what their root causes are. Then, seeing if one of those roots is not worthy of having caused a reaction, the integrated person attempts to cast off those unworthy things. This would include dogma and all things institutionalized. The integrated person can see, from personal experience and evaluation, where those institutions may have been corrupted and how, if they have been corrupted, to make up for it in their own lives. Thus, the integrated person is able to make a better life for herself.
We now see that it is not truly possible for a human to know nothing. When one comes close, then one is approaching the animalian state of no worry/thought, of simply engaging the flow. This is not a state of true humanity, for it is in denying that that we become human. Therefore, it is required of a human who wishes to truly live to practice reflective-thinking. Then, and only then, can a human truly find herself and achieve all that she is able to achieve.
The question still remains of why one would want to truly be a Human? Why does existence matter? The thing that matters most is that there are almost no people who are not sentient enough to have not partly examined themselves. That is, almost all Homo sapiens sapiens have at least begun the process of self-examination. The trail has been begun, and then those people who have not completed it attempt to turn back, back towards the realm of the animal, away from the realm of enlightenment. Where they become enamored of the earlier realm and its simplicity is in the tunnel out of the cave, where they experience the piercing sunlight and the pain of the twists and turns. A partial examination of the self leaves one nowhere but stuck in the middle. This leaves the individual in enough consciousness of the state of things around her that she feels the Sartrean anguish, forlornness, and despair, and can do nothing about it. This is suffering. By knowing herself, and becoming self-actualized, integrated, the individual is able to overcome her suffering, and then live a more full life as a result. She is able to escape from the cave, into the sunlight, and feel at home in it. Thus does she exist in the existential terms.
When one does not allow the self to come forth through self-examination, then the self becomes suppressed and the animalian is allowed to rule. This is especially dangerous for those that are in the middle, between actualization and its opposite extreme. When this occurs, the Platonic justice is lost, for "Then the master passion runs wild and takes madness into its service; any decent options or desires and any feelings of shame still left are killed or thrown out, until all discipline is swept away, and madness usurps its place" (Plato). That is, when only a part of the soul is allowed to show forth in expression, then there is enough awareness for the individual to allow the animalian to become more than it should. This is the madness of the passions. The passions should not be destroyed or withdrawn from life, but should be controlled. In this instance, the passions are separate from emotion, for they are not part of the higher knowledge of reason and emotion.
When one does come forth from the cave, a spiritual coming-out-of-the-closet, then one can, theoretically, be released from the anxiety of suffering. Then can the individual truly develop, as the individual is now able to shift her focus from the source of the suffering, the sun, and to the wonderful details all around that are highlighted by that same source. Then does one learn to appreciate what is around, and, be fully-integrated, learn to be part of, in harmony with, nature. This is engaging the flow, not just being part of the flow. This is a sort of straddling of the great Way. This is existing. Without knowing oneself or examining oneself, there is no point in human life. The human who refuses to do this might as well be an animal, for that lifeform is pointless. Thus, "the unexamined life is not worth living." To not know thyself is to live the unexamined life and bring about suffering. So, we see that the answer to the question of why should we know ourselves lies in this: as we are humans, we must have partial knowledge. As we have partial knowledge, we will have suffering. There is one way to transcend the suffering, that is to live the integrated life. To do otherwise is a waste of human life. Therefore, we preach the gospels of "know thyself" and "the unexamined life is not worth living."