This ancient Greek phrase, “know yourself” is the simplest invitation to reflect on oneself
This phrase, which has a high ethical value and a religious value for some people, is a forceful and disturbing order, because it makes the men, curious beings, face the fact that we need to know, to understand and to accept ourselves; it also makes us face with the evidence of the lack of that self-knowledge and awareness of oneself.
Once again are the ancient Greeks, who developed the rational knowledge of nature, who also focused their reflection in man and therefore in themselves.
Pausanias, the famous tourist of the II century A.D., in his "Description of Greece", in Book X dedicated to Phocis, in chapter 24, paragraphs 1-2, tells us that in the courtyard of the temple of Apollo at Delphi there were registered (Pliny says that in gold letters) useful phrases for the life of men, which are in the mouth of all Greeks (Εν δέ τώ προνάω τά έν Δελφοίς γεγραμμένα, έστιν ώφελήματα άνθρώποις εἰς βίον = En de to pronao ta en Delfois gegrammena estín ofelémata anthropois eis bion), such as:
"know thyself" (Γνῶθι σαυτόν, gnóthi sautón),
“nothing too much” (Μηδέν άγαν,medén ágan).
According to the same Pausanias, these phrases, receiving those who consulted the oracle, were attributed to the Seven Sages (Cleobulus of Lindos, Solon of Athens, Sparta Quilon, Bias of Priene, Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Periander of Corinth ).
Already Plato had said in his dialogue Protagoras (343 b), that the Seven Sages showed his admiration for the Lacedaemonian know "when meeting in Delphi, they wanted to offer to Apollo, in his temple Delfico, the first fruits of their wisdom, and consecrated inscriptions that everyone repeats: Know thyself and nothing in excess".
Many of these statements have not ceased to be used and to encourage reflection of men from then until today.
Probably the most successful of them is "know thyself", especially since Socrates himself used it many times, especially as stated in the Platonic dialogue "Alcibiades" when facing the ambitious young Athenian politician with his own ignorance. This is the reason why the phrase is wrongly attributed to Socrates.
Naturally, the Romans, rulers of Greece but captured by their culture, immediately adopted the maxim in the form "nosce te ipsum" or less used “temet nosce”.
If there are infinite thinkers and philosophers who take as their own "nosce te ipsum" or one of its variants, there are also infinite ways in which it was used.
The phrase continues to be an enigma from the beginning. Does it mean just remember the men their vulnerability and deadly?, perhaps the meaning is to tell us that we need to know well ourselves, that we must know our intellectual and rational soul to guide our life right?, or maybe that the phrase owns itself the treasure of treasures, and who knows himself knows the universe and the gods?, as Hermes Trismegistus intended.
The same idea is expressed by Saint Augustine, directing the judgment in the Christian sense, when he says "do not want to pour out; fall within yourself, because inside of man lies the truth" (From True Religion 39,72), thus inaugurating the so called "Socratic Christian" spoken by Gilson.
In any case "knowing oneself" is a difficult task, the most difficult, as Thales of Miletus said, according to Diogenes Laertius (Lives and opinions of eminent philosophers, Book I, 12,15) or according to the dialogue of Plato Alcibiades, 130,:
"I often thought, Socrates, that it was available to everyone, but in other times I also found it very difficult."
For other authors the task is impossible and the man is doomed not to know "who he is, where he comes from and where it goes" or at least to have a meager knowledge of himself and a slight self-consciousness.
Actually this "Delphic order" constitutes one of the pillars of philosophical reflection of all time, ethics and mysticism; infinite authors since antiquity, as we saw, through the Middle Ages of Peter Abelard (1079-1142 ), who used it as the title for his treatise "Ethica seu liber dictus: scito te ipsum", or Petrarch.
Among others, our Spanish moralist Gracián (1601-1658) said in his book Faultfinder, part one, chap. IX entitled "Moral anatomy of man": "He who begins ignoring oneself, badly can learn other things. But what is the good in knowing everything while not knowing oneself? ".
Closer to our time, the same idea is repeated by many:
Hegel:"self-consciousness is the fount of truth".
Fichte: "Look at yourself, shift your gaze from everything around you and direct it to your interior. This is the first request that philosophy makes to his apprentice. You are not going to talk about anything outside of you, but only of yourself ".
Cassirer: "the autognosis is the supreme purpose of philosophical inquiry".
Montaigne: "every man contains within himself the entire form of the human condition".
There is no philosopher who is inspired by the inscription of the temple of Delphi.
Even today in our hyperactive culture, little given to reflection and peace of mind, the highest Greek inspired numerous self-help books looking for the north in self acceptance or self-identity.
Necessary books that are not always valuable. Also here the consumer society and the bestsellers found a good opportunity for business.
I hope this short article is used for guide the reader, in the sense that he considers most appropriate, of course.