Know thyself! – a saying that everyone surely knows. It is said to have been engraved in the entrance hall of the temple of Apollo in Delphi. It is often used when dealing with topics such as personality development or becoming a human being. Know thyself’ as a foundation, as a basic requirement for any personal development. You have to know yourself before you can develop yourself.
For us Masons too, ‘Know Thyself’ is at the beginning of every Masonic journey, right in the first degree of the Lodge of St John. And yes, it is necessary to know oneself, to know oneself, to know where one stands in life, if one wants to develop, if one wants to become who one really is.
As a conclusion from this, it is often advised in mundane personality training, programmes or coaching to analyse one’s strengths and weaknesses in order to then work on them. As if ‘Know Thyself’ were about our strengths and weaknesses. Or even about learning any skills, acquiring any knowledge.
Far from it.
Today, no one can say for sure to whom the saying can be attributed. Some attribute this saying to the ‘seven wise men’, others to Apollo, the god of light, healing and wisdom.
Its original meaning, however, is well known. But, unfortunately, only to a few people. It is found in Plutarch:
‘Know thyself’ was the greeting of Apollo, the god, to the person entering. With ‘Know thyself’ Apollo greeted the person entering the temple.
And invited him to recognise and accept himself for what he is. At this point, in the entrance to Apollo’s temple, this was first and foremost a fact. And this was perhaps even the only fact that needed to be recognised here, in this place:
Through the ‘Know Thyself’, the entering human being should recognise that he is a mortal.
And connected with this, man should become aware that he is subject to all earthly cycles of living and dying, of becoming and passing away.
That one of his characteristics of man is his transience, his mortality.
Our transience, the fact that we were born and will die, that our time here on earth is finite, this is what man has to recognise, this is what we have to recognise through ‘know thyself’.
It is not about strengths and weaknesses. It is about lack of skills. Self-management techniques. Or anything else profane. But it is, solely, about a very profound humility.
The humility to recognise our mortality. But more than that, it’s about the humility of not looking primarily at ourselves (our mortality), but at the other side. To the divine side.
In the entrance to the temple of Apollo we are pointed to precisely this contrast: Here the immortal, omnipotent God – there the mortal man, us.
Know thyself’ – realise that you are the mortal man and not the immortal God. This is a humility that I find very profound, from which all action and activity in the here and now takes on a different meaning and quality.
And yes, of course, the meaning and purpose of all other measures, often derived from the saying ‘Know thyself’, can also be justified from this humility. Subordinate.