Know Thyself

 He who knows himself knows His Lord.
-- Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad

For most of us, self-examination rarely goes beyond a quick glance in the mirror to make sure our hair isn’t mussed.  We now regard as quaint the earnest character-improvement regimes of George Washington and Ben Franklin – to say nothing of the grim moral scrutiny that the saints often subjected themselves to.  Introspection of any sort tends to be viewed as a perilous undertaking.  No matter how high-minded our motives, we always run the risk of sailing into uncharted Freudian waters.  We might envy the ancient Greeks, who felt they had more to fear from the whims of the gods than from their own unconscious impulses.      

It was the Greeks, of course, who saddled us with the notion that there was some virtue in knowing thyself.  That admonition was engraved on the portal to Apollo’s temple at Delphi, giving it the veneer of divine sanction.  The original thought was variously attributed to Socrates, Heraclitus and Pythagoras, among others, suggesting they all embraced the idea.  But what exactly were they getting at? 

Most of us would agree that knowing your own mind is a good thing, at least insofar as understanding your own motives and temperament.  Those habitually entangled in conflicts with self and others may wish to delve deeper.  There is, of course, the inherent contradiction of trying to be objective about matters that are intrinsically subjective.  As quick as we are to pick up on self-delusion in others, we must assume ourselves to be no less vulnerable to the same condition.  In a famous thought experiment, Descartes tried to find certainty within himself, and the only thing he could come up with was the certainty of his own doubts. 

The Sufis also saw some virtue in knowing oneself but found both more and less there than meets the eye.  To know oneself is to know the Lord, the Prophet Muhammad said.  By this he did not mean that the self we fondly think of as “me” is really God in disguise.  The self we fondly think of as “me” is really nothing at all, and once that is fully grasped, there is no longer anything apart from God at the core of one’s being. But how does one arrive at this realization?  The great Sufi master Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi pointed out that the self in its essential nothingness cannot become what it already is. Nor can the self become God, since nothing can’t become something.  Nor can the self unite with God for the same reason.  To truly know yourself is to see that God is all there is.   

 Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, The One Alone 

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