On Knowing Ourselves

In a 2012 post in this blog, I criticized a 2009 essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” The putative advice was that of Strunk and White. However, what these two had written was not the elements of grammar, but The Elements of Style. They gave style advice by precept and example. The advice is good, if well understood. The critic should recognize that, as I wrote, “Rules of style are supposed to induce thinking, not obedience.”

View between two hotel buildings from one mountainside to another, with a bit of the sea beyond
All photos taken in Delphi, July 12–14, 2017

“Write in a way that comes naturally”: this is second on the “List of Reminders” in Chapter V, called “An Approach to Style.” This chapter was White’s contribution to the original work of his late teacher Strunk. I can accept the rule to write naturally, even while arguing, as I have done, that humans as such cannot act naturally. Our lives are artificial; but all this means is that we create them. If we could choose to go back to being natural animals, this going back itself would be artificial on our part. Unable to act naturally, we cannot then obey a rule to write naturally. I say this; and yet I do not think it really contradicts White, who himself suggests something similar: “do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.”

Fuller view of the mountainside in the previous photo

White’s aim for the writer is like Collingwood’s for the painter in The Principles of Art (1938), in a passage that I have quoted at greater length elsewhere:

The watching of his [sic] own work with a vigilant and discriminating eye, which decides at every moment of the process whether it is being successful or not, is not a critical activity subsequent to, and reflective upon, the artistic work, it is an integral part of that work itself. A person who can doubt this, if he has any grounds at all for his doubt, is presumably confusing the way an artist works with the way an incompetent student in an art-school works; painting blindly, and waiting for the master to show him what it is that he has been doing.

One may paint or write blindly; one may watch what one is doing; one may be self-conscious as one does it. I think White warns against the last. Writing naturally means not writing self-consciously. This does not mean going to the other extreme. If one is at the stage of writing blindly, then one does need to “wait for the master”—or go to the masters, as White recommends:

Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then, when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.

Really one must become the master oneself.

Street with stone wall on the sunny side, white buildings and pedestrians on the shady side

This analysis of writing and painting applies also to the general injunction concerning self-knowledge that was once graven in stone at Delphi. An essay published last October (2017) in Aeon condemns the commandment; but I think the essay critiques, however righteously, only its worst possible interpretation. This interpretation would require blind unthinking obedience to the commandment, if such obedience were possible.

Mountain viewed beyond narrow cypress and other trees

The title of the essay is an assertion: “ ‘Know thyself’ is not just silly advice: it’s actively dangerous.” I would propose that such a title deserves the criticism that it makes of the Delphic commandment. The title is not only silly, but dangerous. It is dangerous for those who would take it seriously, and for others who might be their victims. Because they believed implicitly in the thought behind the title, the citizens of Athens condemned Socrates to death.

Rows of seats of an ancient theater, with cypresses and a mountain above

The author of the Aeon essay is aware of Socrates, whom he mentions in his first paragraph:

There is a phrase you are as likely to find in a serious philosophy text as you are in the wackiest self-help book: ‘Know thyself!’ The phrase has serious philosophical pedigree: by Socrates’ time, it was more or less received wisdom (apparently chiselled into the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi) though a form of the phrase reaches back to Ancient Egypt. And ever since, the majority of philosophers have had something to say about it.

Not only was the commandment known in Socrates’s time, but Socrates himself lived by it, by his own admission in the Phaedrus of Plato.

Ancient stadium among trees, cliffs behind

At the beginning of that dialogue, the title character is walking with Socrates along a stream outside the walls of Athens. The pair come near a place where, as Phaedrus recalls, the god Boreas, of the North Wind, is said to have carried off the nymph called Oreithyia. Phaedrus wonders whether Socrates thinks such a story can be true. Socrates is aware of an alternative account, whereby the girl fell to her death from some rocks when she was playing with her friend Pharmacea, and people said she had been pushed by the wind.

Among the trees

We could pursue the euhemerism further than Socrates does. We could point out that the name of Pharmacea—φαρμακεία—means literally the use of drugs (though perhaps only purgatives and abortifacients, not hallucinogens).

Such an observation would be an attempt to “give a rational explanation,” as the Loeb translator Harold North Fowler puts the words of Socrates; but the Greek is σοφιζόμενος φήμι, and the first element of this is the origin, via σόφισμα, of our word sophism. A sophism is a piece of fake wisdom. Socrates has not got time for such things—

and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things. And so I dismiss these matters and accepting the customary belief about them, as I was saying just now, I investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.

Socrates is put to death for his investigations, at least insofar as he has corrupted other persons through them. As his character puts it in the Apology (19b–c), the accusation against him reads,

Socrates is a criminal and a busybody, investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger and teaching others these same things.

As I. F. Stone shows in The Trial of Socrates (1989), there is more to the story than Plato lets on in the telling. But if one is going to say that the Delphic commandment is dangerous, one might specify whether one is of the party who believe that obedience to such a commandment, however misguided, can merit imprisonment and death.

Tourists on the path to the stadium

Today, in what was once the Greek world, people are being imprisoned for questioning their betters. The questioners’ thoughts are considered dangerous. I live in that part of the world. You may call me a settler, returned to the geographical roots of my intellectual culture, though this is not why I moved to Turkey. The people called Turks are settlers too. When they arrived a thousand years ago, under their leader Alp Arslan, they set a good example for the local Greeks. Half again as long before that, Greek settlers on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor were setting a good example. Ionia, where Thales had lived, was more liberal than Athens, where the bizarre teachings of Anaxagoras about the sun and moon were not welcome. By his own account, as reported by Plato in the Phaedo (beginning at 97b), Socrates did not think much of those teachings either; but as he said this, he was waiting for the poison that the Athenians had condemned him to drink for his own teachings.

View of far mountain between cypresses

The Aeon article about knowing oneself is by Bence Nanay. His name can be read as Turkish slang. It is then a singular form of

We call b.s.

This is what Emma González said—she of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida—about claims that “nothing could have ever been done to prevent” the killings of 17 of her schoolmates.

View down into the valley between cypresses

Ms Gonzalez is right to call b.s. on the lame excuses of politicians. Mr Nanay is right to call b.s. on the notion that we have a fixed nature, which we should learn and then act on. Students in Turkey take multiple-choice examinations, and the numerical results determine where they can go to school. Some students believe that the numbers determine who they are, or at least how much they can accomplish. Here I call b.s.: Bence nanay!

Tourists on path beneath trees

I agree with Speculum Mentis of 1924 (also looked at in the Thales article), where Collingwood observes, concerning self-knowledge,

a mind which is ignorant of its true nature does not in the fullest sense possess this nature. The true nature of the mind does not exist ready-made somewhere in the depths of the mind, waiting to be discovered.

This seems consonant with how Mr Nanay ends his own essay:

As André Gide wrote in Autumn Leaves (1950): ‘A caterpillar who seeks to know himself would never become a butterfly.’

I can agree with Gide, and thus with Nanay, if the caterpillar seeking self-knowledge would conclude that it was simply a caterpillar, because it never found a butterfly deep inside. Not the butterfly, but only the possibility of becoming it is there.

General view of archeological site from higher up on the slope

Having learned of its existence, probably through a tweet, I read Mr Nanay’s essay when it came out. I thought it should be understood as a warning, not against knowing oneself, but against classifying oneself. Nanay suggests as much, at the beginning of his closing paragraph:

Knowing thyself is an obstacle to acknowledging and making peace with constantly changing values. If you know thyself to be such-and-such a kind of person, this limits your freedom considerably.

I suppose being a kind of person is being in a class of persons. It could be the class of introverts, or the class of mathophobes, or of analytic philosophers, or of fans of the Beşiktaş football team, or of persons born under the sign of Gemini. To stop at such a classification is not to know oneself, but to refuse to know any more.

Remains of the Temple of Apollo, with six standing columns

I returned to Nanay’s essay when I saw that his name had become a curiosity on Turkish Twitter. This caused me to return to Collingwood: to Speculum Mentis, as quoted above, and also to his 1940 travel book, The First Mate’s Log: Of a Voyage to Greece on the Schooner Yacht ‘Fleur de Lys’ in 1939. Collingwood was fifty during the voyage; his companions were American, British, and Canadian students from Oxford; their captain was Chadbourne Gilpatric, who died in 1989 as a “retired official of the Rockefeller Foundation.”

Tourists approach the Treasury of the Athenians

During the voyage, the crew docked at Itea and went up to Delphi. For Collingwood, the visit was a pilgrimage, precisely because of the commandment to know ourselves: a commandment that the founding prophet of philosophy was willing to die for.


It may be just as well that I did not review Collingwood’s words about Delphi before seeing the site for myself last summer. I had read The First Mate’s Log, as I had read all of Collingwood’s other published works (except Outlines of a Philosophy of Art, superseded by The Principles of Art, though probably still interesting, if only it could be found [note added, March 27, 2021: I found it]). From the Log, I had not specifically remembered the words about Delphi. I experienced the site in my own way, perhaps less poetically than Collingwood, if one accepts his words. For him,

Sunrise at Delphi is Apollo’s theophany: the apparition of the god who was not merely light but enlightenment; the god whose terrible command ‘know thyself’ men have been trying to obey ever since it was first given. Unless you can look at the scenery of Delphi with some sense of that command, and of the inexorability which makes it divine to you, whatever religion you profess, you are not seeing Delphi.

Shall we call b.s. here? Perhaps I did not really see Delphi; still I made my own report in “Hypomnesis.”

Mountain valley in setting sun; bush of pink flowers in left foreground

As Plato sometimes ends his dialogues with a story told by Socrates, so I want to end with Collingwood’s full report. To me it is the philosophical apotheosis of travel writing. Philosophy itself is a voyage. Leo Strauss used the metaphor in his 1952 critique, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History”:

By the very fact that [the historian] seriously attempts to understand the thought of the past, he [sic] leaves the present. He embarks on a journey whose end is hidden from him. He is not likely to return to the shores of his time as exactly the same man who departed from them. His criticism may very well amount to a criticism of present day thought from the point of view of the thought of the past.

I confess to being not so impressed at Strauss’s attempt at poetry. But then I think Strauss is too bent on criticizing his subject Collingwood to acknowledge what they may have in common. I briefly discussed Strauss’s criticism in the Thales article (and again in “Re-enactment”).

Another mountain landscape, under more sun

I was somehow impressed when I found Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shelved with the travel books in the library of my high school. I did not know what to make of the book, but I could see that it was at least an account of travel, be it across the north of the United States by motorcycle, or through the “high country of the mind.”

Roadside shrine with icons of mother and child and of a saint

Of travel books in the more traditional sense, I adore Southbound and Walking Home, the two volumes of “Adventures on the Appalachian Trail” (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2010), by Lucy and Susan Letcher. Called the Barefoot Sisters for how they hike, the writers tell us not only what they do on the trail, but what they think, as they engage in what is naturally a voyage of self-discovery for two young persons not long out of college. As Susan recounts at the beginning,

It would be a journey across the rumpled spine of the eastern mountains and an equally demanding passage across our own interior landscapes.

I wish more of my students in Turkey could be indulged in such a passage. My own was at an organic farm in West Virginia in 1988. I can only hope that doing chores at a place like the Nesin Mathematics Village can provide some small alternative today. Some Turkish students do insist on finding their own way, as Özge Samancı recounts delightfully in her graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint (2015). Samancı’s title is a command that must be obeyed, if the Delphic commandment is going to be obeyed.

Mountain landscape

Collingwood’s companions for his voyage to Greece were still students. He reports on the pleasure of observing them and just being with them. Here is the passage on Delphi, from pages 60–5 of The First Mate’s Log. I digitized the words with an ocr program; I corrected the errors by hand; I have indicated the page breaks.

We made breakfast—coffee and bread—put on our best clothes, and went ashore. Beside the jetty we found two cars offering their services. One of them we engaged for the return journey to Delphi, and packed seven of ourselves into it. Stephen Verney and the Doctor, like the energetic young Britons they are, slogged off on foot through the dust.

It was a hot day. From inside a closed car you do not see very much as you climb that hill. So when we stopped close to the Castalian spring and climbed out many of us were hardly prepared for the things that met their gaze. In particular, the five eagles which were calmly wheeling round and round the tops of the Phaedriadae were unexpected and rather astonishing.

By this time I was no longer anxious about my shipmates’ attitude towards Greece. All the same, taking them to Delphi was trying them rather high. We were, after all, a gang of tourists; and tourists usually visit places, and enjoy themselves in the places they visit, for certain more or less stereotyped reasons, singly or more often in combination.

Some tourists are scenery-hounds, interested in the beauties of nature. Delphi is by no means poor in natural beauty: the precipices above it, the valley below, the gulf at the foot of the valley, the mountains on its other side, are all fine scenery. I would not say of a man who went to Delphi for the scenery as Dr. [61] Johnson said of a man who should read Richardson for the story, that he had better hang himself. I should only say that he had missed the point, and that I should be ill at ease in his company.

Thus a fine sunrise is notoriously an enhancement of mountain landscape, and scenery-hounds are well advised to watch one. But sunrise in mountain scenery, as the tourists in Tartarin sur les Alpes watched it from the Scheidegg hotel, is one thing; sunrise at Delphi is another. Sunrise in the Alps is a beauty of nature. Sunrise at Delphi is Apollo’s theophany: the apparition of the god who was not merely light but enlightenment; the god whose terrible command ‘know thyself’ men have been trying to obey ever since it was first given. Unless you can look at the scenery of Delphi with some sense of that command, and of the inexorability which makes it divine to you, whatever religion you profess, you are not seeing Delphi.

Other tourists go to ancient sites as people go to museums, to see the visible relics of antiquity. For them, I think, Delphi would be disappointing. The Earth-shaker has dealt hardly with the Far-shooter. Of the temple which was once the most sacred place in all Hellas, there stands above its shattered base not one stone upon another. Few Greek temples anywhere have escaped destruction by earthquake; not one has been so completely destroyed as the temple of the Delphic god. And the buildings that once surrounded it have suffered hardly less. If Greek architecture is what you want to see, go to Athens, go to Bassae, go to Sunium, go to Agrigento, go to Olympia; do not go to Delphi.

Others again are moved by their sense of the past, [62] and enjoy visiting places where things have happened whose story has interested them. The past, for them, is dead; but they like thinking about it, and find they can think more vividly about this or that past event when they go to the place where it happened. There is much for them to think about at Delphi. But a tourist whose enjoyment of Delphi is the enjoyment of collecting topographical associations in order thereby to play more enjoyably with his idea of a dead past is not the companion I would choose.

Of these motives for tourism there is not one to which I am insensitive. But at Delphi they are thrust into the background, and I find myself not so much a tourist as a pilgrim. The company of philosophers, to which I belong, looks back to Socrates as its founder and prophet; and if a man looks to Socrates as his prophet the journey to Delphi is the journey to his Mecca.

Delphi was the place whence Socrates had that riddling command which his followers are still trying to obey. A friend of his, he tells us—I quote from Plato’s report of his words—‘once went to Delphi and asked the oracle whether any one was wiser than I. The oracle answered that there was no one wiser. Please do not shout me down’, he continued, and his followers must still beg the same indulgence before the court of their contemporaries.

The command given by the Delphic god to all comers was ‘know thyself’; and Socrates, he goes on to tell us, already knew himself for the most ignorant of men. The oracle about Socrates could not be false; but what did it mean? At last, after long doubt, he took it as a command of the god to himself bidding him examine [63] the wisdom of men who were reputed wise; and by degrees he found out that they were as ignorant as himself, and indeed more ignorant, because he knew how ignorant he was, and they did not.

This was no mere process of self-examination; still less a mere process of criticism and condemnation directed against the society in which he lived. Socrates was not acting in his private capacity. He had become, at Apollo’s bidding, the organ by which the corporate consciousness of the Greeks examined and criticized itself. And that is the function of his followers. Each one of them criticizes his neighbours’ ideas of what they are and what they are doing in order thereby to criticize his own idea of what he is and what he is doing; and tries to amend his own idea of himself in order to amend his neighbours’ ideas of themselves.

As the organ of his own society’s self-criticism the philosopher finds himself called to follow Socrates in the calling that led Socrates to condemnation and death. That call came from Delphi; and the philosopher who makes his pilgrimage to Delphi sees there, not merely the place where long ago an event happened which was important in its time and may still interest the historian, but the place whence issued the call he still hears: a call which, to one who can hear it, is still being uttered among the fallen stones of the temple: and is still echoing from the ‘pathless peaks of the daughters of Parnassus’.

A man who has grown old in the calling of philosophy will not expect men of half his age to hear in that call quite so much as he hears himself. But I do expect ‘the young men who go about with me’, as Socrates calls them, to hear it even if they know less [64] fully than I do what it implies. As I have said, we were a ship of philosophers. The call was addressed to all of us; and such a call is often heard no less loudly because the man who hears it is too young to understand all its implications. I would not for the world have explained to my friends what it was that made Delphi a sacred place for me. The question was not whether by some kind of suggestion I could make them think they heard something they did not hear. The question was whether they had such a sense of the philosopher’s calling as to make it a sacred place for them. That is what I meant by saying it was trying them rather high.

We spent all day on the site. In the evening, except Bob Cumming and John Moore, who went over the pass to visit the monastery of Hosios Loukas, we went to a new hotel, an hotel with real beds and running water. We washed ourselves in fresh water and soap, and afterwards, when we met for dinner on the balcony, looked at each other with strange eyes, wondering what had become of the sunburn.

15 July

Before dawn next day we were waked to see the sunrise. I was out and up the road by 4.40, and it was almost dark. When I got round the corner and in sight of the Castalian gorge, all the mountains were a dark opalescent grey, as if they were transparent but not yet illuminated by the light which the sun was soon to kindle inside them. Nothing seemed to have been made of rock and earth. The world was a vapour, which the coming of the sunlight would turn into solid substance.

[65] One by one the others arrived. We sat silent on the edge of a harvested field, the ravine dropping away before us. The sun shot his rays up and out from far below the horizon. They brightened and wheeled, diverging from a still unseen point that rose higher and higher. The cloud-banner that drifted southward from Parnassus was lit more and more brightly, until the whole east was a blaze, and into the blaze came Apollo. We breakfasted and went back to bed.

By lunch time we had again and more archaeologically visited the site, looking at details and trying to be intelligent about periods of construction. By that time John and Bob had rejoined us, having visited Hosios Loukas and eaten halva with the abbot. At three a bus went down to Itea, and we pretty nearly filled it. And by 4.30 we were sailing away.

The Barefoot Sisters have the self-awareness to know that they reek of b.o. to the people they meet when they leave the trail—even to the people they meet on the trail, who reek themselves:

The shelter was a jumble of people, gear, and packs … There was the familiar rank atmosphere of unwashed bodies, wet gear, and old sweat, but in the few weeks we had been on the Trail, I had ceased to mind it. It was a warm, woolly mammal scent, like a barn full of horses, and in my mind, the shelter smell had come to represent security and companionship.

Thus Susan Letcher again, from The Barefoot Sisters Southbound (page 42). I wonder how the crew of the Fleur de Lys smelled to the taxi driver who took them to Delphi.

Edited for style and clarity, June 5, 2018; March 27, 2021; and May 17, 2023.
Photos (taken in Delphi, as noted, July 12–14, 2017) added October 24, 2019

18 Trackbacks

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