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Do you know you?

How many of us can stand in front of a mirror and say honestly we know who is staring back?

How many of us really know ourselves: what makes us tick, why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe, indeed know, really know, what we believe?

Without knowing, how can we achieve our potential, live with purpose, enjoy a fulfilled life instead of being flotsam and jetsam on the changing seas of everyday life, forever looking for something more?

Self-knowledge should be our creed, our blueprint from which we build the philosophical foundations of our life.

Our education would be lacking if we weren't conversant in current affairs, if we couldn't talk about religion, science, politics, philosophy, psychology and sport, yet we seldom do, as Heraclitus suggested, search into ourselves. Is that because we're afraid our deepest fears about ourselves will be true?

Logic suggests that knowing ourselves should be the No. 1 subject in the curriculum of life. We work so hard at earning a living that we forget how to live and when we stand examining our watch at our retirement party, we have that deer-in-the-headlights look: what now?  

Who will we be if we don't have a job to define ourselves?

"Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power," Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching

Know thyself was inscribed on the wall of the temple at Delphi, where the meek and the mighty of the Mediterranean came to hear the priestess of Apollo prophecy. She mouthed the words, but the advice came from Apollo, the god of truth, light, music and the sun.

When a friend of Socrates' asked the oracle if anyone was wiser than the man who would become known as the father of moral philosophy - and one of the biggest influences on Western civilization - she said no.

That claim changed Socrates life, but not before he tried to prove the god of truth a liar. The man who had been a brilliant sophist set out to find someone wiser. He searched among the politicians, the poets, and the tradesmen and artisans. He finally concluded he was 'wise' because he was aware he was ignorant.

 "The meaning was that mankind are universally ignorant of the one thing it is most imperative to know, how to conduct their lives aright, how to "tend" their own souls, and 'make them as good as possible,'" A.E. Taylor writes in Socrates, the Man and His Thoughts. "And they are universally blind to this ignorance.

"Socrates is the one exception; if he, too, does not possess this supremely important knowledge, he knows its importance, and knows his own ignorance of it; he is, at least the 'one-eyed' in the kingdom of the 'blind' and the wisest of men, as men go."

Socrates proclaimed during his life and at the trial for his life that an unexamined life is not worth living and he refused to stop helping other people examine theirs.

"For if I tell you to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God and therefore I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living you are still less likely to believe me," he says in Apology. "Yet I say what is true...."


He felt it was his duty to convince people of their ignorance about the supreme importance of tending their souls. A study shows that 60 per cent of Canadians don't consider religion important in their lives, but many consider that they have an essence beyond the mere physical.

Socrates, like the Buddha before him, didn't get caught up debating whether there is an afterlife. To them living a good life now, and living it consciously, was important.

Socrates started his study of ideas early. At 17, he was influenced by Anaxagoras - who first proclaimed a universal mind - and by Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.

Socrates, in turn, was revered throughout the Greek world and was the mentor of Plato who greatly influenced Neo-Platonism, and whose beliefs are woven into Christianity. It is said that since the Golden Age of Greece philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato, which means to Socrates.

Almost every philosophy, every religion, every spiritual teacher tells us to listen to that still, inner voice, the whisper we ignore or don't hear because of the noise of our lives.

Socrates had such a voice, but he also periodically went into trances and once, during the Peloponnesian War, stood unmoved for 24 hours as his fellow soldiers set up their beds around him, and watched. 

Going into a 24-hour trance on the bridge might not be a good idea, but we do have that voice. Unlike us, Socrates listened to, and was guided by, his daemon. Indeed, when it didn't tell him not to drink the hemlock, he did because if he escaped - as his friends had arranged and his jailers hoped - he would have untrue to himself.

We are unlikely to be condemned to death for our beliefs, but we can follow Socrates' example and live our life by them - but first we must examine our lives, and discover ourselves.

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for,” he wrote.

He also wrote “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife (or husband), you'll become happy; if you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher."

And what better philosopher to emulate than Socrates.



More Transitions articles

About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]



The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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