Know Thyself
Photo by Jason Leung / Unsplash

Know Thyself

What if to examine life means not to examine your own life, your own subjectivity, but rather literally to examine life?

A friend described these little pieces of mine as navel-gazing. He will soon be eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elijah (or like that man Werner Herzog made a film about). But that is his problem. I want to think about the navel-gazing question, because the little fucker may have a point.

Our culture - more precisely, the tiny part of the world about which I know a little and therefore happily describe as the entire culture of the known universe - prizes self-knowledge. This is not to say that it is often achieved. It is simply to say that it is seen as an ideal worth achieving. Radical honesty (which is better than its counterpart, conservative honesty), vulnerability, openness, therapy … the popularity of these things is an expression of the honoured place that the activity of self-examination has in our (sic) culture.

I write without any detachment or superiority. I am in fact a rather advanced example of how much the ideal is honoured. In a certain sense, I have devoted most of my life to the activity of self-examination and the pursuit of self-knowledge. If Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I can probably measure it out in diary entries where I extensively analyse and hypothesise and attempt to understand the endlessly fascinating phenomena that make up what I think of as myself. Existential necessity has in the course of my life compelled me twice to undertake regular and intensive therapy, and that therapy has mostly been also an exercise in self-examination and an attempt to understand myself. And for most of my professional life, I have studied philosophy, which is very commonly understood as the paradigmatic example of the pursuit of self-knowledge.

So I am not writing about something that I observe. I am writing about something that I participate in and even believe. And now I want to wonder if my faith is justified, if self-examination is as valuable as I have long believed it to be.


First an anecdote, and then something more theoretical.

A little while ago, I wrote about struggling to be creative. The spring has dried up, I said - or at least, I no longer have access to it. By the time I wrote about this, the struggle had been going on for a while. I didn’t know how to resolve it.

Then an idea came to me. I didn’t need to resolve it. I could wait for it to resolve itself (hopefully), and in the meantime, I could abandon all ambition of finding it. Instead, I could simply share beauty. I have probably read more philosophy than most of you and so I have had the luck to run into more philosophical beauty than you have. And I could simply share some of that beauty with you.

So that is what I sat down to do. I read aimlessly, or rather, with aim but without direction, allowing myself to be unsystematic, letting my eye linger where it wanted, letting it wander where it wanted. I tried to remember things that had moved me, things I had found sublime, things that I admired or loved or found helpful. And then I tried to describe these things in ways that honoured the original idea and made their beauty easier to see.

And as I was doing this I found - fuck! The spring was back. It was a different thing, I was swimming in different waters. But the basic thing was back - there was something true and beautiful going on, something that was real, something that I could stand behind regardless of how it was received.


Iris Murdoch writes very wisely and beautifully about this, so let me take you on a little journey through her thought.

She begins with this emphatic claim: “The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one.”

Another word Murdoch uses for ‘personal fantasy’ is ‘ego’, which she understands as ‘the proliferation of blinding self-centred aims and images’. And in the moral life (as in the artistic one), ‘the enemy is the fat relentless ego’.

Now consider: how is the ego maintained, how is it sustained? Among other things, by attention. This is a perfectly general feature of our appetites - the more we consume of something, the more we are consumed by it. The more we get, the more we want. The more attention you give to the personal fantasy, the more it is fed, the stronger it becomes, the more it needs to be fed.

‘In such a picture,’ says the sainted Iris, ‘sincerity and self-knowledge, those popular merits, seem less important. It is an attachment to what lies outside the fantasy mechanism, and not a scrutiny of the mechanism itself, that liberates. Close scrutiny of the mechanism often merely strengthens its power.’

Is this true? I do not know. But it is certainly disturbing. If it is even partially true, what should we make of our worship of authenticity and self-examination? Might our efforts actually be harmful?


Gnothi seauton, said the Oracle at Delphi: know thyself. And she judged Socrates to be the wisest man in Athens, from which millennia of philosophers have rather reasonably inferred that self-knowledge is a fundamental and fundamentally good philosophical ambition.

For his own part, Socrates himself says that the examined life is not worth living, which again has been taken to mean - examine your own life. But thanks to my “friend” Ben (acquaintance, really), another possibility of interpretation has been opened up. What if to examine life means not to examine your own life, your own subjectivity, but rather literally to examine life?

That is what Murdoch suggests. Instead of trying to understand the fantasy mechanism better, we would do better to turn our attention outwards. Instead of feeding the fat relentless ego the fuel of self-examination, why not attend to the Good and the Beautiful, to the reality of other people, to the wonder of the world and everything it contains?