Thursday, February 12, 2009


An Old Saw and a New One

In a University of Chicago dissertation supervised by Paul Shorey, Eliza Gregory Wilkins investigated the adage "Know Thyself" in Greek and Latin Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Libraries, 1917) and found the following different shades of meaning in the Greek saying γνῶθι σαυτόν (in Latin, nosce te ipsum) — know your measure, know what you can and cannot do, know your place, know the limits of your wisdom, know your own faults, know you are human and mortal, and know your own soul. All useful things to know, no doubt.

In light of the ancient popularity of the maxim, I was interested to see Menander's dissent (fragment 181 Kassel and Austin):
In many respects "know thyself" was not well said. For "know others" would have been more useful.

κατὰ πόλλ᾽ γ' ἐστὶν οὐ καλῶς εἰρημένον
τὸ γνῶθι σαυτόν· χρησιμώτερον γὰρ ἦν
τὸ γνῶθι τοὺς ἄλλους.
In our narcissistic, psychoanalytic age, it might be healthier for an individual to turn his gaze away from himself now and then. I propose a different maxim — "know what is outside yourself" (nosce quod est extra te ipsum). Take an interest in something other than yourself for a change.

I have not seen Pierre Courcelle, Connais-toi toi-même de Socrate à Saint Bernard, 3 vols. (Paris, 1974-1975), or Hermann Tränkle, "ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ. Zu Ursprung und Deutungsgeschichte des delphischen Spruchs," Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumswissenschaft N.F. 11 (1985) 19-31.

An update via email:
Ave Mike,

You see what when you venture to offer even a mildly philosophical view. Controversy and faction! You enlist with the Nosces and the Nescis are sure to get on case, demanding at the very least equal time to put their case for ostrichism."If you look around at what's happening in the world, you'll only get more depressed and angry. Stick your head deep in the sand and never look up!"

Phillippus Struthiocamelus

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