Know Thyself

Know Thyself by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast,
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

I must confess a certain fascination with the riddle of the world proposed by Mr. Pope in this lovely poem. Plato once pointed to the means by which the riddle is solved in his Allegory of the Cave and to my mind the “middle state” from which the pages of recorded history have been written has come to seem normal, but it is by no means natural.

If we content ourselves with the unsettling contradictions that abound in this middle state, I fear that our limited understanding of purpose will continue to lead to misguided and misapplied function. Despite eons of dedicated searching, human beings are no closer to knowing themselves – who they are, from whence they came and where they are going – and they continue to fight over which of the current theories is most accurate.

Are we, for instance, perfect beings who fell long ago? Are we a reincarnation, an iteration in a long chain of appearances in various forms on earth? Or are we simply the successful product, the latest and greatest version of a long line of evolutionary adaptations?

My own feeling is that human beings have long underestimated the role they are meant to play in the great cycles of creation that unfold on earth from day to day. They major in minors and prefer to wrestle over minutiae while leaving their larger responsibilities to chance.

If we are to solve this riddle, to rise out of the state described as “Chaos of thought and passion, all confused”, we must pierce the veil of false identity by shedding all vestiges of self-righteousness on the one hand and self-deprecation on the other. We must learn to come as we now are, warts and all, and accept one another as perfect (for the moment) starting points for what is yet to come.

That said, we must continue to set and accomplish high standards for ourselves while encouraging others to set and achieve high expectations for themselves. We’re in this together. Honest cooperation always trumps competition.

I believe that we can know ourselves, that we can assist others to know themselves. I am not convinced that we must labor perpetually in dark wisdom and rude greatness, in fact, I am confident that with the right approach we can rediscover the wisdom and greatness that was ours from the start.

6 thoughts on “Know Thyself

  • I really enjoyed the poem. There is a great necessity that exists today for people to take some time for reflection and consideration of ideals. It wasn’t too long ago that there was time allotted in the day for the careful well-rounded development of the higher, more noble passions that exist within us. These passions come across as urges, and just a few generations ago, people simply gave more thought to them in the simpler world they lived in compared with today’s world.
    Today’s world differs in degree of mankind’s accomplishments, and it seems like to me all of us are in a generation of transition where the explosion of technology has created a pace of life whereby if we are swept up in its current, there is little time and even incentive to consider the very questions of our reason to be. To deal with the ‘unsettling contradictions’ of life, you either need to engage in constant distraction, as in the endless self-gratification of entertainment, or you need feel its discomfort and not settle for a symptomatic refuge and actually do something about it. To explore what that is becomes a matter of purpose.
    This all becomes quite real and personal as you age, because your heart’s peace is a reflection of these critical decisions. Chronic stress should open us up for an honest inventory. To genuinely express thankfulness, you have to touch quite a deep part of yourself and be in unison where behavior, thought and feeling originate from the same place.
    And to finalize, we have to help each other. We each contain pieces of one another in a sense, and our own very sustenance depends on how well we care for each other. Thats what i conclude and what has reconciled many a contradiction for me, so it’s very personal. The folks that get it even have a greater responsibility, and you soon come to learn that your life has no reason to be were it not for the life of others, a fate collective. Will it be a fate restored? I hope so more than anything in the world.

  • We are certainly in this together. I appreciate the faith that you have in others and your expectations for greatness – it’s inspiring! Your point was excellent about self-righteousness and self-depracation – they are quite unattractive, unnecessary qualities. It’s good to be reminded that we can let our guard down and just express the best that we can be!

  • Accepting each other as we are is not saying it’s all right, but it is what it is for the moment. These aberrations in each will only be recognized so they can be corrected after, as Plato suggested, we leave the bondage and artificial atmosphere of the cave. A beginning is recognizing the state of the cave with its illusionary existence and be willing to move towards the light; adjusting as our vision acclimates. This requires the inclination to a humble and repentant heart. Thanks for this inspiring post.

  • The typical programming of the human mind and heart sets up this contradictory, no-win pattern. It takes something to re-orient the base of understanding so that the principles and elements of truth replace the conflicing falsities that have ruled both conscious and subconscious mind for so long as to seem normal.

    I notice that each of your posts exhibits this function of carefully replacing falsity with truth, but it is for each one to actualize the opportunity so afforded.

  • Greatly appreciate, your offering of the “Allegory of the cave”.
    A piece of literature I read for the first time today, which was accompanied by a deep sense of the fitness of things.
    Eternally grateful for your provision, guidance and inspiration.
    I love the Truth!

  • While we have the responsibility to do our best in every moment, one person can’t do it all. It takes a web of people to do it, and I also believe it takes a web of people to make knowing yourself possible. There is only so much that you can see from behind your own eyes, and sometimes an outside perspective is critical. If we are going to know ourselves as a species, it will be built on the efforts of many.

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