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.