This note is all about the me that we are. Not the me that we think we are or the me that we are told we should or could be. Just the me that sits behind the i and helps delineate you from everyone else.
Descartes suggested that the process of thinking helps confirm that i exist, that i am not simply dreaming, and that i am not the pawn of an evil power. Of course, it is quite possible that thinking is something that i do in a dream, and that my thinking dream is controlled by an evil power. Except Descartes pondered that possibility, too- and the shortfalls in his logic have occupied budding philosophy students ever since.
Who is the me behind the i? Grammatically, we should be identifying these labels to more accurately reflect who is thinking or stating what. Only that is not how our minds ponder such things, is it? Our mind considers i and me to be one and the same. If that is the case, which one is watching me when i think? Is it just an accident of language that me doesn’t watch i think?
Who am i? – Educating you about me
It’s not quite as quirky as it sounds. You should know about me – in fact, you should be intimately familiar with the workings of me. Naturally, i am talking about your me and not my me. My me is enough of a mystery already, so it makes little sense to add a foreign investigation to your own efforts to Know Thyself.
Only that simple little task is not so easy either, is it? The me that is i has a habit of misrepresenting the world that is relayed to i, to the extent that me must wonder exactly how much of the perceptions i sees me acknowledging are actually a reflection of reality, and how much is a reality that i arranges to keep me happy. In an ideal world, me, i and we would all agree to disregard such skeptical thinking as the cynicism of ignorance. But this is not an ideal world, and even if it turns out that it is, my version of that ideal world may be hiding those dainty shades of perfection.
Can we really Know Thyself?
In her book “A Mind Of Its Own”, The author Cordelia Fine compulsively grinds readers through the workings of their ineffectual selves with gleeful precision, somehow managing to sound chirpy as she dismantles the last vestiges of self assurance, self confidence and self understanding available to the average human being. The book’s subtitle clarifies the aim… “How your brain distorts and deceives”.
You can see from the chapter headings that there is not a lot of me left untouched by this interrogation. It seems that an entity referred to as “my brain”, is responsible for altering pretty much everything i experience to reflect whichever makes me feel most comfortable. The i or me that is the brain distorts my world-view input so we will continue to think that life is worthwhile, and that i am worthwhile, too. Of course, we all can – and should – argue that these tests and studies and anecdotes are a terrific reflection of the flawed state of society and the bulk of the population but they do not really apply to i. This is the well known “the bulk of people rank themselves as above average” effect, something in full view when mainstream media decries this or that act of horror, and the lack of activity by those who could have done something to stop it. Media editors write the articles to elicit the “i would have done something!” response, and it’s good for business when the ranks of indignant feel driven to comment and talk about how they would have acted if faced with similar circumstances. Again, this is something tackled in the book. The key point is not to praise or denigrate the book – but to point to the large pool of research that suggests our world-view is based on truth and clarity only when we assign relative values to those terms.
Surely we can change – or ‘recalibrate’ our world-view?
Maybe. My first coherent outcome from all these ponderings is to propose that Knowing Thyself should be something taught right through school. If these internal failings in our digestion of reality exist then we should do everything in our power to fix the lens that causes this distortion. There is no benefit to be had in leaving this until the later, adult, years as only a fraction of the population will ever embark on a study journey of self awareness without being lured by the power of a financial gain or some driving theological/spiritual imperative, and these particular baubles will cause their own distortion.
But we are then confronted with an awful term that has been passed on by the proponents of post-modernism. There is a concept referred to as the simulacra. It’s not a ocean-edge shellfish, nor is it a battery powered massage device. ‘Simulacra’ refers to a representation of reality that is a copy but a copy shorn of the meaning of the original. Jean Baudrillard is most readily identified with the concept. It’s well worth reading and thinking about but be warned, once identified as a concept, the expressions of simulacra become more and more visible. Fortunately, you, i and we can take comfort in the thought that this is really just academic navel-gazing, and degrees in Arts aren’t really worth the paper they are printed on. Truly, this is an important harbour of safety to cultivate, and the time will come when you will need it. You will need it because this idea of a rehashed concept being raised and praised, while being devoid of contact with its original meaning, has somehow become enmeshed into the societies of the developed world. Here’s why this frustratingly bland concept creates an issue when trying to recalibrate a world-view…
Let’s say we introduce “Know Thyself” into all levels of the education system. Let’s blithely dismiss the concerns and objections of those groups who are not really happy about such activities. Groups such as religious fraternities (my Bible is better than your Bible, we don’t need to understand ourselves – we just need to accept the light of Jesus/Mohammed/______ into our hearts) and the Pragmatically Practical People, who are focussed on driving the three “R’s” into every child, along with the best tools to help them make money, win friends and learn to influence people without wasting time on Liberal academic hokus-pokus! Let’s assume that these folk put aside their doubts, and support the initiative whole-heartedly. Our day-dream continues as we see a time where all children leave the education system with a coherent view of the fallibility of their world-view receptors. But is anything different in this brave new world? Will we simply have a generation of people who can see that the world is not what it seems but because of that they choose to take less of it as holding validity? Do we end up with a cynical population that doubt everything or a population that pursues their own interests selfishly, set adrift in a sea of relativity where everything is ok, so long as i want it to be?
How much is there to know about me?
Quite a lot. How much do you know about your physical self? Do you know why you eat what you eat, why you dress the way that you do, and the extent to which your thought processes are a reflection of where you were born and the environment in which you live as opposed to next-step advances from fight-or-flight reactions?
The full scope of all that is me can arguably be said to be greater than my ability to comprehend, and so we humans have developed a tendency to deflect to ‘higher authority’. Post Enlightenment, that higher authority may not be this or that religious text but the fact that we are acknowledging a lack of knowledge provides an opportunity for stepping aside from any requirement to know thyself. Why should i learn how my body or mind functions, when that is the job of a whole range of specialists, whose combined knowledge is much greater than anything i could accumulate in a single lifetime? While it is logical to acknowledge the limits of our own understanding – in fact, it could be seen as a sign of higher understanding to be able to clearly delineate the boundary between ‘i think’ and ‘i know’, there must surely be a level to which we should ascend to take advantage of a few millenia of societal history and development?
Would you be any better off knowing more about me?
Would greater self-awareness and self-understanding simply result in an introverted outlook on life? Wouldn’t a higher level of introspection blunt some of the wonder and excitement, passion, love and lust for life that we get from ‘just doing’? We are all born or develop into different primary character traits.Some people can read if they have to but proudly boast that the last time they read a book was 10 years ago. Some individuals are driven to excel or persevere in a single chosen field, and have no time nor resource to devote to something as oblique and opaque as “know thyself”.
It can be a perilous journey, the road to self. When you ponder the full scope of the objective, it becomes more understandable that some would choose to pack 3 months worth of sandwiches, and climb up to perch on a pole. Those who do so are often locked in a battle with the spiritual world-view, seeking to gain a greater grasp of where square pegs really belong in a universe full of round holes. Yet this can be seen as side-stepping or maybe even pole-vaulting around and over the day-to-day minutiae of knowing thyself. In the search for the over-riding answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, we can remove ourselves too far from the art of simply living. Yet isn’t that what a call to know thyself is? Isn’t it also just an excuse to focus on the past or the unknowable to the exclusion of being better at the difficult job of making it to our individual expiry dates having lived a full and worthwhile life?
What of the 7 deadly sins?
Imagine a world free of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, acedia, wrath, envy, pride and vainglory. Sounds rather dull, doesn’t it? Would a search to know thyself be a blueprint for attaining perfection? If we know ourselves utterly, can that assist us each to become all that we could be, and help free us of the shackles mandated by those 7 sins? Wouldn’t a clear vision of the strings-from-the-sky hegemonic fields of power and control simply lead us into despair or apathy – triggering number 5 – acedia? If we return to the work of Cordelia Fine, we find on page 23 a marvellous highlighting of this exact point…
“…There is in fact a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. Their self-perceptions are more balanced, they assign responsibility for success and failure more even-handedly, and their predictions for the future are more realistic. These people are living testimony to the dangers of self-knowledge. They are the clinically depressed.”
This could be taken to mean that self-knowledge is another avenue to disillusion. This does not appear to be a logical outcome, nor a necessary result. Rather, it would suggest that there is a need to ensure that emotional supports are put in place whenever a pillar of self-worth is identified as little more than a crutch of delusion. Attacking a lifetime of warped world-views without seeking to understand the resulting potential for chaos and apathy would be the height of rascaldom.
For all the difficulties, there should be value in increasing the number of people who pay attention to the little characters perched on each shoulder, and to the one or more gatekeepers, commentators and directors who operate inside our conscious and subconscious minds. The 7 deadly sins will always find a way of asserting themselves, even if only in the form of ‘envy’, as some become irked at the ability of others to investigate, understand or communicate with and about their inner selves. A quest for perfection is riotously funny in its lack of self-awareness but the aim to do, and be, better should have some value?
Forget sin, how about virtue?
Knowing Thyself should help us to step away from the negative reflections of character and better achieve the more positive aspects of humanity. Few thoughts are new, and the Roman Philosopher King Marcus Arelius (clearly, this title is a tip ‘o the ‘at to the dialogue of the movie Gladiator) set out a number of virtues to aim for. Marcus Arelius is included at this point predominantly because his much-loved classic, “Meditations“, was originally titled “To Myself“. Prudence, moderation, justice and courage were high in his list of virtues, although there are more as you would expect, and fortunately ‘humour’ gets a look-in. How sad would be a world of perfection, virtue and truth, were it to be devoid of humour?
Looking at Marcus Arelius as a model, can a human know themselves completely, and retain the strength of will to fill a leadership role? Not a question to be scraped through in this post – but one that has some validity if we step into the world of mainstream today and ponder those who set themselves up for leadership roles – think Mr Putin in Russia, and the candidates for the Presidency of the United States. Now there’s a thought that’ll entail some thinking…