Know Thyself

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As Pope John Paul II correctly notes at the beginning of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, “The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings’, that is as those who ‘know themselves.’”

Reading even a few pages of Walker Percy’s wonderful book Lost in the Cosmos shows that most of us don’t really know ourselves. We know a lot about the world, the stars in the galaxy, and how to make trucks and pizzas, but very little about ourselves. It wouldn’t take much reading in ancient Greek philosophy to arrive at the same conclusion. Knowing ourselves is not our natural default setting. It requires effort, discipline, and wisdom.

And yet, if knowledge of ourselves is so important – important to our being as distinctively human beings – and if most of us don’t have it, how do we attain it?

One problem with the admonition “Know Thyself” is that we already live in a self-obsessed society. Plenty of young people, and adults, spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about themselves, paying endless attention to how they present themselves to others, so much so that one of songwriter Paul Simon’s famous lyrics is: “These are the days of miracle and wonder/

This is the long distance call/ The way the camera follows us in slo-mo/ The way we look to us all.”

I see many young people acting in everyday life as if they were being filmed. They are posing as if they were in a movie, wondering what the best shot, the best angle, would be. Do we want to encourage more of this obsessive self-absorption? Clearly not. But merely watching oneself isn’t the way to get at the truth about oneself; it is often merely another avoidance strategy.

For many years I have asked my students to fill out a “self-knowledge survey.” Most don’t finish it, but that’s my point. My question to them is, “Why was this so difficult?” It’s not as if I asked questions about integral calculus. These are questions about themselves, and since they presumably had spent their whole lives with themselves, the questions should have been easy. But most students didn’t find them easy, and it was clear they wished to avoid thinking about the questions altogether.

I once had a student who asked me whether she could answer the questions about her sister rather than herself: “I could do this really well for her, not so much for me.” Walker Percy also asks, “Why is it that in your entire lifetime you will never be able to size yourself up as you can size up somebody else – or size up Saturn – in a ten-second look?” The Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote: “Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” Would we see ourselves better, more honestly, if we could see ourselves with the eyes of others? In some ways, probably, yes.

Delphi

And yet other people’s judgments are often as shallow as our own. And their perspective on our inner lives is limited. My student thought she knew her sister well enough to fill out the “self-knowledge survey” for her, but it’s not so clear her sister would have agreed. Many of us feel that we’re “misunderstood” because our best intentions, along with our deepest thoughts, hopes, and dreams, often remain invisible to others. How could they know what I hold in my heart? Others can never really know the good I hope to do or the evil by which I am tormented.

So where am I supposed to get this all-important self-knowledge? This was one of the key questions that drove not only ancient philosophy but also, as Pope John Paul II suggests in Fides et Ratio, cultures and wisdom traditions around the world throughout time.

Christianity has always proposed its own distinctive answer: We can only “know ourselves” truly when we can see ourselves the way God sees us. As our Creator, He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows not only who we are, but who we are meant to be. He sees clearly, without invention or illusion, both the good and the bad, the way only someone who looks with the eyes of love can.

“Every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it,” wrote the authors – John Paul II among them – of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). How, then, to move forward in wisdom? The two passages John Paul II quoted in every one of his encyclicals were these:

Gaudium et Spes, 22: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For. . .Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

And Gaudium et Spes, 24: “the likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. . .reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

We come to know ourselves not by forsaking our obligations and loved ones in order to “find ourselves” on some mountaintop in Tibet, but in worship, receiving the sacraments, and loving one another as God has loved us.

“Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as God sees us.” We cannot fully find ourselves except through a free gift of self – to God and to others. This is the wisdom Christ brought; it is the Christian response to the challenge of the oracle at Delphi.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

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