The Path to Self-Knowledge

In his Metaphysics, echoing a theme already present in the writings of his master Plato, AristotleAristotle remarks on the difficulty of attaining real knowledge of the things that, by their nature, in a certain sense “ought” to be fully knowable: “it is our task to start from what is more intelligible to oneself and make what is by nature intelligible intelligible to oneself” (Metaphysics 1029b 01-13). He was there referring to pure essence or being (or, perhaps, to the Aristotelian “God”, the purely immaterial being that eternally thinks itself totally), but we encounter this same phenomenon in our own lives wherever we turn.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in our knowledge of ourselves. Because of our intellectual nature, which permits us a self-awareness that is, so far as we know, denied to any other animal on earth, we can “see” our own inner selves directly. Philosophers today call this “first person access”, and while some deny it, it seems enough of an irreducible element of our experience as to totally resist elimination. But as Hegel would say, the goal of perfect self-knowledge is equally undeniably a “mediated” goal: we must attain it via a delphilong process of struggle. For despite the special access we have to our own thoughts and beliefs and sensations and emotions, we remain as profound mysteries to ourselves until we take on the arduous and lengthy task of attaining self-knowledge. “γνῶθι σεαυτόν”, as the Delphic oracle stated: “know thyself”.

There are numerous reasons for the difficulty we encounter in attaining this self-comprehension: our own desires, emotions, urges and appetites seemingly come out of nowhere, sometimes driving us powerfully to act against our own best judgment. Our own flaws continually (and unpleasantly) surprise us, and remain stubbornly impenetrable to the arguments of reason. Furthermore, it is a universal human experience to be surprised by our own capacity to love: perhaps it is a first love for a beautiful man or woman, perhaps it arises in an unstoppable flood on the birth of our first child; perhaps we discover an unexplainable passion for a particular intellectual pursuit or a style of art or literature. And we can equally discover our own surprising capacity for tremendous virtue and equally tremendous vice.

This lack of understanding of our own selves is a key factor in our lack of understanding of others. There are few things more difficult than truly understanding another person. Working one’s way through Heidegger or Wittgenstein may strain our minds to the limit, but if we have the mental agility then the project is, to a certain extend, amenable to our own natures and abilities. But genuinely putting oneself in another’s shoes, genuinely grasping the warp and weft of another person’s experience, motivations and character, goes deeply against our own grain in fundamental ways. In particular, we are irremediably four elementslinked to our own materiality, our own “materia signata”, as Aquinas put it, those particular quantities of air, fire, earth and water than make us up, to use the ancient metaphor for the fundamental elements of the material world. Our material composition means that the phenomena of our minds are powerfully rooted in our own physicality: our habits, patterns of thought and emotionality are anchored in the neural makeup of our brains, and we cannot simply “cast it off” and take on a different matter, with its own peculiar structure and character. As a result, adopting the point of view of another person, in all its richness and complexity, ends up being a tremendously challenging endeavor, one that most people simply never attempt to master.

Shakespeare, in his great tragedy Othello, touches upon multiple facets of this very human situation. Of all the characters in the play, only the ferocious and vengeful Iago has any othellocomprehension of the delicate web of passions, beliefs and vices that go to make up human character, and he uses this knowledge to further his devious ends, attaining his goals masterfully without the other characters having any idea about what is going on until it is all too late. But despite his dramatic knowledge of human nature, Iago too suffers from a blindness that ends up being fatal for him as well: he has no inkling whatsoever of the value of the powerful capacity of the human person to live genuine virtue and love profoundly, purely and selflessly. Where others see beauty, goodness and love, the vicious “ensign” can only rage about the sexual corruption he sees seething beneath of the surface of every human face. And all too often, Iago’s blindness is our own.

Given this situation of seemingly connatural blindness, where can we turn in order to be able to escape from ourselves and enter into the world of the other? Surprisingly for many, philosophy turns out to have much to say, for human nature is a topic that has fascinated philosophers for millennia. Indeed, it is a realm where nearly everyone who has written with seriousness on the issue has something important to contribute. This strangely harmonious cacophony of partially disagreeing voices bears witness to the tremendous complexity and depth of our shared human nature. And in turn the knowledge of human nature that we can gain through a careful and sympathetic reading of the great thinkers of our tradition provides us with a valuable bridge into the souls of others.

A classic example of a profound discussion of one aspect of human nature over the centuries is that of the relationship between what we might term as “intellect” and “will”. Philosophers from many traditions have recognized that there are two aspects of the soul, two powers, corresponding approximately to a truth-seeing and a good-desiring part. The platoclassical position, exemplified by the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, does not recognize precisely what we would call “will”, postulating instead such faculties as appetite and passion (“thumos”) in Plato, or desire (“orexis”) in Aristotle. In either case, these two Greek thinkers, and their later followers, clearly privileged the truth-seeking aspect of our soul over the good-desiring part. Later thinkers in the medieval Christian hegeltradition postulated “will” as a faculty of similar or even greater stature in our inner life than intellect. Later thinkers extended the reach of this faculty to the point that they subordinate reason and intellect totally to the will, as we see in thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

However one sees the outcome of this age-old debate, we do not need to adopt either of the more “pure” positions in order to become aware of the profound importance of both of these aspects of human experience and conduct. In particular, we can recognize in ourselves, and consequently in everyone else, the intense and constant battle one must fight in order to tame the “blind will” and harness it to become a useful tool for the advancement of our own lives and adam smiththose of others. And indeed, this is a struggle we cannot avoid, if we are going to live successfully within society, as Adam Smith (following Epicurus) points out (cf. A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, II.ii.2.1). It may be a battle that is never fully won, but any progress attained is worthwhile, according to the universal experience of those who have advanced far along this path.

Hence, when we are in wonderment before the seemingly incomprehensible motives of other human beings, we can recognize the operation of these two facets of human nature, intellect and will. And we can furthermore recognize the universal human desire, albeit often hidden and squashed by the pure force of habit, environment and biology, to rationalize one’s life and learn to live more intelligently and consistently. In continually recognizing this universal characteristic of the human spirit, we can return to ourselves wiser and stronger, enriched by lessons about the struggle and the possibility of victories along the way. We see more deeply into ourselves, illuminating what before seemed impenetrably dark, and we recognize our own capacities, even if they be largely dormant, for the development of inner freedom.


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