A fundamental basis for Western philosophy, the maxim of gnōthi seauton translates as “know thyself”. For the ancient world, it served as the clarion call to obtain and seek out self-knowledge. Gnōthi Seauton was said to have been inscribed along with the words mēden agan (“nothing to excess”) in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. In Protagoras, Plato praised the “laconic brevity” of these Delphic maxims, inspired as they were from Spartan culture. (1)
“Know thyself”, though such a simple statement, is not entirely straightforward. It may be interpreted and stressed in myriad ways. You could think of it in terms of limitations, of understanding your various strengths and weaknesses; what you are capable of and what you are not. You can look at it in terms of mortality, in knowing and accepting that as a human you are not immortal and will die. You may see it in terms of knowing your place, in your family, work, and social networks. You may interpret “know thyself” as Socrates did, as a process of questioning and testing one’s most fundamental beliefs.
In his essay on social personalism and self-knowledge, Thomas Buford provides an interesting analysis. Using the definition and grammatical structure of the words, he arrives at the following interpretation: gnōthi seauton means “start gaining a proper discernment of what you are, what you are to be, and what you are to do.” (2)
The word discernment is key, for it offers up a clue about self-knowledge. To discern is to separate out, distinguish and perceive. It’s the ability to judge effectively and see clearly. According to Buford thesis then, self-knowledge is a process of insight; of shedding light on things in order to see them clearly and filter them accordingly.
The Pan-Hellenic sanctuary at Delphi served as the spiritual center of ancient Greece for over a thousand years. Based on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, it was the site of the Temple of Phoebus Apollo, the Pythian Games, and the Delphic Oracle, arguably the most famous and reliable oracle in the ancient world. The oracle’s heyday was between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.
Delphi has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The name Delphi is derived from the Greek word delphýs, meaning “uterus”, or “womb”. (3) Originally the site was dedicated to Gaia (Mother Earth) and was guarded by Python, later killed by Apollo. This progression suggests that the original divine feminine serpent energy was later overtaken by divine masculine solar energy. The female energy remained however, in the form of oracles, priestesses known as the Pythia who delivered the divine messages. The Pythia sat on a tripod over a crevice in the earth, and spoke her messages in a semi-trance. The divinations were then interpreted and delivered by the Apollonian priests to the seeker.
Delphi was regarded by the Greeks as the centre of the earth. The site was believed to be determined by Zeus, who released two eagles flying in opposite directions to find the centre of the world. They passed over Delphi, and as a result the site became the sacred resting place of the Omphalos, a religious stone artefact meaning “navel”.
Cities, rulers and ordinary individuals alike consulted the oracle at Delphi, and I can’t help but wonder if the inscribed maxim of gnōthi seauton at the entrance of the temple helped remind all who sought the oracle that the true oracle lies within. Perhaps the words were put there as a warning and reminder to always test out any information given to you by someone else. It’s imperative to cultivate discernment when approaching the oracle.
A famous example come to mind. In the 6th century BCE, Croesus of Lydia consulted the Delphic oracle about waging war on the Persians. The oracle answered that if he did make war on the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire. Croesus took this as a favourable response, and allied himself with certain Greek city states in order to attack. However, it was he, and not the Persians who were defeated. His mighty empire was destroyed. The prophecy was fulfilled, but not his own interpretation of it.
The Center of the Self
In today’s age, Delphi might be understood as a symbol for personal evolution, spirituality, and the inner self. Delphi was dedicated to Apollo, the god of the sun and of light. It was the center, or navel, of the world. One travelled to Delphi to consult its oracle for answers; a space where intuition, guidance and insight flows more naturally. It was the most sacred place in ancient Greece, a place where you went to contact the Divine. And the advice that was given to all who ventured there was to “know thyself”. All of this reflects the notion that each of us stands at the center of our own reality. We stand at the center of our own being – our self. As Delphi existed at the center of the world for the Greeks, I am at the center of my own world. You are at the center of your own world. To know yourself, to seek self-knowledge is, then, to practice the art of being in the center of the self.
Many philosophies, religions and systems of thought emphasise the importance of “being centered.” In the Hawaiian tradition, the place for being centered is the piko, or navel. Taoists and Buddhists refer to the center of one’s being as the Hara, also located near the navel. It is believed that the navel, being the original connection to existence within the womb, still acts as a conduit after birth, connecting the individual to the Divine, or the great source of life. When we plug in to the center, we connect and align to this source.
In the Christian tradition, centering prayer is a method for inducing contemplation. This is meant to facilitate a meeting point between the self and the Divine. Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, identified what he termed the Self. This is an archetype formed out of individuation, or the process of integrating the personality. The Self encompasses all conscious, unconscious and egoic aspects of the psyche, and is seen as the archetype for centeredness. It shines the light of consciousness on the ego. Jung believed that the Self acts as a deep, inner, guiding factor. Not unlike an oracle.
Delphi, seen as the axis mundi of the ancient Greek world, meant that it served as the connection between Heaven and Earth, being the place around which all else turned. The maxim gnōthi seauton is a reminder that this connection to Heaven may also be found in ourselves.
Seen through the lens of the ancient Greeks, self-knowledge is one’s ability to claim the power of Apollo (enlightenment and truth) to take responsibility for our actions and how we live life. Through self-knowledge we may develop own philosophy. It is a process concerned with self-awareness, choice, meeting with the Divine, and resonance.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem Gnothi Seauton stresses the importance of all of these aspects. I particularly like these lines:
Thou art the law;
The gospel has no revelation
Of peace and hope until there is response
From the deep chambers of thy mind thereto,—
The rest is straw.
Plato (1992). Protagoras. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.
Buford, T.O. (2011) Know Thyself: An Essay in Social Personalism. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.
Rendich, F. (2013). Comparative Etymological Dictionary of Classical Indo-European Languages. E-book.