During the last 2,500 years, almost everybody took a liking to the great Socratian proverb: “Know Yourself”. It is like you are encouraged to free yourself by the act of thinking. But why is it that people, even if they are impressed by the proverb and prepared to bend their knees before it, only do so as an exception from the rule? If it were easy to do what the proverb demands, then it would have vanished from our brains a long time ago.
“Know Yourself!” is a moral imperative that has to be permanently repeated because people would not come up with the idea by themselves. Knowing yourself is not what comes naturally when you think. It is actually the opposite. Thinking is basically about defending against ideas that would be insufferable for individuals or groups. Knowing oneself is probably the highest degree of insufferableness.
“Much is monstrous, nothing is more monstrous than man”, is one of the basic verses in the entry-choir of “Antigone” by Sophocles. For humans who wish to see themselves as images of God, loved by God, and ethical beings transporting human rights to the deepest corners of the universe, this is a pathological contradiction.
As soon as, therefore, knowing yourself means you have to accept the monstrosity inside the human being, you no longer perceive it as self-knowledge. Self-awareness will automatically meet with resistance as soon as a certain fear appears at the horizon, namely the fear that you will have to understand yourself more as your projection of the devil than as something created by the beloved God you had conceived as so very similar to yourself.
The imperative demand “Know Yourself” is offensive for human narcissism. Living up to the mandate as formulated in the proverb is only possible to the extent you can cope with the fear of your own (sexual) drive. Humans prefer issues received from far away: perception of God and the beginnings of the world, perception of an after-life, perception of paradise and the end of the world. But man does not at all like the perception of what is nearest and dearest to him. He is afraid of the truth.
Our perception of what is good, ethical or moral would probably be totally different if we were better able to withstand the perception of the monstrous. Sophocles showed us the abyss we would find inside ourselves if we had the courage to know ourselves:
“Birds that fly happily,
He catches them to kill.
Wild animals of all species, too,
Even what breeds in the salty sea,
He catches with plaited nets.
Clever, prudent man, he conquers
With art and cunning
Whatever flew free or climbed mountains.
He puts the joke around the shaggy horse
And around the stubborn mountain goat.”
Sophocles needed no imperative. And today, too, only all those many people who think of themselves as having already delivered enough of what was demanded need imperatives. They believe that all that remains for them to do is encourage others. But even if the others start knowing themselves, this must not end in them perceiving the monstrous, and if they do, they will be subjected to contempt.
The request “Know Yourself” looks upon humans as they are. However, people find it easier to discuss how they should be. Because then we see our beautiful concepts of ourselves, rather than our actual selves. Much in the world is monstrous, but nothing is as monstrous as man, is what Sophocles says. But who is interested in this kind of self-perception?
(translated by EG)