When people today speak of self-knowledge, I suspect they have in mind something from the cult of self-realization. It would seem that coming to know oneself involves some kind of inner spiritual journey, a process of awakening which ideally leads to being comfortable in one’s own skin. I further suspect, however, that the effort to become comfortable with oneself really boils down to an effort to become comfortable with one’s misconduct, and our conscience makes this a sticky business—hence the journey.
In the ancient world, the Greeks had a very different cult of self-knowledge deriving from the famous inscription above the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi: γνῶθι σαυτόν (know thyself). If we imagine for a moment what it would have been like for an ancient citizen of Corinth or Sparta to enter through that entrance, into the numinous gloom of the temple, we can catch a glimpse of how far we are from warmed-over New Age therapy. In the context of the temple, the command to know yourself is a command to remember what kind of being you are, to remember that you are a mere mortal in the presence of the gods, to remember that you are a human being prone to all the folly which that involves. “Know thyself” means “know thy place.”
The early Christians inherited this saying from the pre-Christian Greeks, but they shifted the meaning. Self-knowledge for them invariably meant a realization of one’s own standing before the eyes of God. Like a pagan standing before the eyes of Apollo, the Christian must realize something of his own sinfulness, folly, and weakness. Unlike the pagan, however, the Christian stands before a God who loved him into being and calls him by name. This puts Christian self-knowledge into the logical space of face-to-face encounter:
The only fruitful self-knowledge, and the only true one, is that which grows out of man’s self-confrontation with God. We must first look at God and His immeasurable glory, and there put the question: “Who art Thou, and who am I?” We must speak with St. Augustine: “Could I but know Thee, I should know myself.”1
Humility, then, is the principal thing, but a humility mixed with the confidence of the beloved. We see here nothing of the New Age navel gaze by which the soul curls back upon itself like an ingrown toenail. Self-knowledge for the Christian looks up not in (although we may, at times, require an inward turn in order to meet the God who is more interior to us than we are to ourselves). “Know thyself” means for the Christian, “Know that you are a sinner, yes, but a sinner saved by love.”
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ (Sophia Institute Press, 1990), 47.↩︎