Knowing How to Belong to Yourself

There’s a tension at the heart of self-knowledge

Posted Dec 14, 2016

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” Montaigne (1533-1592)

For the ancient Greeks, seeking self-knowledge was regarded as one of the most valuable pursuits a man could undertake. “Know thyself,” is inscribed on the Temple at Delphi, which was the most important shrine in classical Greece because people came here to seek knowledge of the future from Phythia, the priestess of Apollo. The questions might range from when a farmer should plant a crop to when a king might declare war. The answers Pythia gave were often cryptic and subject to multiple interpretations. She gave answers but those answers required work to understand.

It seems that knowing ourselves should be easy. After all, each of us is an expert on her own experiences and has access to her own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that no one else can have.  A common mistake is to assume that there is nothing more easily known than oneself. Knowing oneself is perhaps so difficult because we are simultaneously the inquirer and the object studied. It is difficult to get a good, right, or accurate perspective. It is similar to a middle age person who can no longer see things up close without taking off her glasses she needs to see things far away. Despite the difficulties in seeing oneself (literally and metaphorically), one must be able to do so.

Self-knowledge is not a luxury but rather a necessity. Not having self-knowledge can lead to very hurtful, harmful, and even catastrophic consequences. So how might each of us come to know herself?

The Oracle of Delphi has more to offer us about self-knowledge. While there are numerous other inscriptions at the temple, two others are prominent. The first is “Nothing in Excess.” The second is, “Surety, then calamity,” or alternatively, “A pledge then ruin.” Putting these maxims together is important for understanding the importance of self-knowledge and what it means to “know how to belong to oneself.”

Concerning nothing in excess:  self-absorption may be a significant barrier to self-knowledge. Self-absorption and self-knowledge are “near enemies,” which means that the unhelpful one (self-absorption) masquerades as the helpful one (self-knowledge). If you fail to see that who you are is also a matter of what you do and with whom you do those things and the identities you have (sister, brother, worker, citizen), then you end up with a very skewed view of yourself. In some ways, you may have too much trust in your capacity to know yourself making you unwilling or incapable of seeing or hearing how other people experience you.

Concerning surety, then ruin:  beware false certainty and assenting to false opinion. The false certainty can be about oneself or about others and their views. The two can be related. A person may be falsely certain about what she believes or more strongly, knows herself to be. This is an interesting instance of dogmatism; a person believes she already knows everything about herself that there is to know. Such a person may believe it impossible that she could ever surprise herself. She’ll also tend to believe that no one else has anything interesting to offer her about herself. Her feedback loop will be closed, which may produce a host of problems including a version of the self-absorption mentioned above.

It is true that each of us internalizes wholesale beliefs, values, and judgments about the way the world is and should be. This internalization is part of how we mature and how we come to see ourselves in the world. But if we take these as absolute certainties and never question them, we may become rigid if not dogmatic in our understanding of the world, our place in it, and who each of us is as an individual. But this may prove to be very damaging in part because we belong more to those beliefs and others who hold them than to ourselves. We may give far too much power to and place our trust in others to define us, which returns us to the maxim, “nothing in excess.”

All three maxims point to a tension about how much to trust yourself and how much to trust others. Most of us live that tension every day. One crucial dimension in coming to belong to oneself is knowing which of those beliefs, values, and judgments we inherit to disavow or reject because they do not fit with us or they cost too much to continue to hold.  At times we may be willing to go to extremes to hold onto beliefs even as all the facts buck against them. At other times, we may give up beliefs and values we know to be good and right for us far too easily. Not just recognizing but living this tension is an important step in knowing how to belong to yourself.

We are, at all times, involved in what Montaigne describes as the most important undertaking. He writes, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” This masterpiece is created only with right intention and attention, which necessarily requires knowing how to belong to oneself.