Nosce Te Ipsum: So You Think You Know Yourself?

by Dennis Buckley,

To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight — and never stop fighting”. E.E. Cummings.

If you want to know yourself, first you need to observe yourself — study yourself — with a deliberate curiosity to learn not only of the who you are, but also the why, leaving no stone unturned. Having this depth of knowledge will help you identify the person you are — in truth — and in turn, instruct you on the things you need to do to become the person you aspire to be. This sounds obvious, but it’s harder than you might think.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “there are three things extremely hard, steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.

The way to accomplish this requires the courage and honesty of detached self-analysis as you explore the deepest folds of your inner world, shedding light on the depths of your psyche.

The Human Chameleon

There’s this great scene in the movie Rat Race; John Cleese plays an eccentric billionaire type and throughout the whole movie his assistant looks physically uncomfortable, looking askance at most moments; awkward in every sense of the word. The few occasions he speaks at all he would say the most ordinary, matter-of-fact things with a complete lack of emotion or emphasis.

Other than that he was silent.

He was wallpaper.

In the movie, Cleese organizes a contest which involves a no-rules race across the country where the winner gets one million dollars. The contestants convene in a meeting room to hear the rules; Cleese begins making introductions, and when it comes to the awkward, placid assistant, it’s, “Mr. Grisham, tragically, was born without a personality”.

An alarm went off in my head.

Wait a minute, that’s me” I thought.

Oh fuck, this is bad,” was my next thought.

For most of my life I felt like I was missing a piece. I felt incomplete. Not in the I’m-longing-for-my-other-half kind of missing, but more of chronic hollowness in my identity; I felt like a human question mark.

I moved around a lot as a kid, which meant establishing myself in a new school every few years, learning how to adhere to different molds; different social circles, friendships, environments, cultures, etc. Over time, I gradually lost my deep-rooted sense of Self, or more likely, I never developed it in the first place. Rather, I chameleoned my way through these times of change, trying to fit in instead of learning how to belong; it’s a subtle difference.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I did the important inner work, coming to terms with all my flaws and imperfections; all the bottled up fears and the anxieties, and all the other pieces of my seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

The way I began to solve this puzzle was by looking inward.

Nosce Te Ipsum

My girlfriend in college had a tattoo in black, emboldened ink on her forearm that read: ‘Nosce Te Ipsum’, or, Know Thyself. She told me what it meant early on when we started dating all those years ago, but we never had one of those long, drawn-out conversations of what the phrase really meant to her. Or what the significance of the phrase was at all, for that matter. Or maybe we did, I can’t remember. This was a time when my life motto was, ‘a life well wasted’, so such depth of conversation would have been lost on me anyways.

Know thyself?

Is that like some new-age, woo woo catch phrase for finding yourself or something?

It smelled faintly of a mid-life crisis at the time. Like leather sandals and goofy crystals tied around your neck with a purple shoelace. A generous dousing of patchouli. Ankle bracelets. I didn’t quite understand the maxim then, as someone still finding my way as well as myself, but I have a pretty good idea of what it means now.

I found that the significance of the phrase was decidedly less granola, and more godsend.

To know thyself, I’ve since learned, is to take an objective, detached look at your inner world and taking an honest inventory of your fears, anxieties, and insecurities, skills, and weaknesses. It also means evaluating your path and your purpose; your present condition in life.

To know thyself is to cultivate an internal place of sure-footed, rooted knowledge which will help guide you towards all the right decisions.

‘Do What You Have to do, and Know Thyself’

Pliny the Younger said, “each man is an excellent instruction unto himself provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close quarters”. When you observe yourself, you are in effect peeling back the layers of ego to see yourself for who you are. Once you expose your vulnerable, gooey center, that’s when you’re getting somewhere. Once you have a clear view of who you are, then you can figure out how to become the person you aspire to be.

Start by asking yourself some of these questions:

Who exactly do you want to be?

What kind of person do you want to be?

What are your personal ideals?

Whom do you admire?

What are their special traits that you would make your own?

In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes interpreted the adage nosce te ipsum as read thyself. As a response to the popular philosophy of the time that you can learn more from studying others than reading books, Hobbes believed you can learn more by studying yourself; studying the feelings that influence our thoughts and motivate our actions.

The Greeks have a word for this mindful self-study — prosoche — which is:

a call to attend to the inner world — and thus also to the outer world…

If you don’t even know yourself, what use could you possibly be to anyone else?

The world?

Master Your Inner World, then Worry About the External

Take the French nobleman and essayist Michel De Montaigne for example, who said:

whoever would do what he has to do would see that the first thing he must learn is to know what he is and what is properly his… [and] above all other things he loves and cultivates himself: he rejects excessive concerns as well as useless thoughts and resolutions.”

Rather than getting swept up in inane conversations and distractions, indulging in dead time instead fighting for alive time, you should practice being more mindful of yourself first. The same sentiment is expressed in Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus, in which Socrates uses the maxim ‘know thyself’ as his rationale for why he has no time for far-flung mythology or other impertinent topics of conversation.

“I have no leisure for them at all,” Socrates says, “and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.”

Try this thought experiment:

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus had a metaphor for cultivating the self-awareness and constant monitoring of one’s mind in all situations. In the Enchiridion, an instruction manual on how to live a content and tranquil life, he says that when dealing with external situations, you should act as if you’re a passenger who has temporarily gone ashore on a boat trip. Once you set foot on the sand, always keep one eye trained on the boat at all times (on yourself, you true character) and be prepared to return at a moment’s notice.

Similarly, Adam Smith conceived the idea of the impartial spectator. The idea of the impartial spectator is to pretend as if you have an idealized version of yourself, peering over your shoulder at all times, which should spur you to act as the best version of yourself in all situations, merely doing what your best self would do.

How do you act when someone is watching?

You probably stand a little straighter. Smile a little more. Maybe you’re a little more polite or make more of an effort to be helpful and kind to those around you. You likely project your best qualities when you’re being observed, especially by an authority figure, and the impartial spectator can be the carrot on the stick that drives you to become a better person, moment by moment.

Action by action.

Authenticity is the Way

Authenticity is a practice — a conscious choice of how we want to live”, says Brene Brown. “It’s a choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

This is the end game of knowing yourself.

Being mindful and studying yourself; reading yourself, as Thomas Hobbes invites us to do, is all about living your most authentic life, which also means allowing yourself to be vulnerable to the world. The more you know yourself, the better position you will be in to live the life you want to live and be the person you aspire to be. You have to take an honest inventory of yourself, and only then can you proceed in life with confidence and authenticity.

Once you turn your gaze inward, “fix it there and keep it busy”, Advises Montaigne.

Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself… I roll about in myself.”

Originally published at on January 14, 2016.