Know Thyself

You think you know yourself. We all do. But we’re wrong. We are opaque to ourselves, perhaps more than we are even to other people. This is because we don’t watch ourselves, nor do we listen to ourselves. We ignore ourselves so that we don’t have to think too carefully about what kind of people we are. We lie to ourselves about who we are, constantly, and we believe the lies, because they are more flattering than the truth.

You have ideas about what you should value, and you probably think that you actually value those things. But ask yourself, “If a person holds such a value, how does he act?” Then compare your answer to this question to how you actually act. The discrepancy should disturb you. You do not value what you think you value. You do not love what you think you love. You do not worship what you think you worship. And you can tell because you do not act as you know the person you claim to be would act.

Nietzsche pointed out that we do not know ourselves because we have such a strong incentive not to know ourselves. We have every reason to distort our self-image, to portray ourselves in a more favorable light. For that reason, self-knowledge is in short supply. To know yourself, you must watch yourself as if you were watching another person. Resist any instinct that smacks of self-serving bias. Otherwise you’re bound to rationalize away all of the behaviors you engage in that are contrary to the values you have claimed.

The age we live in does not provide good conditions for self-knowledge. Secular people do not confess their sins. Even many religious people do not confess their sins. Indeed, even when a person confesses, he can do so for show (even for an audience consisting of only himself), picking only the most mundane sins and refusing to dig deeper into his soul to root out the idols that have implanted themselves in his heart. In order to know yourself, you must first be willing to see that you are a monster, that your heart is filled with perverse loves, and your mind with perverse thoughts. We are bad at this. Though perhaps we have always been bad at this.

We have eyes, but do not see. We have ears, but do not hear. We say with our mouths what is right and just, while violating the laws that we claim to hold sacred. Humans are hypocritical by default. It is in our nature to twist and bend the truth to serve our purposes. But truth does not take kindly to being so twisted.

When you act, ask yourself what kind of person would do the thing you are about to do. Do you want to be that kind of person? If not, then don’t do it. When you speak, first ask yourself if what you are about to say is a lie. And if it is a lie, then do not say it. Watch your actions and words. Do not do what you know is wrong. Do not say what you know is false.

Truth is a quality of persons, and not just propositions. The one who lives truly is not the one who knows everything about reality and behaves in such a way that reflects his correct beliefs about reality. The one who lives truly is the one who is honest with himself and others about who he is and what he values, in thought, word, and deed. The true man is transparent to himself, instead of opaque, because he does not hide himself from scrutiny. He confesses his sins, even the ones that he can hardly bear to name aloud, for he knows that if he does not do this, he will remain enslaved.

The easiest lie to believe is the flattering one. That is why flattery is so dangerous. Do not be led astray by your self-serving biases.


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