The adage Know Thyself is traditionally ascribed to ancient Greece. According to Pausanias, the saying was inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. Legend tells that the seven sages of ancient Greece, philosophers, statesmen and law-givers who laid the foundation for western culture, gathered together in Delphi and encapsulated their wisdom into this command. It was subsequently attributed to a dozen other authors, of which Thales of Miletus most commonly takes the honor. The saying was later adopted by Socrates and Plato, who grappled with the mysterious nature of knowledge and identity.
Since Greek philosophy laid the foundation for subsequent western thought, the influence of the Greek command ‘Know Thyself’ expanded to many other schools of thought, permeating western philosophical essays and inspirational poetry.
The call to self-knowledge also appears in the east, independently, as far as we can tell, from its Greek emphasis. The Hindu scriptures bring the self into prominence, speaking of its realization as the means to immortality. Along the same vein as western philosophy, the Hindus claim that man is not naturally born knowing his self, and that self knowledge is a bold and challenging endeavor. Even farther east, in Imperial China, Confucius draws from the ancient texts of the I-Ching and calls for a system of government based on self-government, which implies self-knowledge. Thus, the call to knowing the Self is universal historically and cannot easily be attributed to a single individual or even a singe culture.
Know Thyself in Egypt
The origins of this profound maxim may, in fact, reach further back into history than all the civilizations mentioned above. According to Plato, Solon, one of the Seven Sages, received his education in Egypt. Pythagoras, another pillar in the formation of Greece, also studied under Egyptian instruction. Know Thyself might arguably have originated from the Coffin Texts of ancient Egypt, texts that adorned burial sarcophagi of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom from as early as 2000 B.C. These texts might have been drawn from the Old Kingdom, a series of Egyptian dynasties that began at around 3000BC, outdating the Hindu Vedas, the Chinese I-Ching and the Greek founders.
Nevertheless, although Egyptian quotations on know thyself have surfaced in modern times (listed in our section on Egypt), it is impossible to ascertain their authenticity. Ancient Egyptian is a lost language and translation is approximate. We can never know the exact intentions behind certain Egyptian words, especially those describing ethereal concepts such as the ‘Self’. It is likely that Ancient Egypt emphasized self-knowledge, especially in relation to the journey into the afterlife, a topic widely explored in its burial texts, including the Coffin Texts. Therefore, it is probable that the early Greeks imported their philosophical foundation from the banks of the Nile.
Know Thyself through the ages
Know Thyself began appearing in cultures and traditions and at different times throughout Asia, Africa, and Eastern and Western Europe, from Chinese dynasties to the Hindu teachings, to Islam and the Sufis, and of course, to ancient Rome. All alike placed Know Thyself on a pedestal, acknowledging it as the summit of knowledge and the ultimate challenge.
During the formation of classical Western thought and philosophy, the Romans adopted Know Thyself and the Latin nosce te ipsum became the standard expression in the West of this universal adage. It subsequently appeared in all golden moments of literature, such as the English golden age of theatre in Shakespeare‘s time and the Sufi golden age of Rumi. In more recent history, the call to self-knowledge appears in the eighteenth century under the pen of Alexander Pope and then again in the nineteenth century whence, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel Coleridge adopt it. Walt Whitman wrote his Song of Myself with the same spirit of having sought and found the hidden treasure of self-knowledge.
Ultimately, the history of Know Thyself is only as valuable as the assistance it provides us in the present. Those who went before us either made their profit or failed to tap into this hidden treasure. Yet they leave us a rich legacy of literature, placing the burden of self-realization on our shoulders. We, in present times, are challenged anew with the same task: the elusive inquiry into the knowing the Self and becoming that Self.