It’ll be great, they said.
The phrase ‘Know thyself,’ which you might not have heard, has a long philosophical history. It spans as far back into antiquity as Ancient Egypt. By the time of Socrates, it was already accepted as a Delphic maxim, and was chiseled into the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. This aphorism, in one form or another, has been the subject of discourse for many philosophers.
In the modern-day, ‘know thyself’ has broad appeal in the self-help market. If your aim is to accept yourself, then you need to ‘know thyself’ first. Or if you wish to be a better decision-maker, knowing thyself helps because you will be able to tailor your decisions to you. But in an ever-deepening quest to nail ourselves down — who we are across time — are we leaving enough room for change?
As an example, think about what you were like 5–10 years ago. I’m sure you’ve faced a set of changes that you expected, and perhaps encouraged or guarded against. But what about all the changes that were out of your control? What about the life trajectories you did not count on? These trajectories that you never imagined at the outset have informed and changed who you were versus who you imagined you would become.
You do much of what you do because you think it meshes with the kind of person you think you are. Perhaps you’ve idealized an archetype of what you’d like to be in your mind and you’re trying to incarnate those qualities. You take your whiskey neat and your eggs over easy because you’re just that kind of person. If that’s not who you are, then what is? I venture this goes for most of our routine daily choices. Capitalism is all about real or apperceived choice after all, and in the Capitalist system, you are consumed and defined by your choices. You go the philosophy section of your local bookshop and you attend the local farmer’s market each weekend because you’re an informed, worldly millennial.
We like to think we have fairly stable ideas about what kind of people we are. This is in part out of practicality — we don’t have to search our soul every morning when ordering a cup of coffee. These ideations about what kind of people we are customarily also be accompanied by ideas about what kind of people we are not. I’m not going to eat at Olive Garden — I’m not that kind of person. This way of thinking about yourself could easily slide into the moralization of your preferences, but let’s keep that topic shelved for today.
There is an intractable dilemma with the paragon of the ideal self: Change is unavoidable. There are tumultuous times in which we change drastically. Specifically, during times of romance and as a result of having children. These are milestones that, upon looking back, inevitably changed us.
But most change happens in gradual, non-linear ways that easily escape our conscious eye. A few mechanisms of these changes are well understood, such as the ‘mere exposure effect’ — gaining preference for something by repeated exposure. Another, more troubling mechanism, is that the more your desire for something is jilted, the more you tend to dislike it. I like to think of this as the (biblical) Cain Effect. It explains a lot of the psychology behind the ethos of the jaded, disgruntled white men in America (let’s also keep this topic shelved for now).
The problem remains: If we evolve while our self-image remains the same, then there will be a discrepancy between who we are and who we think we are. And this leads to conflict.
To make matters worse, humans are exceptionally good at discounting in their analyses the slightest possibility that we might change. Psychologists have christened this phenomenon ‘The End of History Illusion.’ We all think that who we are now is the end-all. But, as these psychologists have found, our preferences and values are fickle things.
It might be an innocuous problem when it comes to ordering your whiskey. You’re growing tired of your neat whiskeys and you’d like to venture into the world of other spirits. You don’t give in, so your enjoyment wains. Nothing critical.
But this extends to other preferences and values in life. Maybe you no longer love practicing philosophy, but as being a philosopher is such a constant feature of your self-image, you keep doing it. Your actions are dictated not by what you like, but by what kind of person you think you are.
The realized harm of this situation is that you spend much of your time doing something that you don’t enjoy (and often positively dislike). The human mind does not do well with blatantly contradicting realities. It is as if you were running the
ToughGuy.exe program in parallel with the
CutePuppyOverload.exe program. The mind would do well to hide this contradiction: A phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.
Hiding a glaring contradiction between our likes and our actions takes significant mental energy and this leaves little energy to do much else. Sometimes knowing thyself is an impediment to acknowledging and making peace with ever-changing values. You might have otherwise chosen to be a gin-drinking-person, but once these features are built into your image, you have something to lose in making that choice. Of course with as innocuous a premise as your choice of spirits, this may seem trivial. But it can apply to your choice of career, love-interest, etc.
The cost of authority over your self-image is waning control over your changing values. Change then becomes something to hide. This leads to cognitive dissonance. The cost of doubling down on who we think we are — of knowing thyself — is eventual ossification.
‘A caterpillar who seeks to know himself would never become a butterfly.’
–André Gide in Autumn Leaves (1950)