“Know thyself.”The Oracle of Delphi and Socrates
We finished last time with this Hebrew Bible quotation: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can fathom it?” (Yirmayahu/Jeremiah 17:9)
If you are like me, you don’t usually see yourself or your heart as “deceitful” or “desperately sick.” The culture of the late 20th Century and 21st Century West encourages us to see ourselves in exactly the opposite sense. “I’m OK; you’re OK.” I/you/we don’t do anything really bad, so we’re all good people. And, if you hold with an afterlife, we all get to “go to heaven”, whatever that might mean. In other verses, the Bible even tells us to love ourselves, and to love others the way we love ourselves.
It would appear that loving ourselves and understanding how deceptive we can be and often are about what’s really going on inside are different issues. It can be quite a challenge to love myself when some of the dark stuff buried inside my heart leaks up into the light. If I can be honest about that, it should make it easier to have compassion for others in their brokenness, even when their darkness lashes out at me or others. It it about loving myself just because, or despite what I sometimes manifest in my nature that is quite unlovable? And does loving myself have anything to do with knowing the truth about myself? These are deep questions which we are now sadly ill-equipped to deal with.
Despite our pop psychology about all being “good people”, I am (and I suspect you are) ready enough to see the deceit in others. The world is not out to get me, but our common behavior in a competitive society encourages us to fudge our own self-aggrandizing antics and exaggerate the failings of others. Knowing myself with some clarity (even if only in a backhanded way) makes me suspect their good intentions, for mine are all too often less than purely altruistic.
Another ancient Hebrew proverb declares, “Many proclaim their loyalty, but a faithful person (or person of integrity) who can find?” I am adept at hiding my own deceit behind rationalization and evasive manoeuvres resembling fine motives. I’m so good at it that I have become largely immune to my own slipperiness. I don’t care for too much personal examination of my less admirable motivations lurking in the shadows, but I quite readily impute such subterfuge to others.
When Socrates taught that the road to wisdom began with “Know[ing] thyself” was he preaching pop psychology 101 of the “I’m OK; you’re OK” variety? Asked what he meant by such an enigmatic declaration he said that few ever care to learn what’s really buried inside them or to learn the truth behind their common preconceptions. His “Socratic Method” of perpetually and dialectically probing was designed to uncover the deepest roots of what is hidden. He made so many people in power so uncomfortable that they decided to frame him as an atheist and a subverter of good morals and social order. He was condemned to death for “leading the youth astray”.
Socrates still makes people uncomfortable. The Oracle of Delphi named him the wisest man in the world. Asked why, Socrates replied that the only way that made any sense was because he understood that he really knew nothing. Knowing how little we know is the first step towards wisdom because it is the first step to teachability, correctability, and taking responsibility for finding out what we don’t know but pretend or delude ourselves that we do.
We see the same idea reflected in an even older source – the Proverbs of Solomon: “The fear of Adonai ⁄ the Lord ⁄ God is the beginning of wisdom.” The unfathomable Creator is the true Source of all that is, including our personal being. Surely wisdom begins with a bit of healthy fear of the One who made all that is!
Again, we are confronted by the contrast of our modern-post-modern paradigm of our innate, basic goodness which, in the end, approves us as all “good people” regardless of any amount of destructive and hurtful stuff we’ve perpetrated over our wind-puff lives of a few decades. We reassure ourselves constantly with this refrain about being good people when we dig deep even as we live mostly selfish and self-indulgent lives. We can rime off some good deeds along the way and think that that much shorter list compared to the other one erases all the not-so-good stuff.
Of course, if there is no Creator what does it matter in the cosmic scale anyway?
Our version of the Creator is of a sort of Super-Being made in our own image, rather than the much more ancient idea about us being made in His/Her image. Inasmuch as a Deity is accepted in 2020, He/She is a Great, Loving, Grandparent up above who could never think badly of us no matter what we are and do.
After all, why should I fear my loving, supremely indulgent Grandparent above? How can fear rather than love be the beginning of wisdom? How does Socrates’ insistence on digging and probing into what goes on underneath help us anyway? Exploring your inner stuff, as in psychotherapy, never ends, because we are masters of self-deception. We comfort ourselves with being a good person because what we really mean is “because I/he ⁄ she never do ⁄ did anything really bad, we must be “good”.”
As numerous scientific polls and personal discussions about people’s belief in an afterlife tell us (think about all the funeral-parlor visits, wakes, memorials and funerals you’ve attended), we are ready to believe in some sort of heaven or nice “place” for the departed, but very few (even self-proclaimed Christians and Jews) believe in a “Hell” any more. After all, the loving, grand-parently Creator whom 60-70% of us now believe in could not send anyone to hell just because they were wicked. Well maybe a few especially sordid individuals like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, or mass-murderers and sadistic killers, rapists, etc. Even the Great Heavenly Benefactor must have a few limits, right? After all, even we have a few limits.
However, it seems rather counter-intuitive that good people often seem to die more cruelly and earlier than bad ones. And too often as victims of the bad ones. This is an observation found in numerous ancient sages and modern commentators on the human condition.
Perhaps that isn’t the way the Creator intended it to be in the first place. Perhaps there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of our truncated empirical, physical-material worldview. Perhaps, as we saw from C.S. Lewis, we have gone “blind” to anything but the atomic structure of trees (and anything else we believe we can sum up by measuring it), so that we no longer have “In-sight”.
Maybe, if we could begin to lift our eyes from our self-absorption and take our noses out of our navels, we might begin to fathom what Socrates meant about “Know[ing] thyself” and what Jesus meant when he said things like, “Those who have eyes to see, let them see,” and “If you want to save your life, you must lose it.” Buddha and other Oriental sages said, “What you imagine to be your self is illusion. You are not that.”
In the Christian Bible, the Apostle Paul spoke about “the mystery of iniquity” and “the son of lawlessness.” There is also talk of the “spirit of antichrist”. Our own duality remains very much a mystery. As the ancient Christian teacher (Saint) Paul observed in one of his letters to a group of Christians in Rome (Romans 7), he found the evil inside himself baffling. He wanted to do good and be righteous but found himself doing the nasty things he despised. He cried out, “Who will deliver me from this? How can anyone be saved?”
His answer was that, contrary to our modern-post-modern conviction, we actually can’t bootstrap ourselves out of breaking our own internal commandments (let alone any we accept from the Creator), even simple things like New Years’ Resolutions. We need help on two levels.
First, we need help to find the strength to fight the battle of defeating the continuous urges to do and say all kinds of stuff that, in our honest moments, we know is going to hurt someone, or whole groups of someones. Why do we have such urges? Because we get some advantage over others in comfort, nice rewards, pleasure, feelings of power and control, etc. It is natural to want pleasure and control and safety and the rush of power, of victory.
Why should we even fight to repress these urges? Some today would say we shouldn’t, just learn to wait for the right moment to indulge them. But there are many reasons to resist them, not the least of which is that we may end up as pariahs. A list of reasons to resist the evil within us would be long and tedious.
What is Paul’s second level where we need help? It is on the level of who we are really meant to be, of what we have really been created for. In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, too often being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.
TO BE CONTINUED