La morte di Socrate (J. Louis David 1787)

The death of Socrates (J. Louis David, 1787)

The motto γνῶθι σ(ε)αυτόν (“know thyself”) was one of the maxims inscribed on the pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, along with μηδὲν ἄγαν (“nothing in excess”), inviting mankind to exercise moderation in life. It was through these maxims that Apollo’s oracle – one could think of it as one of the “mass-media” of ancient times – invited men to self-investigation, prompting them to discover that the essence of one’s life is not to be searched for in the world outside, but instead within ourselves.

This emphasis on the inner life and on the importance of knowing oneself will become a core element of the philosophy of Socrates, whose Protagoras (343a-b) traces the history of the Delphic inscription back to the Greek Seven Sages:

Such men were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, Solon of our city, Cleobulus of Lindus, Myson of Chen, and, last of the traditional seven, Chilon of Sparta. All these were enthusiasts, lovers and disciples of the Spartan culture; and you can recognize that character in their wisdom by the short, memorable sayings that fell from each of them: they assembled together and dedicated these as the first-fruits of their lore to Apollo in his Delphic temple, inscribing there those maxims which are on every tongue—“Know thyself” and “Nothing overmuch.(μηδὲν ἄγαν)”.(Translation by W. R. M. Lamb)

Debates flourished in antiquity on the source of the sayings, and the γνῶθι σαυτόν was, for example, often attributed to Chilon of Sparta. Clement of Alexandria notes that “according to some the phrase is Chilon’s, according to others Chamaleon wrote it, while Aristotle believes that it was said by the Phythia” (the high priestess of Apollo at Delphi). Chamaleon in turn attributed the saying to Thales, while Diogenianus (II century A.D.) thought the author was Solon. One could go on.

Diodorus Siculus, reporting the motto as part of a wider reflection (ἄνθρωπε, μὴ μέγα φρόνει, γνῶθι σαυτόν, ἰδὲ τὴν τύχην ἁπάντων οὖσαν κυρίαν, “O man, do not be high-spirited, know thyself, observe how Fortune is lord of all”), speaks of it as one of the “expressions of the wise men of the past” (τῶν πάλαι σοφῶν ἀποφάσεις).

The motto’s point is only superficially banal. In the words of an anonymous philosopher cited by Photius, to know oneself “seems to be the easiest thing of all, and yet it is the hardest”. Indeed to know oneself is to know the nature of the universe – τὸ γνῶναι ἑαυτὸν οὐδὲν ἄλλο ἐστὶν ἢ τοῦ σύμπαντος κόσμου φύσιν γνῶναι.


Temple of Apollo at Delphi, seat of Pythia

The γνῶθι σαυτόν’s invitation to self-reflection would become extremely popular also among the Christians. Gregory of Nissa (De mortuis non esse dolendum 9.40) suggests that turning one’s gaze inward is the only way to bring to light one’s real essence, while looking to the outside makes such task impossible (γνῶθι σεαυτὸν ἀκριβῶς τίς εἶ, διαστείλας τῷ λογισμῷ τί μὲν ἀληθῶς εἶ σύ, τί δὲ περὶ σὲ καθορᾶται. Μήποτε τὰ ἔξω σοῦ βλέπων σεαυτὸν καθορᾶν νομίσῃς).

A variant inspired by Neopythagorean thought reads as γνῶθι θεόν, ἵνα γνῷς καὶ σαυτόν, “know God to know yourself too”, (Sententiae Sexti 577 Chadwick). This version appears in extended form in the treatise Ad imaginem Dei et ad similitudinem (normally ascribed to Gregory of Nissa): “If you want to know God, you must first know yourself. Start with understanding yourself, your way of being, your inner self. Come into [your inner self] and immerse yourself in yourself gazing into your soul to grasp its essence; you will see that you were made in the likeness of God.”

Today’s post has been inspired by a somewhat odd version of the maxim of Delphi circulating on the Internet. And while there is much to praise about the web’s resources, not all that glitters is gold… Even a quick search on the web for the γνῶθι σαυτόν returns in fact amongst other results an expanded version of the original motto, supposedly conveying the message of the oracle to the passing pilgrim:

I warn you, whoever you are, Oh! You who want to probe the arcana of nature, that if you do not find within yourself that which you are looking for, you shall not find it outside either! If you ignore the excellences of your own house, how do you pretend to find other excellences? Within you is hidden the treasure of treasures! Know thyself and you will know the Universe and the Gods.

I have searched in vain for the source of this text, which is presented by a number of different webpages. There seems to be no Greek version of it (I have used the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) in either literary or epigraphic texts. One has to conclude that either the passage derives from a non-Greek source (possibly Eastern or Arabic) or it is simply a made-up text that has gained an unexpected and unwarranted online visibility. If any reader had more information, I would be extremely curious to know!

To conclude today’s excursus I have chosen an epigram in elegiacs composed by Palladas, a poet that lived and worked in Alexandria during the IV century A.D.:

Εἰπέ, πόθεν σὺ μετρεῖς κόσμον καὶ πείρατα γαίης
   ἐξ ὀλίγης γαίης σῶμα φέρων ὀλίγον.
Σαυτὸν ἀρίθμησον πρότερον καὶ γνῶθι σεαυτόν,
   καὶ τότ᾽ ἀριθμήσεις γαῖαν ἀπειρεσίην.
Εἰ δ᾽ ὀλίγον πηλὸν τοῦ σώματος οὐ καταριθμεῖς,
   πῶς δύνασαι γνῶναι τῶν ἀμέτρων τὰ μέτρα;


Tell me whence comes it that thou measurest the Universe and the limits of the Earth, thou who bearest a little body made of a little earth? Count thyself first and know thyself, and then shalt thou count this infinite Earth. And if thou canst not reckon thy body’s little store of clay, how canst thou know the measures of the immeasurable? (Translation by W. R. Paton)