“We come to knowledge when we come to life.”

—Wallace Stevens

“A man goes far to find out what he is.”

—Theodore Roethke

So long as the sun rises, human misery abounds. The self-help and psychiatry industries are therefore thriving, for trite books and yuppie dope now stand in for religion, the earnest practice of which is too demanding for most 21st century team members. (It’s not as if there’s a great lack of belief here in the US.)

Yet to be sure, that one person should turn to another for guidance is not in itself a bad thing. I glance at my library, for example, and behold the magnificent works of hundreds of Great Dead White European (and American) Males: Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Seneca, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Pascal, Spinoza, Samuel Johnson, Burke, Hume, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud, Carlyle, Ruskin, Emerson, Thoreau, William James, and many more.

How much I have learned from them! Most men define themselves by doing things that any number of other men can do. That can’t be said for the greatest minds and writers. They teach, or reveal, what we would not know without them. I would be much more ignorant of human life if it wasn’t for these immortal names on my shelves.

All of the men in my list, in their various ways, were concerned with that timeless and incomparably difficult question: How should I live? It is a question that, if it matters to me, only I can answer for me. For however much I may learn from the great dead, or even from some of the living here in our glittering dark age, I am still a unique person, with his own history, his own problems, his own anguish. I alone have access to the content of my consciousness.

Thus it is certain that no one can look into me as penetratingly as I myself can, provided that I am up to the task. It is certain that no one can understand me as well as I myself can, provided I try to know myself. What I must do is to ponder myself and the world around me, while I am instructed by the works of the great minds of the past who did the same, and then apply what I find to the strange and difficult endeavor of living.

Not everyone does this today. In love with convenience, and in deeper love with delusion, many people now turn to watered-down wisdom and to the often problematic medications of psychiatrists. Is there not something very sad about so many of us turning to others (and their drugs) in order to know how to live? Have most of us looked deeply enough into ourselves?

Perhaps not. For self-knowledge is a test of character. It takes a certain fearlessness to be utterly honest with yourself. We are, all of us, subject to terrible thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. We sometimes have quite immoral motives. And it is painful to see these aspects of our nature. As with the sight of a rotting corpse, we’d rather look away.

Most people, when told they have done something wrong, react, at least at first, by putting a kind of convenient spin on things: they didn’t really do this or that, we are told; or, whatever happened didn’t happen quite like that; the point here being to shirk responsibility. And yet, human beings owe each other criticism. A friend or family member who is living in such a way as to harm himself or others deserves to be reproached.

And so it is with ourselves. If we have any sense of dignity—if, in other words, we value ourselves—then we need to be exacting and unsparing in our self-analysis. But, just as many people, in their relations with others, distort the truth in order to avoid the pain of it, so too they are not unflinching when it comes to looking into themselves: their view is only partial, their bad aspects ignored.

We must employ discriminating caution in our efforts to acquire self-knowledge. It is true that the mind, in its inclination to avoid pain, has a way of steering us toward rationalization and away from truth. And while we must be vigilant in guarding against this awful tendency, we must also not go so far as to become cruel perfectionists. Sincere self-examination which brings to light our culpability must be followed by self-forgiveness. Otherwise we avoid the common extreme while falling into the other, which is indeed torturous.

Though often hard, and sometimes even terrifying, self-knowledge is empowering. Having come to know myself in a deep sense, I find that I do not need any self-help book—I have already studied the book of my life. So too with anti-depressant medications. While for many people these are undoubtedly useful or even necessary in times of crisis, what I must do in any event is to take control of my life, insofar as I can.

That will often mean changing my life, and to that end, myself; in particular, my flaws. This is hard work, of course, but again, it is empowering: I achieve power over myself, where others may have no choice but to be subject to the power (say, the bad advice or prescription) of others.

To be serious about having good character, or improving our character, is to be serious about self-knowledge. If I want to live a decent life, or a better one, then clearly I cannot be ignorant of myself, of how I am living or should live. I must rather be steadfast in examining my motives and intentions.

What is the reason for Socrates’ famous remark that the unexamined life is not worth living? It is that without examining my life I cannot value it: any sense of value depends on knowledge; in order to live a worthy life, we must have a sense, borne out by experience, of just what makes it so.

It is no wonder that the greatest teachers of humankind were characterized by immense self-knowledge. A person who knows much about his complex nature—and all human beings are complex—may for that very reason be well-equipped to instruct others. You may not be Montaigne or Emerson. Even so, the fruits of your self-examination can afford you insight into others, who, after all, are not so different from you; you may indeed aid other people in walking a more illumined path.

“Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed,” said the great sage Samuel Johnson. I believe that every student of himself, having asked himself how he should live, should eventually come to a set of beliefs which are rather homely, in the sense that many thoughtful minds have been there before, so that the truth is no mystery.

It has long been thought, and rightly, that we human beings require a balance of satisfying intellectual and physical activities, interests, hobbies. These, along with meaningful relationships, are what make a life happy, or at least tolerable, for these make for an ongoing sense of vitality. If one of the purposes of your self-knowledge is to determine how you should live—as of course it should be—then you need not expect your conclusions to be so far from what many thoughtful travelers on the way arrived at before you.

Life is an endeavor in which we get to know ourselves. How strange is that notion, the notion of a self that does not know itself, as if to exist is to be a kind of stranger even to yourself. For life is a kind of ineffable unfolding. During its course, we find we are ever-changing, growing, moving between contradictions.

Indeed, while we may, if we are successful, arrive at more or less the same conclusions with respect to how we should live, we shall all find our distinct phenomenological experience—what we essentially ARE—to be endlessly unique, and frequently surprising. You are a self, and the self that you are contains innumerable surprises. That is dream-like, and beautifully strange.

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