Thursday, August 26, 2010
--slogan on the Temple of Apollo, Delphi
I have chosen Self-Knowledge as the first stop, and step, on this journey of ten-thousand virtue-laden miles. Few world cultures list Self-Knowledge as an explicit virtue, but I think Self-Knowledge is a necessary ingredient for cooking up all the other virtues. Whether we’re making a cake or bouillabaisse, the recipe calls for water; whether we’re cooking up Humility, or the Jainist virtue of Akinchanya (Tolerance), or the Jewish virtue of Anavah (Modesty), Self-Knowledge is a necessary precursor.
Or, since I have chosen the metaphor of a road trip for this blog, consider the virtues as destinations on a pilgrimage. We cannot get to them until we know where we are to begin with, and our readiness to set out. We find our way using the compass of Self-Knowledge. It may be the ultimate root, the mother of all virtues. (I will visit the notion of “root virtues” at a later date.)
Speaking of roots, and mothers: The veneration of Self-Knowledge stretches its roots far back to ancient Western times. The second-century Greek geographer Pausanias noted that the Temple of Apollo at Delphi emblazoned “Gnothi Seauton!” on its entryway--that is to say, “Know thyself.” (The temple had two other juicy proclamations: “Nothing to excess,” which speaks to a more familiar cross-cultural virtue called Temperance, which we will visit later in this journey at some length; and the much more controversial “Pledge and mischief is nigh,” which speaks to the virtue of Prudence and whose paradox offsets and deepens the meaning of the other two. But more on all of that later!)
Delphi was home to the famous female Oracles, who advised the meek and the powerful of the time. It may be no accident that Delphi was also thought to be the location of the omphalos, the “navel” or center of the world. (Which makes me wonder, where might we find the elbows of the world?...Or the uvula?... )
According to Greek mythology, a monstruous Python guarded the omphalos. The young godling Apollo slew the beast, and the grateful people erected the temple in his honor. The Oracles’ roots may have stretched back ever before the time of the classical Greeks, however: in his play the Eumenides, Aeschylus commented that the priestesses originally venerated not Apollo, God of Prophecy, but rather the primal Mother Goddess, Gaia. (This makes the presence of the bellybutton of the world at Delphi all the more appropriate, right?)
Not only prehistoric Pagan mothers embraced Self-Knowledge; ancient Christian fathers carried the torch forward, with their own twist. As the Christian philosopher Augustine exhorted, “Let me know myself; let me know Thee.” If we interpret the maxim “know thyself” as directing us toward self-reflection or meditation, there’s hardly a spiritual tradition from which the directive of Self-Knowledge is missing. The Zen Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma beseeched a seeker, “Show me your mind!”; Confucianism demands reflection on one’s self three times daily; the arduous vision quests of the Celts and the Native Americans delivered spiritual liberty, or else death. Self-Knowledge is a constant part of the journey, not just a stopover. Wherever you look, the pursuit of Self-Knowledge is seen.
Today, take a moment to consider how all our forebears, our mothers and our fathers, sought wisdom through the gates of themselves, and passed on their encouragement to all of us. Think about the ways in which those around you revisit the quest for Self-Knowledge, whether in reflection, prayer, meditation, or simply in testing themselves against the world.
May we see the gates of Self-Knowledge and make a home there.