Gnothi Seauthon. A personally important phrase.


I've been promising to tattoo this on my arm for the longest time. I recently got it designed, so you'll see updates on that sometime vaguely soon. What does it mean though?

Well I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, ancient Greek leaders and businessmen needed advice from time to time. In a society built upon a pantheon of gods, a love of philosophy and the arts, and while advanced for its time, still as a whole scientifically undeveloped compared to recent times.

So, naturally, the person to go to was a woman hopped up on toxic volcanic fumes claiming she could see things*.

Enter the Oracle at Delphi.

Along the entrance to her lair were maxims. Phrases to guide the visitors, and one such phrase, referred to in many ways, in many degrees of accuracy, was "Gnothi Seauthon."

Literally translated it means "Know Thyself." Nowadays it is an allusion to self-awareness, although reports I've read share a different story, which means most people who quote it are only using it to suit their own needs. So selfish.

Reportedly in the time its meaning was closer to "Know your Place." In the presence of the Oracle, you were to listen, as her advice was supernatural and from beyond the veil, and she had a godly status which you were commanded to respect.

What do I mean by it though?

Well through my travels, my ego breaks down and builds back up. It's as if I have a hard center. I wouldn't say a diamond, more like some sort of ore of unknown quality and substance, surrounded by a clod of packed in dirt.

The dirt is the thoughts and worldviews accumulated through my existence, which I have invested in and called my own, but are more a product of my environment than a core part of my being. In changing my environment and discovering new lands, new cultures and new people, I bang my clod/ore conglomeration around life and slowly chip away at the core me.

A prominent psychology professor recently in the news for speaking out against a social justice bill in Canada, Jordan Peterson, describes it as you hit yourself against the walls of life and consistently tune yourself until you are a perfectly resonating jewel affecting the world in congruence.

But what does this have to do with identity?

I have encountered people who tend to think only of their future and choose to divorce their past in order to put all their focus on their potential. Looking at you, Mr. Sha ;) Tony Robbins, some entrepreneur friends of mine including a business coach I will refer to as Stephen and others think this way purposely.

It's not my place to say what's right or wrong, but I can say the effects of such a mindset. Without grounding in your experience, and in history, you run the risk of finding the pitfalls of your past, and the pitfalls of history in your future, but instead of knowing what to do and avoiding the obstacle, you instead imbibe your future with all your focus and passion - without seeing the connection to the past. This is like seeing a summit and climbing the wall over and over again, but without remembering the hard parts of the wall, without remembering the pitfalls from the other climbers, and from your first 10 attempts.

You must be aware of your past to move forward. Even explorers like Colombus, and people like Steve Jobs who thrive on purpose and never look back to repeat their past must have been aware of thier own personal patterns such that they were able to anticipate their own human tendencies and optimize for them.

I rag on my friends, and they're both successful. I recon Stephen and Mr. Sha know to learn from their past, even though they share ideologies which seem on the surface to ignore it.

On the other hand though, and this is a deep criticism I have of my Jewish culture, you can't move forward constantly looking at the past.

Judaism is in constant reogranization and reiterization of the past. To the point where many of the rules we live by nowadays make little sense. For instance on Shabbat we cannot cause electricity or fire to flow. No light switches or cars.

This was originally sourced from a rule where there can be no work on Shabbat. The Rabbinic Council (yes, we have a council. We are essentially Jedis) is given the task of reinterpreting old texts to suit an evolving society. Making fire used to be a lot of work and was thus banned

When cars came out, with their spark plugs, the coucil decreed that the spark was fire and thus you cannot drive on the Shabbat. This is why you see tons of Jews walking on Saturday. They are going to Shul.

But isn't walking much more work than driving?

And going further, electricity is seen as ligting a fire... But how is flicking a light switch any semblance of work?

My criticism is that Judaism is in a standstill. With tradition being (in more observant sects of Judaism) the highest value, Jewish culture, while preserved, is stuck in a standstill. Never moving forward or evolving. This is why there are splits among the ideology of its practitioners, as there are with any large culture, with the reform movement adapting the rules more liberally.

So who are we? To gnothi seauthon, we must look both towards our pasts and be grounded. Learning from our experience and having a secure understanding of our place in the world, but also letting go from our past in a way which allows us the freedom to look forward and forge a new, better future.

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*Side note, according to Wikipedia the fumes are disputed by scholars, but it makes for good writing