I was just thinking about what good 'know thyself' means. There is something arguably narcissistic and unnecessary - or at least self absorbed - about examining your life just to know your own flaws and abilities (and I assume that's what is meant); I think I can see how doing so might help someone understand others, but I wanted clear examples of that, despite it being fairly intuitive. Specifically, I want to know whether being temperate is in fact knowledge about others, and not even others compared to or in relation to yourself.

In Critias' opinion "know thyself!" was an admonition to those entering the sacred temple to remember or know their place and that "know thyself!" and "be temperate!" are the same.

Perhaps it works out that way when in conjunction with a specific virtue?

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    Perhaps someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? Now this is the most difficult point on which to convince some of you. If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less Jan 19, 2023 at 21:26
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    I was talking with a non-dual teacher once, saying that I wanted to help other people, and she leaned towards me and said, "There are no 'other people'." So, start anywhere, with yourself, and eventually you will understand everyone and everything.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 20, 2023 at 11:37
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    @ScottRowe maybe. you never feel like, RE virtue, "cool I like myself: so what?" "
    – user64279
    Jan 20, 2023 at 14:56
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    @vices It's not a question of liking yourself, but knowing yourself. Narcissists don't know themselves; they like themselves too much to take an honest look inside. You have to understand your own motivations and thought processes and biases, etc., to be sure that you are approaching any knowledge, or any other person, with integrity. Jan 20, 2023 at 16:42
  • i don't mean specifically knowing yourself or self like as a motive to that. i am talking about virtue in general without others being on board @LukeSawczak fair comment about integrity :) it's not something i think about enough
    – user64279
    Jan 20, 2023 at 16:48

4 Answers 4


As I see it, it's crucial to acknowledge the source of the maxim - from inscriptions on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi where this was 1st of 3 above the entrance, so held in the highest honour of all. Delphi, where prophecies considered of the highest significance, including by Socrates, were given for around 900 years, among the longest continuously practicing religious institutions.

As the story of Socrates shows, prophecies aren't neutral things and frequently are ambiguous; a person brings who they are to a prophecy, how they will respond is part of it - just as more usually in tragic terms, like the prophecy on Oedipus. Socrates brought his wisdom to being called the wisest in Athens, by making his response a parable on how to practice wisdom & humility.

Wisdom has fallen out of favour in philosophy but was a central concern to the Ancient Greeks. I discuss why this change, and how to think about what wisdom is, here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? My summary is that it's about balancing our different selves, what we want now and what we will want in the future, who we are in different contexts, &c. My phrase is that wisdom involves finding and acting from the integrated centre of our concerns.

Consider also the central role of hubris, and hamartia or the 'fatal flaw' in Greek tragedy. See discussion here: What's wrong with "playing god"? To know yourself also means knowing your limits, staying humble even if you really are the wisest man in Athens: "I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either" That too is wisdom.

A prophecy is a blessing on the wise, and a curse on the unwise because whatever we know about the future, the important thing is that we bring who we are to that knowledge, to that future. By doing the work of, actively practicing knowledge of the integrated centre of our concerns, we can learn not to fight ourselves, or act with excess that we will regret when our mood changes.

I would also relate this picture to the Strange Loop idea of the self, that 'self-consciousness' is the capacity to hold a self-model in mind while thinking about possible futures, and using this to decide how to be. This can link a picture of why we have intentions & affective states (to cultivate typical expected outcomes), with multiple selves in relation to 'ptophecied' or expected futures. Knowing what we know about the future, who should you be? That is knowing thyself. That is the root-koan of Zen: 'Who am I?', meaning how do you bring to bear self meeting world, into this very moment right Now.

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    yeah, i was wondering what joy there is to be had in knowing yourself etc.. zen could be one way of phrasing it!
    – user64279
    Jan 19, 2023 at 22:23
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    @vices: Truly knowing yourself, & being yourself, is one thing.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 19, 2023 at 22:25
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    @Heidegger: It seems comic to me for the writer of the notoriously obtuse Being & Time, to extol practical wisdom over other kinds. In wisdom traditions, seeing things right, making contact with the true nature of things, invariably precedes acting on the world, the domain of practical wisdom. I don't see occupying ourselves with the meeting of mind & world, as diminishing the role of mind. It is only about shifting the focus, to how even complex topics bear on our presence in this moment, right now.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 19, 2023 at 23:50
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    It seems that humanity, the USA especially, needs a refresher on hubris these days. IMHO ha ha
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 20, 2023 at 11:45
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    @ScottRowe: The slow trainwreck of Trump destroying the Republican Party & trying to take the US with it, surely? It will probably make a great musical.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 20, 2023 at 15:34

In the context of the question you ask and the quotation you provide, yes. It's true in the analytic sense. Remember, know thyself being uttered since ancient times whether as gnothi seauton or later temet nosce might be open to the charge of being an essentially contested concept. Besides as an exhortation to critical thinking or humility, one can even know oneself in the biblical sense. ;) One can self examine to find and correct flaws and find eudaimonia, or one can remember that the 'us' everyday is 'me' and 'you', and it may very well be that 'you' are the lesser, and 'me' is more important.

If uttered as an imperative to know one's station in life, then the phrase is synonymous with 'know your place'. That obviously isn't about physical extension of space, but rather a reminder there is a social order. Political science was born in Ancient Greece with works like Plato's Republic. The quotation you offer is a reminder of the fact the phrase was open to interpretation in the days of Socrates and Plato and is an indictment against Critias who was considered a bad tyrannt in his own life.

Setting aside the historical context, the sort of temperance remarked upon here is not abstention from physical activity, but one of minding one's p's and q's. Violent men are often obsessed about social dominance, and men obsessed with social dominance are often violent (particularly prior to the 20th century). So, in this quotation, we see an indictment about interpreting the phrase not as lover of wisdom would do, but as one who would seize upon a meme to remind others of their lowly status.


A virtue is a virtue because it can benefit to his holder and people which communicate with the holder. What i mean, is that if only one individual can take advantage from a feature, this feature cant be a virtue. So the hardship of every virtue is about knowing the others to be able to choose the virtue which is going to be close enought to get received and appreciated by others. But, at the same time, each individual bears virtue. So the virtue begins from one individual. The messages "know thyself" and "be temperate" bear the signification of involment and engagement, it's a way to say "if you cant do it, dont come". Critias chapter brings importance to rule compliance and somewhere put this rule to natural order, something that always belongs to humanity. Here, rule have a ambigous signification, it can be use as a civic duty and as a divine duty. It can imply that civic duty and divine duty are bond together and if one falls the other one falls too. The temperance is used to described how steadily they used to comply with their rules and somewhere existence of the city depend on existence of temperance.

  • Thanks. I like this reply, but shouldn't accept it due to its vague research qualities.
    – user64279
    Jan 19, 2023 at 22:36
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    @vices Oh, just go ahead and accept it :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 20, 2023 at 11:42

Striving to know your own flaws and abilities is far from self-absorbed.

It's what allows you to understand and reconsider your motivations, which could eliminate flaws in your thinking and change your beliefs about reality, and it allows you to best act to advance whichever goals you may have.

Knowing yourself is, as far as I'm concerned, the most important, most difficult and often-neglected part of rationality and critical thinking. You can understand syllogisms, fallacies and all the other theory of logic, and know what every philosopher has said about everything, and those things are certainly important. But if you don't know yourself, you're crippling your ability to reason rationally.

A lack of knowing oneself is, in my opinion, the main reason why different generally-intelligent people, who'd consider themselves to be well-informed, can have such fundamentally different and contradictory views of reality, as what we see e.g. across the political spectrum in (at least) the US.

It's certainly possible for one to use this knowledge about oneself to act selfishly, but this could be said about lots of knowledge in general: knowledge, in itself, could be used be used in many different ways.

  • Let's say you think a particular group of people aren't "valid" and shouldn't be granted the rights they're asking for.

    What would be narcissistic and self-absorbed would be to just leave it there and not question whether your thinking on the matter is correct.

    You could consider equal rights to be important and therefore hear what others have to say on the topic, although this may or may not lead you to a different conclusion.

    A different approach in line with knowing yourself would be to question your own motivations, and the justification behind them. This may lead you to identifying a flaw in your thinking (i.e. believing what you'd like to believe, instead of what's rationally justified) that led you to the conclusion that those people aren't valid, which should lead you to fixing that flaw and then supporting that group of people.

  • If you deny a particular claim about reality, the same as the above could be said.

    So knowing yourself is a crucial part of having an accurate understanding of reality.

  • Let's say you want to help a particular group of people with some action.

    One should question whether that action would actually help that group of people, but this isn't directly about knowing yourself.

    But, again, one might have a flaw in one's reasoning, in that you'd like to believe what effect some action has or is likely to have, and this may not reflect the actual effect it has. Or your motivation behind that action might not truly be to help that group of people. To know yourself by questioning your motivation, you could identify these flaws and instead act in ways that would actually help those people.

  • Knowing yourself could also help you understand how others think.

    If you want to put yourself in someone else's shoes, an important step would be to understand how you'd actually feel in their circumstances, or in comparable hypothetical circumstances. A big part of that is knowing yourself.

    Although I think a more important part of understanding others is to not directly try to relate everything back to your experiences, because different people think differently. So you need know them, rather than just knowing yourself. Otherwise, when you cannot find a thought process that would lead you to where they are (and you often won't), you may just end up (unreasonably and unjustifiably) attributing malice or ignorance to their actions.

    But also, if you know yourself, you may realise that you prefer to think of people as malicious or ignorant, rather than accepting that you can't understand them, or that you just don't yet understand them. This realisation can then lead you to accepting the rational position that you don't understand them.

Note: I avoided giving specific examples, because real-world examples, or hypotheticals with parallels to real-world examples, may be more controversial than intended, and distract from the points I was trying to make (which I hope is clear enough as it stands). I expect people would draw some parallels from what I've said to real-world examples nonetheless, but that would've been difficult to avoid.

Note 2: There may be different definitions and usages of "know thyself". I just opted to focus on the one mentioned in the question: knowing your own flaws and abilities.

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