“Gnothi sauton,” proclaimed the inscription at the oracle of Delphi: “Know thyself.”
“The proper study of mankind,” wrote Alexander Pope, “is man.”
“This above all,” stated Shakespeare through the mouth of Polonius in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.”
How many times have great minds offered mankind the counsel to “turn within” in the quest for wisdom. Man’s very ability to relate meaningfully to others depends first of all on his own sensitivity. As Shakespeare put it again (concluding the above quote), “And it shall follow as the day the night, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
It is this eternal truth — this wisdom — that has been swept aside in the modern rush for more “scientific” values. And yet, even scientific discovery has not been granted to every scientist. We see that, in certain respects at least, the greatest scientists have also been great human beings — not great merely because of their brilliance, but in a fuller and deeper sense. Indeed, intelligence alone is a very poor criterion of greatness. There are far too many intelligent idiots in this world, who show a regrettable lack of common sense despite their intelligence.
Great scientists demonstrate greatness also in their ability to rise above petty self-preoccupation and reach out toward broader realities. Lesser scientists generally, like lesser human beings everywhere, have not shown even an inclination in this direction.
Motivation is only one test of greatness. Lesser scientists, and lesser human beings generally, are almost by definition motivated by the thought, “What’s in it for me? What will I get out of it?” It is their pettiness that makes them lesser. The broader the outlook on life, the less the concern with personal gain. Admittedly, there have been great scientists as well as great people in other fields who, owing to egotism or personal ambition, were less great than they might have been. In their work at least, however, they were able — far better than most people — to rise above pettiness. Often, indeed, it was their high energy that passed in the minds of little people for egotism.
Great scientists, again, have been clear and calm enough in themselves to be able to focus all their energy and attention on the tasks at hand. Most people lack this ability to concentrate. They haven’t, therefore, that extra faculty of perception which is the final secret of genius. Sensitive perception is a natural product of calm concentration. Another word for it is intuition.
Luther Burbank, the famous botanist, was so inwardly focused during his experiments with plants that his eyes would often remain half closed and half open, gazing inwardly as much as outwardly. Other botanists of his day challenged his findings on the basis that they hadn’t been able to duplicate them. Yet the new botanical strains he produced sufficiently proved the reality of his discoveries.
Burbank considered self-knowledge an essential part of the work he did with plants. Who can say whether even insight into the workings of the cosmos doesn’t require, first, a degree of self-knowledge?
Pythagoras, the Greek sage, lived at a time when civilized man had neither the facts nor the vision to think of the universe as anything but flat, and geocentric. Yet Pythagoras stated that the Earth is round, and that we and all the visible stars revolve around a great central fire. His explanation of things, for many centuries considered only quaint, is astonishingly like that given by modern astronomers, who tell us that all the visible stars belong to a single galaxy, and revolve slowly around what might be described as a fiery center — packed as it is, from our distant perspective, with the billions of stars of the Milky Way.
Whence, Pythagoras’s amazing knowledge? Surely, no theory so all-embracing could have sprung out of the common knowledge of his times. It must be attributed, first, to the expansiveness of his own consciousness.
In this Twentieth Century a great deal has been written, albeit somewhat superficially, on the importance of self-knowledge, and of acting in keeping with that knowledge. Nora, in Ibsen’s play The Doll House, was one of the first examples of this doctrine. So also was Kate, the protagonist in J. M. Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look. Both women chose to live their lives self-reliantly, rather than continue in bondage to their boorish and condescending husbands. In more recent years, the quantity of this sort of literature has grown apace, along with hundreds of classes and seminars offering techniques of self-fulfillment.
It would be no great stretch further to bring this emphasis into the high schools and universities. The process is, in fact, already underway.
The question still remains to be asked: How to know oneself as one really is?
Is it enough to follow the lead of Nora and Kate?—to stand up to the world and cry, “From today on I’m going to be my own boss”? More than self-assertion is called for, if self-knowledge is to be achieved.
One of the best exponents of the “personal fulfillment” philosophy in our times was the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre claimed that it is people’s self-generated desires that define them as they really are. He insisted that if we will but rid ourselves of the expectations other people hold of us, and be true to our own nature, we will become genuine human beings at last. And if the final outcome of this supposedly purifying process should make us social outcasts, why, so be it. In remaining stalwartly true to ourselves, we will — by Sartre’s definition — deserve to be called saints.
Sartre even wrote a book titled Saint Genet, about a man who, faithful to these “principles,” dared both to be and to boast about being a thief and a male prostitute.
The writings of Sartre have been avidly studied, as though they were actually important to the quest for fulfillment. Sartre was, however, a nihilist. He accepted no established human norms. And he was not joking. Nor has his influence on modern society been a joke. One sees the effect of his philosophy on the behavior of countless young people today — many of them barely pubescent — who self-assertively proclaim that life is meaningless and who behave, accordingly, with egocentric abandon.
One wonders: Why have these nihilistic teachings been given so solemn a hearing in the classrooms, especially when there exists a vast body of time-tested teachings on the subject of meaningful self-fulfillment? Yet this material is virtually ignored.
Sartre’s grotesque distortion of man’s eternal quest will eventually, I believe, prove the sterility of his own case. For his examples of “fulfilled” human beings make it clear with repetitive monotony to the discerning mind how vast is the distance between ego-affirmation and Self-realization. There is a radical difference between the ego and the deeper self, the experience of which is an awakening, a goal implied in the saying “Know thyself.”
Greatness has always been associated with an expansion of consciousness. And an expansion of consciousness has always, in the long history of civilization, been associated with an expansion of such feelings as sympathy, empathy, and love. Far from setting oneself apart from, or even against, other human beings, self-expansion naturally includes a concern for the well-being of all. How different, this, from the teaching of Sartre, which he stated in these words: “To be conscious of another is to be conscious of what one is not.”
Consider, therefore, the great teachers of mankind — Buddha, Krishna, and Moses, for example, and of course, best known in the West, Jesus Christ. Their teachings receive hardly a passing nod in the modern classroom. Why this disdain? Is it merely because those men of wisdom are now considered “old hat”? Can anyone really expect the philosophy of Sartre to replace wisdom that has been cultivated with hard labor by spiritual geniuses through the ages? What can this fascination with that dour philosopher, and with others of his genre, be but a fad, merely?
A likely explanation for the attention presently being given to this and to similarly faddish philosophies is that they offer no call to serious action. They suit the intellectual’s disdain for personal commitment, and flatter his preference for clever theories over demonstrable truths. The intellectual’s favorite weapon is not honest reasoning, but mockery. But mockery is a coward’s weapon. It is a saber rattled within the seemingly safe fortress of untested theory. The fortress itself, however, is merely a stage set, painted to look real, but the merest spark of clear reasoning may send it crashing down in flames. Jesus and countless other great men and women through the ages began and ended their message with warnings against remaining satisfied with mere theory, and with a call to action — to direct, personal experience of the truths they proclaimed. To the intellectual — or perhaps I should call him the pseudo-intellectual, since he uses intellectuality without discrimination — any moral principle that can be tested by actual experience seems drab and uninteresting. Far more appealing to him are theories that only he, and perhaps a few other precious souls like him, can understand.
The common explanation, of course, for not including spiritual teachings in the classroom is that formal education is concerned with imparting demonstrable facts, and not with dogmatizing students in unproven sectarian claims. I grant you, it is a bit much to hear people describe universal truths as the possession of any particular religion: to hear humility, for instance, described as “Christian” humility, as though Christian humility were different in some fundamental respect from Buddhist humility, or Hindu humility. Strip the veneer of religion away from the quality of humility, however, and you find a human characteristic that can be tested for its value to us all in our search for personal fulfillment. Why leave it buried in the Bible simply because Jesus spoke well of it?
Qualities such as humility are by no means untested sectarian dogmas. It doesn’t take much experience of life to see that pride does in fact “go before a fall,” as the wisdom of the ages has always told us; and that genuine humility “works”—that is to say, it attracts what people really want in life: success, support from others, and an ability to ride the waves of difficulty. Humility, like countless other virtues, is a practical concept. Why not teach it that way in the classroom?
There are numerous other teachings, born of practical human experience, that are the discoveries of people who showed by their own lives that they had found keys to unlock the door to human happiness. Their discoveries have nothing to do with religious sectarianism. Why exclude them from the teaching we give our young?
Great men and women, whether scientists or artists or leaders of any kind, are great in some way, at least, as human beings. Were this not so, they would never be able to manifest what it took to produce their great works. Is it enough, then, merely to study their works? Children need to be offered also a study of what makes people great as human beings. In this way, the children may be inspired toward greatness themselves. Is this not self-evidently better than giving them what is, essentially, the philosophical encouragement to become thieves and murderers? For that is what it amounts to when we tell them, with Sartre, that all values are relative, and that truth is anything you yourself want it to be.