Know yourself

Most of us know our hearts so partially that we don’t doubt that we know them in full. ‘I know my heart,’ crowed the incorrigible self-deceiver Rousseau. Which do we stand in more need of, to misapprehend who we are, or to assume that we comprehend who we are?

If you have gained a genuine self-knowledge, you suspect that others have not.

The human race has grown in self-awareness, because there have been a few rare men and women, such as Nietzsche, who have dared to anatomize their own souls, and who for that reason are in no way like the rest of our self-oblivious kind.

Self-knowledge comes from knowing others.

Nothing is so unlike us that it can’t teach us what we are. We are able to get to know our self because we are like others, but we are spurred to get to know it because we differ from them.

The self is its own language. Self is its noun, bustling self-interest is the verbs, vanity the epithets, personality the adverbs, and convenience the conjunctions. And you get to know your self as you do your native tongue. The best way to grasp it is by studying foreign ones, though you have to learn them through the vehicle of your own.

1 The proud alone can know themselves

If your aim is to find out what you are, you must call in the aid of your dignity to overrule your vanity. You have to part with some of the moral pride which assures you of your innocence to your intellectual pride which is bent on mastering such an unpleasant theme. It costs a great deal, and you must be rich in self to afford it. The defeated are too destitute, and the conceited don’t wish to pay.

The ropes by which you have to haul yourself up to self-knowledge are plaited from fibres of pride and self-disgust. Only the proud feel enough shame to learn who they are and have enough dignity to bear it.

How could we endure the awareness that makes us think unfavourably of ourselves, if we didn’t dare to think still worse of others? By a happy chance nature here stands us in good stead.

2 Shame teaches self-knowledge

The good have too much guileless innocence to want to know who they are, and the powerful have too much brazen cunning.

Melancholiacs best know their own hearts, and cynics are best qualified to burrow into the hearts of others. Shame flays you so that you can scan your own inward parts, and malevolence gives you the passion and detachment to dissect your fellow patients.

If you set out to learn what you are, you have to dare to think as shamelessly as you see others act. But most of us fool ourselves shamefully, so that we won’t have to feel ashamed.

A shameless age such as our own is an Eldorado for an explorer of foolishness and vanity.

Shame drives us to know ourselves, and that leaves us mired in a bog of shame.

Self-knowledge is embarrassment recollected in anxiety.

You don’t reach self-awareness till you have crossed the valley of abjection. Disgrace instils the best but most unwelcome counsels. When he plucked the pernicious apple of self-reflection, Adam learnt to feel ashamed and to hide from the Lord who knew him.

Shame is the golden inspirer. ‘Art is born of humiliation,’ as Auden said and Van Gogh proved. Shame is the charcoal, which the pressure of imagination condenses to the hard diamond of thought.

3 Guilt inculcates awareness

How could the human race have grown so perceptive, if it had not been plagued by its penchant for making moral judgements? But how could it have plumbed its depths, if it had not been unloosed from their shallowness? You can dive far enough to locate the heart’s murky treasure only if you’re weighed down by shame, but you can’t rise to the air with what you’ve found if you have not shrugged off its load. You can afford to learn who you are, if you have been bequeathed a rich allowance of guilt but don’t feel bound to keep up a dear-bought faith in your own probity.

Beware of those who know themselves. Once they have seen that the moral law would send them to the devil, what recourse do they have but to repudiate it?

Guilt is morally infertile but creatively fruitful, quickening our invention of sins and our hypocrisy in excusing them.

Hypocrites dwell so far from the wellsprings of their own acts, that they can see them with a clear eye. By disowning them they win the freedom to dissect them.

Christianity scourged the instincts till they quivered with an excoriated sentience. It was the one tool sufficiently warped and unwholesome to probe the morbid soul. Faith was the serpent which tempted us to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It revealed to us the hell that we keep hidden within us. It brought sin into the world, and sin taught us what we are, and made us more perverse and more profound. Pagan virtue was more stupefying than christian depravity. Since we have been saved, at least sin stings, attracts and instructs us more than it used. Faith forced the strong to turn hypocrite, and so gave them the poisoned fruit of self-dissection. It urged them to vivisect their sick souls. And this taught them that they are made not for charity or faith but for concupiscence and self-conviction. It flayed some, such as Augustine, Pascal, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky or Flannery O’Connor, and pricked them to catalogue each graze in a throbbing knowledge of the infernal heart.

Only a misshapen mind can focus the rays of truth till they catch fire.

The greeks did not know solitude. So how could they have learnt who they were?

4 The cost of self-knowledge

We are at once the maze, the monster and the seeker, and our self-recognition proves to be a self-consuming. The heart is a cramped labyrinth. Find its inmost chamber, and a pygmy minotaur will devour you.

If I were more acquainted with my own heart, I might not inflict on it such grave wounds, though I might not be able to bear them so lightly. Self-awareness seems to cause you no hurt, till it demolishes your life. Like an unexploded bomb, it does no damage till it’s been detonated by calamity. It is as much use as an umbrella in a lightning storm. It betrays you like a fifth columnist, who knows all that you want to keep dark and collaborates with the world to bring you down. It opens a crack in your happiness for your anguish to seep through. It skins you, and leaves you tingling at each stroke of affliction. Consciousness complicates our pain, and works up our natural fears into a nameless dread. It tells us that we each have an infinite worth, while reminding us that we are zeroes. It roots in our remembrance all that we have lost. It whispers to us from one moment to the next that we are soon to die.

We are saved from the ravages of self-knowledge by the buffer of our self-satisfaction and by the simple expedient of not thinking.

We can live through the rest of our lacks, so long as we lack self-observation too. If we gave up our hypocrisy, the world would wither to a wilderness. And if we gave up self-deception, solitude would contract to a torture chamber. ‘The art of living,’ as Pavese wrote, ‘is the art of knowing how to believe lies.’

Life is fraught with disasters, but few are more dire than self-discovery. And yet if this ever comes, our self-love lives through it unhurt.

Those who see themselves clearly look with envious contempt on the many who never meet with the misfortune of recognizing what they are.

We relish fictional characters who know their depths as much as we are repelled by real men and women who do so. It is only figures in books who can bear to know the hell that burns in their hearts, or whose knowledge we can bear. And it is only in books that dissemblers, like Iago or Satan, take in their gulls but acknowledge the truth to themselves.

We don’t trust those who tell the truth, yet we are snared by those who forge plausible falsehoods. The faithless compel our cunning faith. We see straight through the few who have seen through to their own souls. But we are hypnotized by the bright opacity of a self-swindler, especially when the swindler is us. ‘All other swindlers upon earth,’ Dickens writes, ‘are nothing to the self-swindlers.’

Your self-knowledge tempts you to doubt your own self and to mistrust others, and both these lead them to mistrust you. What reveals you to yourself will estrange you from those near you, and what estranges you from them will reveal you to yourself.

We curse those who tell lies about themselves, but we shrink still more from those who blab the truth about themselves, for fear that they might do the same to us. It’s their self-understanding that we dread and not our own. If they are so indecent as to pry into their own hearts, how much less would they scruple to pry into ours? They are like bees that can sting but not have their bowels torn out, since they’ve torn out their own. Who would want to know the few who know themselves? We withhold our faith from the truthful, and give it to those whom we can count on to lie to us as they lie to their own hearts.

Most fools have more sense than to want to know themselves any better than they do. Ignorance is the best defender of sound instinct.

Most people know their souls too remotely to blench at what they might unearth if they knew them more intimately. But there are a few who know themselves well enough to dread what they might find if they knew themselves better.

5 Self-deception

‘The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can know it?’ We have so many ways of not knowing it, and such strong incentives not to want to. We want too many other things too much. The world throbs with deception and self-deception, like the systole and diastole of the heart. Nothing is dearer to us than our cheap self-deceits which we hope to pass off on the world for a high price. The mind is a finely-tuned instrument for playing itself false.

A self-believer is bound to be a self-deceiver. All faith comes at the cost of a great deal of deception, be it of oneself or of others.

All deception starts and ends in self-deception. ‘The most successful tempters and thus the most injurious,’ as Lichtenberg said, ‘are the deluded deluders.’ To fool others, you must first fool yourself, though at times you need merely seem to.

How little effort it costs most people to keep their eyes shut to the most glaring truths.

There’s no lie that we won’t tell ourselves to justify doing whatever we think we have to do to get whatever we think we want.

We could redeem most of our faults or misfortunes if we used them to learn what we are, though most rob us of the will to do so.

We don’t see others clearly, because they are too far from us, and we don’t see ourselves, because we are too close. We don’t make out what those close to us are like, because we care too little for them. And we don’t want to make out what we are like, since we care too much. We can’t get outside our own minds, but we have no will to go within them. The motives of others seem so tangled and inscrutable because we can’t gain access to them, and our own do so since we would gain nothing from their scrutiny.

We surround ourselves with mirrors, so that we won’t see what we are. They reflect back to us precisely what we’ve made up our minds we look like.

Most people are prepared to know themselves at their fringe, so that they won’t have to find out what they are at their core. They see the margin where their self meets the world which they plan to stamp their crass will on.

We want to learn how the world works because we want to control it. But we don’t want to know what we are since we might feel that we had to control ourselves.

The few who know their soul up close are still not conversant with large tracts of it which those who are scarcely acquainted with them see straight off, as you may figure out a husband or wife more unerringly when you’ve met them once than their mate does who has lived with them for years. ‘Most people,’ Lichtenberg says, ‘are known to others better than they are known to themselves.’

Some people mistake their self for the half-truths that they hold about themselves, and some for the half-truths that their admirers hold about them.

‘We are never deceived,’ says Goethe, ‘we deceive ourselves.’ How is it that we are such shallow beings, yet such deep enigmas to our own selves? The world, which knows nothing but the outermost shows, may sound us more inwardly than we do. We shroud our motives in mystery, since most of them are so mean.

Most of us know no more of ourselves than our own self-deceptions. And that’s all we need to know to make our way in this world of fraud. To know more would do us no good, and might do us great harm.

How could we see how small we are, when we seem to cut such a large figure in our own small world?

I’m glad to hear anything of myself, so long as it’s not the truth. And I’m glad to hear the truth about everything else, and often I admit it to everyone but myself.

Some people who know their own depths are still deceived by the pasteboard masks which the world obliges them to wear.

I don’t learn who I am, since there is no one that could teach me. It is the one subject that I would have to get to know by my own introspection. ‘You are the problem,’ Kafka warns. ‘No scholar to be found far and wide.’

I predict my own moods and responses no more presciently than anyone else would, and I interpret them no more perceptively. And it’s from these slippery surmises that I form my sensations and feelings. And what course they take will be due in part to the misjudgments I make about what caused them.

Latch on to the right illusions, and you are well on your way to fulfilling your dreams.

You beat your way more directly to what you want if you’re not saddled with self-knowledge. But if you don’t know who you are, you will want what won’t satisfy you, and you will get what you don’t want. But you will be spared this knowledge too, and you will be left free to go on wanting.

Some of the most indomitable people, who would never flinch from a foe, hide from themselves their whole lives. They have to go out to face the world, since they lack the nerve to stay in and face the blank of their own self. They can stare down any threat but the truth.

We refuse to look in our own hearts in the hope that no one else will look in them, as babies shut their eyes and trust that they can’t be seen. And the world plays along with our game as we do with children.

I love myself too well to wish to know myself better. I can’t know myself in full, since some outcrop of ambition or vanity always blocks my sight. I try to dupe my rivals to gain a start on them, and I have to dupe myself so as to reap the benefit of it. Our illusions play a wide repertoire of tunes, but all in the swelling key of our conceit. No matter what tincture they are dyed in, we weave them from the unbreakable threads of our self-belief.

Self-love makes a life of self-deception absolutely essential. If we knew what we were, we might not find it quite so easy to love ourselves as we do.

I flee self-awareness, because I fear that it might cost me success. And yet at times I would choose to go under rather than grasp who I am.

I’m too lazy to get to know my real self. But how doggedly I toil to burnish the brazen figurine of my sham one.

6 We pretend to deceive ourselves

Hypocrites try to dupe others, sincere people have to dupe themselves. If you can’t hide your motivations from the world, it may be enough to pretend that you don’t know them yourself. ‘Some men,’ Bradley wrote, ‘are not liars because they always speak the truth, and others because they never do.’ No one seems more honest than those who keep up a steady pose of being taken in by their own lies.

Most of us lie to ourselves even when we seem to gain nothing by it, and the few who don’t still have to put on the guise of a decorous self-deception. If you have glimpsed the truth, it is all the more necessary that you act as if you had not. Self-discernment may be your glory, but ignorance is an excuse, and most of the time you need an excuse more pressingly than glory. We fool ourselves most of the time. But we also pretend that we need to fool ourselves still more than we do. Not even our self-deceptions are quite genuine. We are not so dainty that we can’t admit the dirty truth to ourselves once in a while. We understand who we are a speck more than we seem to, though much less than we suppose.

7 Self-concealment

People spy into you more than you guess, but less than they guess. They spot that part of you that you were so keen to hide but no more than that, and they try to ferret out all but what matters. They love to pry out a few shadowy secrets, but can make nothing of the best and most luminous part of you. Most of what we strive to conceal lies on our outside, and onlookers catch sight of it more readily than we do, since we see ourselves from within. Our secrets form our outlying precincts, which all comers get a glimpse of as they near us.

How hastily others see through me, yet how little of the truth they bring to light. Those who boast that they’re an open book would be dismayed by how much or how little those who read them find in them.

Some people put on a front of secrecy to hide that they have no secrets, and some put on a front of unreserve to hide that they do. They hoist a bright curtain of ostentatious directness in order to screen their real selves.

Few of us are alert to all the secrets that we’re attempting to hide. If we were, we might not be able to hide them so well. Those who don’t know what mischief they do still have the craft to conceal it. How deftly we parry truths that we don’t even perceive.

I want others to watch me and feel for me, but not to see through me. I waste my days fabricating an effigy of myself for them to gaze at, and then curse them when they do so from an angle that I don’t like. I long to be seen and heard but not read, to be exhibited but not exposed, displayed but not disclosed, and famous but not fathomed. I like to be illuminated by a bright stage light, but not revealed by a harsh search light.

How do the blind fend off the importunate eyes of others?

Some people have nothing to teach you, save what they don’t know of their own minds and motives. They do their best to make you share in their self-deceits, but in doing so they show you the truths that they dare not face. You learn to grasp what you are by observing those who don’t grasp what they are. Why bother to set them right? Their witless misunderstandings are more amusing and instructive than their dry correctness, and you can learn more by cultivating their self-deceptions than you would by correcting them.