How to “Know Thyself”: 5 practical steps to fulfilling the Socratic maxim


Plato and Aristotle close up

Aristotle in The Art of Rhetoric analyzes the most important subjects of deliberative oratory (one of his three genres of rhetorical speech). He narrows deliberation to five main categories: revenue, war and peace, the defense of the realm, imports and exports, and legislation.

Not a thrilling list at first glance, but reading through the text I noticed a beautiful parallel between these things and some of the very elements I believe most important for self-analysis.

If one thinks it through it is not difficult to imagine the individual’s management of his or her mental life as a microcosm of, say, a mayor managing a city. If it seems difficult hopefully it will make sense in the next 4 to 5 minutes. I’ll start each section with a brief retelling of Aristotle’s thoughts followed by the parallels I see for the would-be “self-knower”.

  1. Revenue

Aristotle: “The would-be orator must know the nature and extent of the city’s sources of income, so that if any is deficient it may be topped up and if any is inadequate it may be augmented.”

Me: It seems wise for the would-be self-knower to focus attention on the sources of his or her mental energy. Sources of mental energy are the “income” which makes for inward richness. Without a continuous source of energy one becomes flat, easily drained, easily depressed.

Sometimes it’s not even about gaining more energy, but rather about conserving the energy you already have, i.e., not spending it on frivolous, trivial things that do not add to your overall happiness in life.

And just as with a city’s revenue sources, one’s mental power sources are not necessarily constant. They are often malleable, changing with the seasons of life. It is important to remain aware and open to these changes for continued growth. We all know people whose chronological age is much greater than their emotional age, and this is due in part to holding on to past sources of mental energy that have long since dried up. Follow your psychic libido, as Carl Jung would put it, and you’ll always have a source of mental energy.

  1. War and Peace

Aristotle: “The speaker must know both the present and the potential strength of the city… the speaker should have made a study not only of his own city’s wars but also those of other cities and their outcomes.”

Me: The self-knower must become aware of his or her true present and potential mental strength. When assessing our own mental strength we tend to error in one of two ways: either we comically oversell or tragically undersell our true mental abilities to both ourselves and others.

This often occurs because we compare ourselves with others who are in a different class of mental strength. For example, I would love to be the next Viktor Frankl. Outside of my religion (Orthodox Christianity) I cannot think of a person with more insight into the true human condition. This is partly because Frankl was not only a psychiatrist and a neurologist, but, most importantly, he was a survivor of four Nazi concentration camps (including Auschwitz and Dachau). His resume seems unparalleled in the field of psychology. To imagine myself gaining the sort of psychological insights that Frankl was capable of without his education or experience is quite a long-shot to say the least. To believe I am the next Frankl would be to comically oversell myself.

In short, knowing your true mental strengths – both present and potential – is to be able to know your true boundaries. This saves you from adopting artificial boundaries foisted on you by the expectations of others. To quote Jung again, “Your life will not take kindly to being hemmed in by artificial barriers. Life wants to jump over such barriers and you will fall out with yourself” (The Red Book).

  1. The Defense of the Realm

Aristotle: “The speaker must not be unaware of how the city is defended. He must know the numbers of the guard and the character and location of the guard-posts, so that if the guard is inadequate it may be bolstered and if supernumerary pruned and the concentration be more on the vital points.”

Me: You, the self-knower, must come to understand how you defend yourself internally. Much of the field of psychotherapy involves helping people to see what defense mechanisms they use to protect their emotionally vulnerable areas. The reason for this is twofold: (a) to help them determine if the defense mechanism is a healthy one or a pathological one, and (b) to help them uncover what is really being defended. Often times a defense mechanism is in place on an unconscious level, defending against unconscious hurts and fears.

A good place to start with this is to find a list of common defense mechanisms and their definitions. Read them over and employ someone whom you know and trust to read them as well. Determine what you think yours are and allow your confidant to give his or her opinion. This will give you a good base to work with. Then monitor your emotions and reactions to things during your daily life. In what situation do you find your defense mechanisms rising up? Are there any people or occasions that easily trigger you? What emotions do these things stir up? What do you think might be the real source of the emotions? Etc. This process can take a long time, but it’s well worth it. The degree to which you understand how and why you react to the things you do is the same degree to which you get to control yourself emotionally, as opposed to letting others control you emotionally.

  1. Imports and Exports

Aristotle: “As to the food supply, he must know the extent and nature of what outlay suffices the city, both on home-grown and imported goods, and what produce should be exported, what imported, so that there may be treaties and agreements with trading partners.”

Me: To know yourself is to know how you like to be treated (imports) and how you treat others (exports). It doesn’t take much to know how you like to be treated; most people seem to have this one pretty well managed. What I find that people struggle with is realizing how they treat others.

A good resource for this step is the now classic text “The Five Love Languages,” by Gary D. Chapman. The book describes 5 basic categories of how people give love and receive love, it also comes with a handy self-test to help you better determine your own language. But for me the most interesting lesson in the book is idea that people tend to give love in the same manner that they receive love. The trouble is, not everybody receives love the same way. For practical purposes, this means you are likely great at showing care for 20% of the people you know and struggle with the remaining 80%. The beauty, though, is that you can change this fairly easily just by becoming sensitive to the different forms of “exports” (of care) that come easily to you and which ones need work. This will help establish “treaties” and “agreements” with others.

  1. Legislation

Aristotle: “In the laws lies the salvation of the state. It follows that the orator must know how many forms there are of constitution, what measures are advantageous to each and by what intrinsic or antagonistic factors they are prone to be overthrown. The means of destruction by intrinsic factors is that, apart from the ideal constitution, all the other forms of constitution are destroyed by excessive relaxation or intensity.”

Me: You the self-knower must become familiar with how you are constituted emotionally, and then you will be able to know by what means you are best governed. The four categories that came before set you up to understand how you are constituted: (1) where you derive your mental energy, (2) your true mental strength, (3) how and why you defend yourself emotionally and (4) how you like to be treated and how you treat others.

At this point you’ve begun to better understand how you ‘tick’ mentally. Now the task is to figure out what method or practice helps you flourish the most – what method or practice will best keep you true to your true self. In short, you must work to answer the question of what will keep you moving in the direction of self-actualization (Maslow), individuation (Jung), self-transcendence (Frankl), or whatever you wish to call it. As Aristotle cautioned the orator, both excessive relaxation and intensity will destroy one’s constitution. You must find the right balance to guide your own mental life.


4 thoughts on “How to “Know Thyself”: 5 practical steps to fulfilling the Socratic maxim

  1. Certainly you read the letter of Pope John Paul II where he quotes the Oracle of Delphi in Faith and Reason.


    1. In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded—as it must—within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life. The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”.

    Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?

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