Know thyself

Know thyself
A stained glass window in a public building in Ludwigshafen, Germany with the contracted version γνῶθι σαυτόν.

The Ancient Greek aphorism "Know thyself", Greek: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, English phonetics pronunciation: gnōthi seauton (also ... σαυτόν ... sauton with the ε contracted), was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek periegetic (travelogue) writer Pausanias (10.24.1).[1]

The maxim, or aphorism, "Know Thyself" has had a variety of meanings attributed to it in literature. The Suda, a tenth century encyclopedia of Greek Knowledge, says: "the proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are,"[2] and that "know thyself" is a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude.[3]

In Latin, the aphorism is generally given as nosce te ipsum.[4]



The aphorism has been attributed to at least the following ancient Greek sages:

Diogenes Laertius attributes it to Thales (Lives I.40), but also notes that Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers attributes it to Phemonoe, a mythical Greek poetess, though admitting that it was appropriated by Chilon. In a discussion of moderation and self-awareness, the Roman poet Juvenal quotes the phrase in Greek and states that the precept descended de caelo (from heaven) (Satire 11.27). The 10th Century Byzantine Encyclopedia the Suda, recognized Chilon[15] and Thales [16] as the sources of the maxim "Know Thyself."

The authenticity of all such attributions has been doubted; according to one pair of modern scholars, "The actual authorship of the three maxims set up on the Delphian temple may be left uncertain. Most likely they were popular proverbs, which tended later to be attributed to particular sages."[17][18]


By Plato

Plato employs the maxim 'Know Thyself' extensively by having the character of Socrates use it to motivate his dialogues. Plato makes it clear that Socrates is referring to a long-established wisdom. Benjamin Jowett's index to his translation of the Dialogues of Plato lists six dialogues which discuss or explore the saying of Delphi: 'know thyself.' These dialogues (and the Stephanus numbers indexing the pages where these discussions begin) are Charmides (164D), Protagoras (343B), Phaedrus (229E), Philebus (48C), Laws (II.923A), I Alcibiades (124A, 129A, 132C).[19]

In Plato's Charmides (dialogue), Charmides refers to the maxim consistently with the view expressed in the Suda, with Charmides saying, "for they imagined that 'Know Thyself!' was a piece of advice which the god gave and not his salutation of the worshippers at their first coming in."[20] In modern words Charmides gives his opinion that 'Know Thyself!' was an admonition to those entering the sacred temple to remember or know their place and Charmides says, " 'know thyself!' and 'be temperate!' are the same. Notice that when the words of Charmides are written, 'thyself' and 'temperate' are punctuated with exclamation marks in the English translations,as if they were commands.[21] In the balance of the Charmides (dialogue), Plato has Socrates lead a longer inquiry as to how we may gain knowledge of ourselves.

In Plato's Phaedrus (dialogue), Socrates uses the maxim 'know thyself' as his explanation to Phaedrus for why he has no time for mythology or other far flung topics. Socrates says, "But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things."[22]

In Plato's Protagoras (dialogue), Socrates lauds the authors of pithy and concise sayings delivered precisely at the right moment and says that Lacedaemon, or Sparta, educates its people to that end. Socrates lists the Seven Sages as Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, and Chilon, who he says are gifted in that Lacedaemonian art of concise words "twisted together, like a bowstring, where a slight effort gives great force."[23] Socrates says examples of them are, "the far-famed inscriptions, which are in all men's mouths,--'Know thyself,' and 'Nothing too much.".[24] Having lauded the maxims, Socrates then spends a great deal of time getting to the bottom of what one of them means, the saying of Pittacus, 'Hard is it to be good.' The irony here is that although the sayings of Delphi bear 'great force,' it is not clear how to live life in accordance with their meanings.

In Plato's Philebus dialogue, Socrates refers back to the same usage of 'know thyself' from Phaedrus (dialogue) to build an example of the ridiculous for Protarchus. Socrates says, as he did in Phaedrus, that people make themselves appear ridiculous when they are trying to know obscure things before they know themselves.[25] Plato also eluded to the fact that understanding 'thyself,' would have a greater yielded factor of understanding the nature of a human being. Syllogistically, understanding onself would enable thyself to have an understanding of others as a result.

By contemporaries of Socrates

Like Plato, Xenophon reports Socrates's use of the saying 'Know Thyself' as an organizing theme for a long dialogue with Euthydymus in Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates.[26]

Aristophanes is the third contemporary of Socrates whose descriptions of Socrates and his teaching remain extant. In The Clouds, Aristophanes makes a mockery of philosophers in general and Socrates in particular. The words γνώσει δὲ σαυτὸν (and know yourself) are used in The Clouds by a father deriding his son for his lack of learning, "And you will know yourself, how ignorant and stupid you are."[27]

Later usage

Detail from the 6th edition of Linnaeus' Systema Naturae (1748). "HOMO. Nosce te ipsum."

From 1539 onwards the phrase nosce te ipsum and its Latin variants were often used in the anonymous texts written for anatomical fugitive sheets printed in Venice as well as for later anatomical atlases printed throughout Europe. The 1530s fugitive sheets are the first instances in which the phrase was applied to knowledge of the human body attained through dissection.[28]

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes used the term 'nosce teipsum' which he translated as 'read thyself' in his famous work, The Leviathan. He was responding to a popular philosophy at the time that you can learn more by studying others than you can from reading books. He asserts that one learns more by studying oneself: particularly the feelings that influence our thoughts and motivate our actions. As Hobbes states, "but to teach us that for the similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man, to the thoughts and passions of another, whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth when he does think, opine, reason, hope, fear, etc., and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know what are the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasions."[29]

In 1711, Alexander Pope wrote a poem entitled "An Essay on Man, Epistle II", which begins "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man."[30]

In 1735, Carl Linnaeus published the first edition of Systema Naturae in which he described humans (Homo) with the simple phrase "Nosce te ipsum."[31]

In 1750 Benjamin Franklin, in his Poor Richard's Almanack, observed the great difficulty of knowing one's self, with: "There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one's self." [32]

In 1831, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem entitled "Γνώθι Σεαυτόν", or Gnothi Seauton ('Know Thyself'), on the theme of 'God in thee.' The poem was an anthem to Emerson's belief that to 'know thyself' meant knowing the God which Emerson felt existed within each person.[33]

In 1832, Samuel T. Coleridge wrote a poem entitled "Self Knowledge" in which the text centers on the Delphic maxim 'Know Thyself' beginning, 'Gnôthi seauton!--and is this the prime And heaven-sprung adage of the olden time!--' and ending with 'Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!' Coleridge's text references JUVENAL, xi. 27.[34]

See also


  1. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, Paus. 10.24
  2. ^ 'Know Thyself' as an admonition, in "Know Thyself." Suda On Line. Tr. Catherine Roth. 13 Aug 2002. 15 Feb 2011 <>.
  3. ^ 'Know the value of Thyself' rightly, in "Know Thyself." Suda On Line. Tr. Catherine Roth. 13 Aug 2002. 15 Feb 2011 <>.
  4. ^ "Nosce te ipsum - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". 2010-08-13. Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  5. ^ Bias of Priene, in Plato's Protagoras (343a-343b) Socrates lists Bias as one of the seven sources of the Delphic maxims including "Know Thyself." <>
  6. ^ Chilon of Sparta, a 10th Cen. Byzantine scholia in the Suda attributed the aphorism to Chilon. "Know Thyself." Suda On Line. Tr. Catherine Roth. 13 Aug 2002. 15 Feb 2011 <>.
  7. ^ Cleobulus of Lindus, in Plato's Protagoras (343a-343b) Socrates lists Cleobulus as one of the seven sages who were sources of the Delphic maxims including "Know Thyself." <>.
  8. ^ Doctoral Thesis, "Know Thyself in Greek and Latin Literature," Eliza G. Wilkens, U. Chi, 1917,pg. 12.<>
  9. ^ Myson of Chenae, in Plato's Protagoras (343a-343b) Socrates lists Myson as one of the seven sages who were sources of the Delphic maxims including "Know Thyself." <>.
  10. ^ Pausanias 10.24.1 mentions a controversy over whether Periander should be listed as the seventh sage instead of Myson. But Socrates who is cited by Pausanias as his source supports Myson. Paus. 10.24
  11. ^ Pittacus of Mitylene, in Plato's Protagoras (343a-343b) Socrates lists Pittacus as one of the seven sages who were sources of the Delphic maxims including "Know Thyself." <>.
  12. ^ Socrates, Socrates refers to it in Plato's Philebus 48c, and Phaedrus 229e as a saying of Delphi. The Tufts Perseus web site shows Philebus text as: <,know>.
  13. ^ Solon of Athens, in Plato's Protagoras (343a-343b) Socrates lists Solon as one of the seven sages who were sources of the Delphic maxims including "Know Thyself." <>.
  14. ^ Thales of Miletus, a 10th Cen. Byzantine scholia in the Suda attributed the aphorism to Thales. "Thales." Suda On Line. Tr. Ross Scaife, 28 Nov 2001. 15 Feb 2011. <>.
  15. ^ <>
  16. ^ <>.
  17. ^ H. Parke and D. Wormell, The Delphic Oracle, (Basil Blackwell, 1956), vol. 1, p. 389.
  18. ^ Dempsey, T., Delphic Oracle: Its Early History, Influence & Fall, Oxford : B.H. Blackwell, 1918. With a prefatory note by R.S. Conway. Cf. pp.141-142 (Alternative source for book at Internet Archive in various formats)
  19. ^ Plato, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by Benjamin Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892), (See Index: Knowledge; 'know thyself' at Delphi).
  20. ^ Charmides states the meaning of 'know thyself' in Plato's Charmides (165a),<>
  21. ^ Charmides says 'know thyself!' and 'be temperate!' are the same in Plato's Charmides (164e), <>
  22. ^ Socrates uses the saying 'know thyself' to explain what is important for him to know.
  23. ^ Socrates lists the authors of Delphi's sayings. <>
  24. ^ Socrates seeks to understand 'Know thyself' as pithy, concise wisdom. <>
  25. ^ Socrates use of 'Know thyself' in Philebus (48c)
  26. ^ Xenophon describes Socrates use of 'Know Thyself' in Memorabilia 4.2.24 <>
  27. ^ Aristophanes use of 'Know Thyself' in The Clouds Card 814. <>.
  28. ^ William Schupbach, The Paradox of Rembrandt's "Anatomy of Dr. Tulp (Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine: London, 1982), pp. 67-68
  29. ^ Hobbes, Thomas. "The Leviathan". Civil peace and social unity through perfect government. Oregon State University: Phl 302, Great Voyages: the History of Western Philosophy from 1492-1776, Winter 1997. Retrieved 6/1/2011. 
  30. ^ Alexander Pope begins his Essay on Man Epistle II "Know then thyself." <>.
  31. ^
  32. ^ Ben Franklin observes that it is extremely hard to know oneself. <>.
  33. ^ Ralph Waldo Emerson Gnothe Seauton, Poem 1831. <>.
  34. ^ Samuel T. Coleridge wrote the poem 'Self Knowledge' discussing 'Gnôthi seauton' or know thyself. <>.

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