Know Thyself


Arts & Culture

Frank Markham Skipworth, The Mirror, 1911. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was first beginning to teach, in graduate school, a friend of mine with more experience in the classroom told me about a study she’d come across. I can’t say whether this study actually exists. I’ve never looked for it, and it strikes me now as one of those well-traveled anecdotes that’s been passed from hand to hand, accumulating more baggage along the way, like blockchain. The study, she told me, found that students who were asked to evaluate their instructor five seconds into the first class of the semester gave more or less the same rating as they did at the end of the term. The instructor who was liked upon entering the room was still liked three months later. The instructor who appeared severe had not managed to change any minds.

Despite its implicit fatalism, my friend claimed that she found the study’s conclusion solacing. Once you accepted that your character was immediately transparent, there was no pressure to keep up appearances. If I felt nervous about how I was coming off throughout the semester, she advised, I should remember that the students’ minds were already made up. They’d had me figured out before I’d placed my supplies on the desk the first day, and nothing I could do would change it.

This is among the more deranged bits of advice I have received in my life. More than once, her words have popped into my head as I’ve approached a lectern or shaken someone’s hand for the first time. What is it that others discern so conclusively in those five seconds? It seemed to me a parable about the limits of self-knowledge. We spend our lives trying to figure out what kind of person we are, but others can understand us, in our entirety, at a glance.

Our identity “is implicit in everything we say and do,” writes Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, but we cannot see it ourselves. “On the contrary, it is more than likely that the ‘who,’ which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.”

The daimon—literally, “fate”—was a guardian spirit randomly assigned to a person at birth. If you were considered a blessed person, then your daimon was believed to be good. If you were mischievous, cowardly, or evil, this, too, was the fault of your guiding spirit. I imagine them like gargoyles, perched on the shoulders of their assigned humans (it’s hard for the English speaker not to think of the derivative demon). We cannot see our own daimon, but we occasionally catch glimpses. Most of us have heard ourselves described in terms that are fundamentally alien to our self-image. (“You’re always so earnest,” says the overly candid friend.) Camus once described such moments as encounters with the absurd: “The stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in the mirror, the familiar yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs.”

Mirrors, photographs, recordings—these technologies promise to reveal the daimon, to show us the self that others see. But how many of us can bear the evidence? A year or so ago, a well-known actor stormed out of a radio studio when a clip from one of his films was played during the interview, so intensely did he loathe the sound of his recorded voice. The story, which went viral for a day or two, could have easily been dismissed as another case of male egotism. Instead everyone decided, in that occult manner by which consensus coalesces online, to forgive him. Mental health was a common defense. I think we recognized his disgust all too well.

There is no alienation more profound than alienation from one’s voice, longtime synecdoche for the soul. More than once, after public speaking, I have been told that my voice is “soothing,” or some adjective to that effect. Those who said it earnestly believed, I think, that they were delivering a compliment, as though it were not common knowledge that good speakers are, first and foremost, dynamic. The self I knew was certain of her ideals and enthusiastic about her convictions, so how could my voice signal otherwise? But whenever I listened to recordings of myself, I could hear it: a flatness, feathered around the edges. And despite attempts to be more animated, I cannot seem to change it.

For the Greeks, character was fate. The command of the Delphic oracle—“Know thyself”—was not a mandate to plumb the soul but rather to accept the role that nature had assigned you, like an actor accepting a role in the theater. It’s not the kind of advice you hear very often in modern America, but fatalism, as my friend noted, has comforts of its own. When Virginia Woolf became consumed with jealousy over hearing another writer praised, she did not rush upstairs to her desk to try to do better. She walked for hours across the marsh muttering to herself, “I am I.”


Everyone believes they are the foremost authority on their own soul. For millennia, philosophers have argued otherwise. Plotinus was the first to point out that self-knowledge entails a weird self-doubling. If we are able to know ourselves, who is doing the knowing? And what is it, exactly, that is known? Schopenhauer called this predicament Weltknoten, the “world knot,” a paradox that many modern philosophers have solved by eliminating, wholesale, the interior view. The self is a bourgeois construct, a grammatical mistake, a software program designed to model potential actions and assess their survival payoffs.

It’s an unnerving thought for anyone, though especially for those of us who feel most ourselves when alone. When I was younger, my sense of self appeared most clearly when I was cloistered from the world and then disappeared the moment I was forced to interact with others. I left every social event haunted by my daimon, which was always saying things I did not mean, laughing at jokes I did not find funny, contributing to gossip about people I had nothing against. I always resolved to stop, to do better, but my actions appeared truly possessed, governed by a biological autopilot I was powerless to override.

If a soul exists only in private, can it be said to exist at all?

Like many people who become writers, I believed the page offered a way out, a loophole in the world knot. It was only there, with work and deliberation, that the soul became flesh and I could speak in a voice I recognized as my own. The self could in fact be doubled into object and observer, persona and author. Wasn’t this philosophically profound? Consciousness could be dismissed as an illusion, but words on paper could not. And where had those words originated if not from the self I alone knew best?

But I am no longer so naive. Language, while you’re working with it, is fluid and supple, tempting you to believe it can preserve the living, breathing soul. Return years later to something you wrote, though, and you will find in place of your reflection the stony grimace of the gargoyle. All your vanities and self-delusions, everything you were blind to—it’s all right there for the world to see. A writer friend of mine put it this way: “I can tell, of course, that I’m the one who wrote it, the way I can recognize my voice in recordings. But it’s not me.”

Writing is no longer considered a technology, but in its early days, it, too, was criticized for distorting a person’s image. The problem, Socrates complains in Plato’s Phaedrus, is that consciousness dies the moment it hits the page. Ask the written words a question, and they will not answer. “They go on telling just the same thing forever.”


What we want is to see the self objectively—not from any particular view but from a perspective that is neutral, impartial, and eternal. This is why we invented God, the original view from nowhere, a consciousness floating high in the ether, untainted by the spatial and temporal, capable of seeing the entire world sub specie aeternitatis.

Today we would say “at scale.” Algorithms, like the gods of ages past, know us objectively because they see the world in petabytes, from heights we cannot even fathom, and also because they think only in math, which has no opinions (or so it’s believed). But what do they have to say about us? So little of it is revelatory.

This product, the algorithms claim, was purchased by “people like you.”

“Since you like dark indie comedies … ”

The contemporary experience of the absurd: to see oneself as the machines do, as a faceless member of a data set, the soul reduced to the crude language of consumer categories. But quarreling with predictive analytics is as futile as arguing with fate. The numbers don’t lie. I did watch those movies.

We take consolation in the belief that we can still control our digital image. The teenager creating her first profile must experience the same thrill of possibility I felt putting pen to page: here is a medium—information! form without substance!that can transmit and preserve the immaterial soul. But when she scrolls through her posts years later, won’t she, too, find that her self has solidified, that the idol has betrayed her? Words, once they leave the mind, become part of the material, mechanical world: they keep saying the same things.

Marshall McLuhan once pointed out that the myth of Narcissus is frequently misinterpreted. It is not love that causes the youth to stare at his image, but profound alienation. The point of the myth is that “men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.” Stare too long at the objectivized self and you will become the dead matter you behold. The alienation will eventually subside, and you will begin to identify so fully with the daimon that the interior self disappears.

Several years ago, during a season when I was doing a number of podcasts and radio appearances, I began to hear my true voice, the one from the recordings, instead of the voice in my head. The shift was decisive—it never shifted back. I can no longer remember my private voice, or rather I can remember it vaguely, like the voice of a loved one who has died. The actor who stormed out of the studio was trying to avoid this fate, clinging to his private image, closing his ears against all evidence to the contrary. How many celebrities have the same resolve? You can stand beside the public self for only so long, a custodian to a statue, before the alienation becomes intolerable and you resolve to inhabit the detestable monument. Guy de Maupassant ate lunch every day at a restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower, despite not liking the food. It was the only place in Paris, he said, where he didn’t have to look at it.


In college, I became friends with a woman I deeply admired who possessed many of the qualities I’d always reviled in myself. On her, they did not look like faults. She was soft-spoken but not timid, methodical but not rigid. When she showed up to class in mismatched clothes, without having brushed her hair, it was not evidence of carelessness but a sign of how serious she was. I doubt that I wore the same qualities as well as she did, but she changed the way I thought about them.

Aristotle taught that knowledge of self could be found through knowledge of the other. We understand what it means to be noble and honest because we see and admire these qualities in our friends. We recognize that our own actions are vile only when we see someone else doing the same. One of his followers put it this way: “So as when we want to see our own face, we see it by looking in a mirror, similarly when we wish to know ourselves, we can do so by looking at a friend, for a friend, as we say, is another self.”

The drama of self-knowledge is often presented as a war between subjective and objective, an eternal tension between the first person and the omniscient third. We hunt for the perfectly neutral reflection, listen for our souls in the echo traveling down our communications channels. But a medium is only a medium if there is someone on the other end. A blank page is no more a mirror than an algorithm is. Consciousness can be reflected only by another consciousness.

Christ believed we saw faults in others that we remained blind to in ourselves: you criticize the splinter in your brother’s eye while ignoring the log in your own. But are we not also more ready to forgive others their faults than we are to forgive ourselves our own? A common tactic in therapy is to ask the patient to comfort herself as though she were another person, in some cases a child. It is within this space of intersubjectivity that it becomes possible to see oneself clearly and experience compassion.

Simone Weil: “I am also other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.”

If the writing process offers any glimmers of enlightenment, it stems from the effort to see yourself through the eyes of the reader, to put yourself in her place and read your words as though they were the words of another. Writing is not a reflection of the self but its transmutation. The act requires externalizing the contents of one’s mind into a new form that can be seen and understood by someone else. There is no other avenue to self-knowledge.

The novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein argues that writing is an act of self-recognition, but one that requires two parties. “This very private, personal, particular chunk of one’s inner life must be turned, in the process of its objectification, into something that will be receptive to reciprocal influxes from the inner lives of readers.”

I suppose that is what I am doing now—what I have been doing for most of my life: sending my daimon out into the world so that you can see it, so that I can, too.


Meghan O’Gieblyn’s book God Human Animal Machine will be published by Doubleday in August.