The first century orator Dio Chrysostom narrates a conversation between the famous Cynic Diogenes and a pilgrim on his way to visit the oracle at Delphi. Delayed in his journey because of a runaway slave, the pilgrim runs into Diogenes who then engages him in a lengthy discussion that focuses on the relationship between knowledge, use, and purpose. Over the course of the dialogue, Diogenes convinces the pilgrim that he cannot possibly know how to treat anything, including a slave, if he does not understand it.

After the pilgrim concedes Diogenes’ point, the Cynic presses further, asking, “”Is there anyone, then, who can make use of himself who does not know himself?”

“How could he?” replies the pilgrim.

“Because the one who does not understand man is unable to ‘use’ man?” Diogenes intones.

“Yes, Diogenes because he cannot.”

Diogenes now brings the matter home. “So,” he inquires, “he who does not understand himself would not be able to make use of himself, would he?”

“I believe not,” the weary pilgrim admits.

After a brief pause, Diogenes wonders aloud, “Have you ever heard of the inscription at Delphi: ‘Know thyself’?”

“I have,” replies the pilgrim.

“Is it not plain that the god gives this command to all, in the belief that they do not know themselves?”

The pilgrim answers, “So, it would seem.”

“You,” Diogenes gently prods, “therefore, would be included in the ‘all’?”

With impatience rising, the pilgrim blurts out, “Of course.”

“So then you also do not know yourself?”

As Diogenes’ arrow hits its mark, the pilgrim confesses, “I guess not.”

“And not knowing yourself,” Diogenes concludes, “you do not know man; and not knowing man, you are unable to ‘use’ man; and yet, although you are unable to ‘use’ a man, you are attempting to ‘use’ a god, an attempt which we agree is altogether the greater and more difficult of the two.”

Diogenes wants us to realize that to use anything without proper knowledge of it is to increase the probability that harm will come. The basic moral principle “do no harm” cannot be fulfilled without true knowledge. He further suggests that self-knowledge is communitarian insofar as it presupposes a connection between individual humans and humanity. The pilgrim does not understand human being and therefore cannot understand himself as a member of the human race. 

Origen offers a Christian adjustment to the Delphic admonition to “know thyself” by placing it in the context of the love affair described in the Song of Songs. In response to the Shulamite’s probing as to where to find him, the man responds, “if you do not know, most beautiful of women. . .” (1:8), which the Septuagint renders “If you do not know yourself.” The man’s response to the query is to turn the question back on the young Shulamite with the implication that unless she comes to know her own beauty as reflective of another form she will not discover what calls forth that beauty. To find her lover, she must find herself; to find herself, she must find her lover. The Shulamite woman had already declared, “I am black and beautiful.” With the command to know thyself, Origen suggests that God wants to put her in touch with the beauty she received and receives as gift since her own beauty is genuine, yet derivative, a participation in divine beauty.

It is this clue about the relational nature of life that Origen uses to connect the Delphic admonition with Christian discourse. Self-knowledge occurs through participation in the structures of life, not in a withdrawal into the self. Gregory of Nyssa makes the point more forcefully by asserting that the “disposition of desire” in human nature, prompting humans to reach out toward the other, is itself evidence of incompleteness. In the Symposium, Socrates makes a similar statement: “love is always the love of something and that something is what it lacks.”As Calvin states at the beginning of the Institutes, “our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God.”

Here lies the challenge of the journey to know the self: The soul can be deceived by some imitation of beauty. The deception is that the moon is somehow the sun, that what simply reflects is somehow the source. Self-knowledge is more than participatory and relational, it also has a moral dimension since one cannot use properly what one does not understand. This moral act of discernment is not reducible to the autonomous self. For Origen, on the contrary, self-knowledge unfolds as a kind of theo-drama between God, the church, and the self. This drama is the historical outworking of an internal triune love, re-enacted every Sabbath, that calls into existence a community of players—a corpus mysticum—within which the form of love takes root so that the flight of freedom can find its true mark.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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