To know one's ignorance is the best part of knowledge.
- Lao Tzu


School of Philosophy Auckland
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Mt. Eden 

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Auckland 1150


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Self knowledge and the power of observation

There is one principle or essential truth which above all others is necessary to understand if the purpose of wisdom is to be fulfilled. That is the principle of self knowledge. Without this knowledge nothing will be certain.

It is not possible to live a true and happy life without self-knowledge. Over the entrance to the ancient Delphic oracle were written the words:
Know Thyself

Likewise the Confucian teaching states,

Whoever knows essentially his own nature,
can know also that of other men and can penetrate into the nature of beings.
He can collaborate in the transformation and the progress of heaven and earth.

Without this knowledge, Seneca said:

How can the soul which misunderstands Itself have a sure idea of other creatures?

There is the famous statement by Shakespeare in Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

What do we understand by ‘self-knowledge’?

What is the self of which these words speak? Do you recognise in practise that when we you are true to yourself you act truly towards others? Likewise would you agree that if you ever act falsely towards others we are not being true to yourself?

Self-knowledge is stated by the Delphic oracle to be the pre-eminent knowledge. How may we come to this? There is a Zen story which has something to teach us.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’ ‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Be still and know

We must approach self knowledge with an open and still mind. To gain self-knowledge is not just a matter of theory or ideas. It is also a question of being. When we are fully at rest, without any particular desires or thoughts troubling the mind, we can gain a sense of something which is eternal, quite beyond the ordinary experience. Sometimes this is experienced in a place of great natural beauty, at other times whilst engaged in action of one kind or another. Great sportsmen often speak of this.

One woman who is a student in these courses had a
mountaineering accident and broke her leg. She was
unable to move and had to wait for some hours for help to
arrive. The weather conditions were poor and she felt that
she might lose her life. After a time however she simply
became aware of herself, the surroundings and a little later
the rescue helicopter circling above her. The experience
was of being quite beyond any of the physical circumstances,
utterly serene, still and totally content. There was not fear at
all. She knew that no harm could come to her.)

Self knowledge is the most important of all knowledge. Where an individual has a doubt about what he or she really is, that doubt is reflected everywhere and in everything. There is an underlying uncertainty in life which at times may seem greater or less but which in some measure is always present.
In ordinary living one person is called upon to play many parts, often changing at great speed. Thus someone may be father, son or brother; mother, daughter or sister; employer or employee and a host of other such relationships. All of this leaves open the question, ‘What really, if anything, is constant in all this?’

Without such knowledge the possibilities for confusion and complexity are endless. On the other hand with self-knowledge it is possible to proceed through life with confidence, clarity and courage.

Who am I, the changing or the unchanging?

It is possible to learn to recognise the unchanging within us more fully. Such a recognition does bring with it greater confidence, clarity and courage. There is a story to illustrate this:

There was a lion cub who by chance was misled into a flock of sheep and was taken by the shepherds. He grew up with the sheep and acquired their manners, although his form was different. He would eat the grass and make sounds like a sheep. One day, when the sheep were grazing, a lion happened to come that way, and on seeing the sheep he roared. The sheep ran away, but the cub stood, and having seen the familiar form, he walked up to the lion with affection. The lion took him under his influence and once again the sheep-lion became a real lion.

The story illustrates a number of simple facts:
  • Firstly the lion cub always was a lion cub. He had only forgotten his true nature and believed himself to be a sheep.
  • Secondly, due to this forgetting the lion cub acquired the manners and habits of a sheep.
  • Thirdly, some outside influence was needed to remind the cub of who he was.

Simple observation opens the door to deeper knowledge

In the practice of philosophy it is one thing to hear the ideas that are spoken about and it is another really to penetrate these ideas so that their fuller meanings become evident. In order that this may happen it is most helpful to proceed by way of observation.
The actual observation of what has happened or what is happening is an invaluable tool for the philosopher who aims to perfect the art of living. When something is heard with an open mind and then applied in practice, it becomes possible to see more clearly the truth or lack of truth in what was heard. The results of that can then be observed and if appropriate spoken of and shared with others here.
For example, many of the greatest scientific discoveries are the result of simple observation. Thus it is said that James Watt saw a kettle boiling and how the steam lifted the lid off the kettle and realised that the steam could lift a piston and drive a steam engine. He went on to devise what became the modern steam engine.

Likewise there is the case of Archimedes who worked for a king. The king wanted a crown to be made of gold but did not trust the jewellers. He thought they would steal some of the gold and replace it with silver and that he would not be able to tell whether this had happened if the weight remained the same. He asked Archimedes to help. Archimedes knew that gold was a denser substance than silver and if the jewellers substituted some silver for gold and the weight remained the same, the crown would have to be larger than if made of pure gold. But how could the size be measured? Later Archimedes was getting into his bath and observed the displacement of water. He shouted ‘Eureka’ (from Greek, meaning “I have found it”) realising that the same method of displacement could be used to measure the volume of such an awkward shape as a crown.

It is astonishing that such discoveries can come from simple observation. In the same way, observation can and will lead us to wisdom and self-knowledge.