The Journal of Abnormal Psychology— Volume 10

Author: Unknown

Know Thyself

The great Socratic Maxim, "Know Thyself," is one of the strongest moral precepts in Ethics. Although the sophists had already called attention to the fact that "man is the measure of all things," however they applied to the individual and not to human nature in general. "But Socrates proclaimed that this self-knowing Ego knows itself likewise as object, as the principle of the world, in which man is to find himself in order to know it."[27.]

To know one’s self implies calmness of self-possession, fearlessness and independence. Furthermore it leads one to a striking realization of one’s limitations and shortcomings, which form the foundations of success, and, as Forbes expresses it, "in this self-knowledge is the secret of blessing and success in the handling of human affairs, and right relationship with others."[28.]

Socrates, discussing his maxim with Euthydemus, gives a clear and comprehensive idea of this interesting subject: "Socrates then said: ’Tell me, Euthydemus, have you ever gone to Delphi?’ ’Yes, twice,’ replied he. ’And did you observe what is written somewhere on the temple wall, Know Thyself?’ ’I did.’ ’And did you take no thought of that inscription, or did you attend to it, and try to examine yourself to ascertain what sort of a character you are?’ ’I did not indeed try, for I thought that I knew very well already, since I should hardly know anything else if I did not know myself.’ ’But whether does he seem to you to know himself, who knows his own name merely, or he who (like people buying horses, who do not think that they know the horse that they want to know, until they have ascertained whether he is tractable or unruly, whether he is strong or weak, swift or slow, and how he is as to other points which are serviceable or disadvantageous in the use of a horse so he), having ascertained with regard to himself how he is adapted for the service of mankind, knows his own abilities?’ ’It appears to me, I must confess, that he who does not know his own abilities, does not know himself.’

" ’But is it not evident,’ said Socrates, ’that men enjoy a great number of blessings in consequence of knowing themselves, and incur a great number of evils, through being deceived in themselves? For they who know themselves know what is suitable for them, and distinguish between what they can do and what they cannot; and, by doing what they know how to do, procure for themselves what they need, and are prosperous, and by abstaining from what they do not know, live blamelessly, and avoid being unfortunate. By this knowledge of themselves too, they can form an opinion of other men, and, by their experiences of the rest of mankind, obtain for themselves what is good, and guard against what is evil.’

"But they who do not know themselves, but are deceived in their own powers, are in similar case with regard to other men, and other human affairs, and neither understand what they require, nor what they are doing, nor the character of those with whom they connect themselves, but, being in error as to all these particulars, they fail to obtain what is good, and fall into evil.

"They, on the other hand who understand what they take in hand, succeed in what they attempt, and become esteemed and honoured; those who resemble them in character willingly form connections with them; those who are unsuccessful in their affairs desire to be assisted with their advice, and to prefer them to themselves; they place in them their hopes of good and love them, on all these accounts, beyond all other men.

"But those, again, who do not know what they are doing, who make an unhappy choice in life, and are unsuccessful in what they attempt, not only incur losses and sufferings in their own affairs, but become in consequence, disreputable and ridiculous, and drag out their lives in contempt and dishonour. Among states, too, you see that such as, from ignorance of their own strength, go to war with others that are more powerful, are, some of them, utterly overthrown, and others reduced from freedom to slavery."[29.]

What Socrates attempts to show, is that self-knowledge is conducive to human happiness. Indeed, sanity in a broad sense, depends upon insight into one’s true knowledge of his limitation and capacity for adaptation. However, Socrates holds that madness is not ignorance, but admits that for "A man to be ignorant of himself, and to fancy and believe that he knew what he did not know, he considered to be something closely bordering on madness. The multitude, he observed, do not say that those are mad who make mistakes in matters of which most people are ignorant, but call those only mad who make mistakes in affairs with which most people are acquainted; for if a man should think himself so tall as to stoop when going through the gates in the city wall, or so strong as to try to lift up houses, or attempt anything else that is plainly impossible to all men, they say that he is mad; but those who make mistakes in small matters are not thought by the multitude to be mad; but just as they call ’strong desire’ ’love,’ so they call ’great disorder of intellect’ ’madness.’ "[30.]

This Socratic principle plays an important role in psychopathology; in psychoanalysis, what the physician does is to acquaint the patient with the unconscious mental processes, thus putting him in full knowledge of his condition to enable him to adjust himself to his environment. In mental diseases the prognosis of a psychosis is not looked upon so gravely when the patient has some realization of his situation, and likewise the recovery from a mental infirmity is more hopeful when the patient exhibits considerable insight into his condition. It is a well known fact that in a malignant psychosis, self-knowledge does not exist, and this in part is responsible for its malignancy. On the other hand the benignant nature of a psychoneurosis may be in part attributed to the patient’s appreciation of his affliction.

However, the Socratic maxim has another moral and social value, that is, by only knowing one’s self can one understand his fellowmen. Indeed, Plato makes Socrates say, in Phaedrus, that it is ridiculous to trouble one’s self about other things when one is still ignorant of one’s self. It is well known to every psychoanalyst that a patient cannot be analyzed by the physician unless the latter has conquered his own resistances and adjusted his complexes. The Immortal Poet, Shakespeare, truly says:

"This above all—to shine own self be true And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. " Hamlet Act I, III.


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Chicago: Unknown, "Know Thyself," The Journal of Abnormal Psychology— Volume 10, trans. Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859 in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology—Volume 10 (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed August 19, 2019,

MLA: Unknown. "Know Thyself." The Journal of Abnormal Psychology— Volume 10, translted by Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859, in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology—Volume 10, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 19 Aug. 2019.

Harvard: Unknown, 'Know Thyself' in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology— Volume 10, trans. . cited in 1831, The Journal of Abnormal Psychology—Volume 10, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 19 August 2019, from