“Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburger”*… 

 

Know Thyself

An anonymous 17th-century allegorical painting inscribed Nosce te Ipsum (Know thyself)

 

We all know the most famous bit of ancient advice inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know thyself. It’s a powerful and daunting recommendation. If you take it seriously, you will begin to push through all of the misconceptions you have, not only about yourself but about human beings generally. You will begin to think deeply about who you really are and who you ought to be. You might start making life-altering decisions, decisions that (if you are right) bring you into harmony with your nature and your circumstances, or (if you are wrong) turn your life into a big mistake. There should be little wonder that this one command is the highest command of all philosophy: follow it like a religious law, and – one way or another – you will be a great philosopher.

But this powerful command is in fact just one of some 147 apophthegmata (pithy words of wisdom) inscribed upon a stone monument at Delphi. It’s not clear where these lesser-known maxims came from. The ancient compiler Stobaeus attributed them to the Seven Sages – wise men of the sixth century BCE, such as Solon and Thales – but maybe they were generated in the same hazy way that all instances of folk wisdom (sticks and stones, stitch in time, etc) are generated, and then set in stone for the benefit of later seekers of wisdom – such as us.

Some of these maxims are, for us, complete nonstarters…

Appraise the advise at “More than ‘know thyself’: on all the other Delphic maxims.”

* variously attributed to Mark Twain, Abbie Hoffman, and Aardvark Magazine

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As we wonder about wisdom, we might send well-worded birthday greetings to Samuel Johnson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Johnson’s best-known work was surely  A Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755, after nine years work– and which served as the standard for 150 years (until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary).  But Dr. Johnson, as he was known, is probably best remembered as the subject of what Walter Jackson Bate noted is “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.  A famous aphorist, Johnson was the very opposite of a man he described to Boswell in 1784: “He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.”

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Dr. Johnson

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