To thine own self be true
27th May 2021
This remark, heralded by the words ‘This above all’… comes at the end of quite a long speech by Polonius to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’. The complete passage is full of sensible, fatherly advice including the equally famous lines – ‘give every man thine ear but few thy voice’ and ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’. The precept of the speech seems to be that we should never do anything that makes us feel uncomfortable, physically, spiritually or morally. The trick is to recognise the discomfort before the point at which we can no longer extricate ourselves from it. In other words, don’t just follow the crowd but what you really believe to be the right and true thing.
However, people often appeal to this injunction when they are defensive and want to say something clever and deep in their own favour. It’s a way of saying that nothing at all matters more to how we act than to our own esteem, that we should stick to our principles, our beliefs, our truth and individuality. On one level this sounds commendable, but are these virtues sometimes really hiding a fundamental vice?
Some would say it is altogether too ‘me’ focused and that the phrase appeals to our complacency, not to our resilience. Its use is to excuse our disagreements with society, not to force us to reconcile them with fact. We are in fact victims, suffering alone in our wisdom against an unfair society. ’It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, or what I know is good. This is who I am, and I’m just being true to myself’. In that sense, I do not have to conform to the world; the world has to conform to me.
We live in a time of hyper- individualism where the greatest good is frequently seen as self-identity and self-expression as if these arise entirely independently, often without an awareness of the context in which they arise. When we seek to be true to ourselves, we need to perhaps be more critically aware of the ‘truth’ we espouse and the foundation upon which it is built.
And if we are to be true to our own ‘self’ it is important to know what that is. Therefore as the motto written up in the ancient Greek temple of Delphi says, we should seek to ‘know thyself’.
But there’s the rub, how many of us actually know ourselves well enough in order that we can be ‘true’? How confident are we that our sense of who we are and our most deeply held values, are not simply a reflection of the company we keep, the society in which we live, or our particular upbringing? And is there an essential self which can in fact be known? Perhaps there is no absolute self to be virtuously true to.
One of the three Buddhist precepts is anatta which is the idea that there is no permanent self. Just as everything and everything in the world is always changing (anicca) the same is true of our self. A metaphor frequently used is that the self is like a river in constant flow, experienced and identifiable in one sense, but never exactly the same. Many changes are wrought upon us throughout our lives many of which we do not choose, and it is the lack of acceptance of anicca which causes our discomfort and suffering. The antidote to this suffering is laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads to a truth that transcends self.
And within Christianity, the journey of faith is about dying to the self and resurrection into a new way of living, less individualistic and more akin to being a part of a body through which ones purpose and ‘true self’ may become known. So perhaps if there is a self to be known, it is gained through supportive and caring relationships with others and society as a whole.
The quotation entreats us to be critically aware of the influences and competing truth claims that surround us and seek to make real choices in our lives. But perhaps our understanding of self is best understood as dynamic rather than static and that seeking truth is a lifetime voyage of discovery.