Following on our investigation last week of the ancient Greek maxim “Know Thyself“, I thought it might be interesting to explain another Greek phrase that has gained currency in recent times: “Become What You Are”.
In his book Personal Destinies (which I’ve started to re-read after a gap of perhaps 30 years and which I’ll report on much more fully in future posts), philosopher David L. Norton puts “Become What You Are” on an equal footing with “Know Thyself” in ancient Greek culture. Yet this is far from the truth. “Know Thyself” was on everyone’s lips (as Plato puts it) and it echoed throughout Greek culture, whereas “Become What You Are” was a single line in a poem by Pindar.
In Greek it reads γένοι’ οἷος ἐσσὶ μαθών which we can well translate as “become such as you are, having learned what that is.” The “such as you are” is key: this is not about your unique individuality but about the kind of human, mortal being you are. Pindar makes this clear in the remainder of his second Pythian Ode, where he emphasizes that “a man must always measure all things according to his own place” and that “one must not fight against a god”. Indeed, Pindar’s intent here is quite consistent with “Know Thyself” in the sense of knowing your place, as explained in my previous post.
So where did this idea come from that “Become What You Are” means something like Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true”? I finger Nietzsche, who made much of Pindar’s line in his book The Joyful Wisdom. Now, I happen to like what Nietzsche did with Pindar and I even composed a poem entitled “Become What You Are” for my collection Songs of Zarathustra, but that doesn’t imply that Pindar or the ancient Greeks in general thought about the self as we do.
Having cleared away some of the underbrush, next time I’ll look into our modern notion of the true self.
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