In its naive form, it means to simply be more introspective and keep track of how you change as the years go by. Acknowledge when you are wrong and when you are right, know how you would react under various conditions, learn to predict yourself.
There is a more profound depth to this, though. Start writing all the things you know about yourself, and you'll sooner or later come upon the phrase "I am a human." Note the phrase is "Know thyself", not simply "Know stuff about thyself", and what better way to know yourself than to know how "you" think? How "you" function? And since you are human, you have other humans to study as well. Not just yourself.
If you think you have control over most of yourself or most of your life, or you are the conscious arbiter of most of your decisions and actions, you are severely deluded. Freud once described Freudianism as an attempt to "prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind." That view hasn't been rectified by modern science (which has mountains of evidence, much more than Freud), but it has actually gotten worse. It's not even the case that we have, somewhere, a clear-thinking part of us that just gets distortions fed to it. No, our very existence is that of delusion and distortion. Some are more deluded than others, and those who don't accept this fall into the group with more delusion. Of course much progress has been made since Freud, but not in a completely opposite way of suddenly everyone determining everything about themselves. There are even clever arguments to show the lack of control you have that don't need to be highly grounded in observation, but the amount of actual evidence is such that the view of how little control we have is popular knowledge. This is the age of cynicism for good reasons: we've shown there can be no such thing as objective morality, we've found out we're not divine creations but animals just like the rest (granted, pretty smart animals), it's hard to even take facts seriously anymore.
But I digress... My main point is to know yourself, you should learn about what a human is. Even if you're a sociopath you can at least learn about what a functioning human should be, and perhaps you'll decide to try and emulate one. (Though I can't actually give you a compelling argument to because you don't really care about anything...) In learning about human nature, about the psychic unity of mankind, you will uncover truths about yourself in the process. The field of evolutionary psychology is the leading one in modern terms, and it possesses a vast knowledge base, with more and more of it becoming heavily supported as time goes on.
Next, there are certain practical reasons to know yourself and humanity. If you have any desire to convince someone of something, you better learn how we have evolved to argue and change our minds. (I'm working on that one, but I'm struggling to start down the Dark Path of rhetorical devices where truth takes a backseat to presentation.) If you have any desire to suggest a form of morality, or of government, you had better learn whether it can be applied successfully to humans. Communism can work in very small communities: indeed a primitive tribe (whose name starts with A..) have "communal meat", and so the best hunters share with the lesser hunters and everyone is fed. (Though status shows itself in other ways: the best hunters also have the best women and the best care for children.) But it's incompatible with large human groups for many reasons which I don't need to go into here. The fact that communism has failed should be warning enough to its incompatibility with human nature.
One task for myself this year is to learn whether my flavor of Anarchy is really compatible with such a large population like a country. Currently I have doubts, but I also believe with certain advances in technology those doubts will be put to rest. The idea of anarchy with a primitive society works fairly well because of small groups. In sufficiently small groups, nearly any hierarchy will "work".
Non-violence is another matter, but I don't have as much work to do with that. We have Gandhi, we have Thoreau, we have Martin Luther King Jr. Non-violent non-cooperation clearly works for the purposes of civil disobedience and changing the status quo in a society. This sounds promising for non-violence to also work at the individual level, but perhaps most people need the social aspect of it, of being with a group, to strengthen their resolve when the outlook isn't so happy. Peace has been given more than one chance, and it has passed all its fair tests with flying colors, but violence and destruction is profitable. Human lives are worthless in the eyes of the powerful, and that is the status quo of our society.
Why do you feel a feeling? There is a solvable reason for it, both for its presence in humanity in the first place, and why it is manifesting itself in you at the time. Not only is there a solvable answer to the question, but it's a solid answer. You can ground it in the sciences our age is lucky enough to have, where previous generations could only speculate on causes. (And in the grand scheme of things, ended up in very wrong alleys.) Knowing yourself is a lot simpler to do and a lot more certain to boot than it was not even that long ago, much less the times of the ancient Greeks (who did pretty well compared to others). But if you don't know humanity, you don't know yourself, and you definitely don't know whether a course of action--dictated by philosophy or government or personal choice--is sound.
Posted on 2010-01-13 by Jach
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