γνῶθι σαὐτόν Know thyself

I am reading Macbeth with my ninth grade English Literature class and was particularly delighted with this little nugget of wisdom in Act 4 scene 2. Lady MacDuff has just discovered that her husband has fled and Ross is attempting to put the whole matter in the best light for her. After telling Lady Macduff that she must have patience, he says:

…I dare not speak much further; But cruel are the times when we are traitors And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor From what we fear, yet know not what we fear, But float upon a wild and violent sea Each way and none…

A traitor is one who “betrays a trust” or is “false to a duty,” and Ross appears to be saying that those who do not know themselves become traitors.

You ask “Why does that follow? Why is it that one becomes a traitor who does not know himself?”

Well, if one does not know himself then one is not able to know the “trust” that he has been given.

If one does not know himself then he is not able to know whether there is a duty that he must perform stemming from who he is – and if one does not know his duty, he certainly does not have much chance of holding that duty as an inviolable trust. And if one does not hold his duty as an inviolable trust than it is easy to see, as night follows day, that he will most assuredly prove a traitor to his duty in short time. Thus it is that one who fails to know himself becomes the traitor. He beomes… a Benedict Arnold

Suppose one is a student and does not know himself to be a student. Perhaps he will fall prey to the many distractions and temptations that tend to take him away from performing his duties as a student. He might believe, for example, that he is really first an athlete and second a student. Or he might believe that he is first an actor or actress and second a student. Or he might believe that he must first cultivate his mind for the sake of a career. Does such a one betray a sacred trust?

What about a father who does not know himself as a father? Can we imagine that he might think of himself as first a business man and second a father? Or even, I suppose, a mother might believe that she is first a business woman and second a mother. Do people such as these remain true to themselves? Pollonius exhorts Laertes,

This above all- to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

If for example man does not know that he is an “animal with reason” how will he know what his duties are? Could it be that man has a nature which is his sacred trust to live according to? Could it be that there is a duty that comes along with being a rational animal? What is that duty?

If a person does not answer these questions correctly, then he will not know that his life should be guided by reason. He will not know that his nature calls upon him to develop his reason to the utmost of his ability. He will therefore live his life according to other principles- in most cases he will follow his passions since that is the most prominent alternative to reason. And in following his passions, he will be like a boat that instead of being guided by the rudder of reason will instead,

float upon a wild and violent sea Each way and none

The passions may indeed be wild and violent giving no rest when left to themselves and given no rein by reason.

It’s kind of like the elective system of education that seems to be a universal fashion now in our schools and universities.

I was speaking to a professor at a nearby prestigious university and he remarked that it can be very painful to watch students navigating their way through college without any sense of conviction about who and what they are as human beings – but rather making every choice about their intellectual formation based upon fear for how they will make a living at some future date in an unknown economic environment.

Many students do appear to “hold rumor From what (they) fear, yet know not what (they) fear.” By holding rumor I take it to mean someone who thinks, speaks and acts according to an unsubstantiated report. And in the case of the modern student, he appears to think speak and act according to the rumor that unless he uses his high school and college education to prepare for a job through choosing some sort of career path very early– and specializing in that alone, then he will ultimately be a failure … a lost cause.

Whether his expectations are fulfilled is anybody’s guess given the volatility and ever changing market place.

But was he true to himself?

Or was he a traitor?

 

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in Literature, Shakespeare and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to γνῶθι σαὐτόν Know thyself

  1. Paul Whiteman says:

    Polonius says that to Laertes, not to Hamlet.

  2. Paul Whiteman says:

    My pleasure! Interesting article btw. Do you honestly think that the elective system is not a good thing? I think it is better than the fixed social status which people were forced to submit to as a result of birth in earlier times. Now people are free to see what they would do best and to pursue it. Those who don’t make a decision what to do with themselves are just lazy.

  3. Mark Langley says:

    Well, I suppose you are right given the way things are. On the other hand… I wish that everyone would first take the time to get a liberal education first through a study of the traditional seven liberal arts – and then choose a specialty afterwards. Or at the very least how about if we keep a non elective system in place in high school?

  4. Paul Whiteman says:

    That seems worthwhile.

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