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July 30, 2021 / Congau

Be Yourself!

Be yourself! It is one of the mantras of our time, but as it stands it is quite meaningless, for how many of us really know who we are?

Yes, be yourself! That is a truly ethical encouragement and if correctly understood, maybe the only one you will ever need.

Be yourself! It promises great freedom – and great restraint.

Who are you? Clearly that is the first thing you need to find out, for how can you make an effort to be something if you don’t know what it is? 

Know thyself! No one truly knows himself, of course. How could you fully get to know the intricate complexity of your psychology, your innate structure as well as what life has made you? How can you achieve a complete comprehension of your potentials and your limitations? You can’t, but you can always improve your knowledge of yourself.

But let’s imagine someone who has achieved as much self-knowledge as humanly possible. This Socrates would have a much clearer vision of what he wanted to do than the rest of us. He would not attempt to pursue a path that was against his nature but would be wholeheartedly devoted to his true calling. Is he free? If freedom is to have an unlimited set of options, he is not free. His highly advanced knowledge of himself has brought him to a point where his alternatives are very limited. All the endless offers that are presented to us as viable temptations, are for him closed off. He never even considers an action he knows will be injurious and he does not waste his time on pursuits that lead to nowhere. In fact, as he approaches perfection in his self-knowledge, his actual range of choices will be all the more narrow, and a fictitious being of perfection would have no choice at all. Therefore, if there can be no freedom without choice, the better you know yourself, the less freedom you have. Be yourself and you are not free!

But on the other hand, an advanced level of self-knowledge implies a great insight into what you really want. This Socrates character does not consider all those options the rest of us think we have because he knows he would not want them anyway, and the very meaning of freedom is to be able to do what you want. He is the one who does what he wants, so he is the one who is free. Be yourself and you are free!

Well, there is no escape from the paradox of freedom, so maybe we better not talk about it at all. You want what is good for you and whether that is to be given the technical designation “freedom”, may be less important. You want to be yourself, so that you can live in harmony with yourself and be happy. 

Without self-knowledge you will choose what is good for you only by a lucky chance, and the more choices you have the greater the risk of going wrong.

With self-knowledge a great variety of choices will not distract your attention from what is right for you.

What is right for you is to be yourself.

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