Know Thyself: Man in Evolution

By W. T. S. Thackara

Inscribed in the vestibule of his temple at Delphi, Apollo's famous imperative "Know Thyself" expresses an inner wisdom widely acknowledged in the world's sacred traditions. Many ancient Greeks understood it as prescriptive advice, a restorative cure for mankind's ills; others took it as a prophetic riddle to be solved. For Socrates it was both, and his life exemplified the importance of its message: "I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. . . . Am I a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typhon,* or a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny?" (Phaedrus, 229-30).

* Typhon (or Typhoeus) was variously depicted as a monstrous hybrid of man and beast with a hundred dragon heads, fire-spewing eyes, and legs of hissing vipers, who wanted sovereignty of gods and men, but after a fearful struggle was subdued by Zeus.

In another dialogue, Socrates' friend Critias believed that the Delphian inscription was originally a "salutation which the god addresses to those who enter the temple; as much as to say that the ordinary salutation of 'Hail!' is not right" (Charmides, 164). Some five hundred years later Plutarch, at one time a caretaker-priest of the temple, affirmed that it was indeed a salutation, but that it implied far more:

The God, as it were, addresses each of us, as he enters, with his "Know Thyself," which is at least as good as "Hail." We answer the God back with "EI" (Thou Art), rendering to him the designation which is true and has no lie in it, and alone belongs to him, and to no other, that of being. . . . There are those who think that Apollo and the sun are the same; we hail them and love them for the fair name they give, and it is fitting to do so; for they associate their idea of the God with that which they honour and desire more than all other things which they know. But now that we see them dreaming of the God in the fairest of nightly visions, let us rise and encourage them to mount yet higher, to contemplate him in a dream of the day, and to see his own being. . . . To my thinking the word "EI" . . . testifies to the God that THOU ART. -- On the 'E' at Delphi, xvii, xxi

Tat tvam asi, "That thou art," said Svetaketu's father, expressing the identic themes of self-discovery and self-knowledge (Chandogya Upanishad, 6.8.7). In China the Taoist sage Lao-tzu wrote similarly, distinguishing between two modes of knowing: "Those who know others are wise. Those who know themselves are enlightened" (Tao Te Ching, 33). Likewise spoke the Buddhist Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, reminding his disciple Shen-hui that a teaching about enlightenment is neither the reality nor actual knowledge of it:

When your mind is enlightened, you will know the Essence of Mind, and then you may tread the Path the right way. Now you are under delusion, and do not know your Essence of Mind. Yet you dare to ask whether I know my Essence of Mind or not. If I do, I realize it myself, but the fact that I know it cannot help you from being under delusion. Similarly, if you know your Essence of Mind your knowing would be of no use to me. Instead of asking others, why not see it for yourself and know it for yourself?" -- Platform Sutra, ch. 8 (44)

While the phrase "know thyself" is not found in the canonical New Testament, it is nevertheless presupposed and implied in John 14:17: "Even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive, because it sees him not, neither does it know him; but you know him, for he dwells with you, and shall be in you." Paul affirmed likewise: "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Cor 3:16). Similarly, Luke 17:20-21:

And when the Pharisees demanded to know when the kingdom of God should come, Jesus answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with visible signs: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Interestingly, the Greek word for "within" (entos) has also been translated in a number of Bibles as "among" or "in the midst of." Like John's "Spirit of Truth" whom the world sees not, Luke's second meaning -- "the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" -- is mystically expressed in the Gospel of Thomas (113): "the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it." Luke may thus have used the ambiguity intentionally to convey both meanings, which are stated overtly in the parallel "hidden" saying of Jesus in Thomas:

Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. -- Saying 3

The ancient wisdom traditions always depict "man" (male and female) as a composite being and frequently as the microcosmic reflection of the conscious living universe: as above, so below. Plato, for example, allegorizes the kingdom outside (the ideal State) and within (ourselves) as a Republic composed of many citizens. He describes it as a diverse yet interdependent polity ideally ruled by the philosopher, the wisdom-loving hero who has struggled up the steep and rugged ascent from the prison of ignorance to the luminous realm of truth. Self-discovery is a process of self-transformation: progressively taming and refining the disorderly elements of the soul, and "solarizing" one's inner nature by identifying with the author of one's being and its radiant ideals of Justice, Beauty, and the Good.

At the most fundamental level, virtually all religious philosophies view man as a duality: in Orphic terminology a "child of earth and of starry heaven," representing body and spirit -- in more modern terms, the physical vehicle informed and guided by consciousness. The Sumerian/Babylonian Gilgamesh stories (2nd-3rd millennium BCE) represent this duality by pairing Gilgamesh the king with his servant, friend, and younger brother Enkidu, symbol of the human-animal part of our nature. Fashioned from a pinch of clay in the image of the highest god Anu, Enkidu roamed with wild animals, had his mind awakened by a woman, donned clothing, left the garden wilderness, and teamed with Gilgamesh to conquer evil. Gilgamesh described Enkidu as his "shield" and "festive garment"; the citizens of Uruk said he looked just like Gilgamesh, but was shorter though of "stronger bone"; and Gilgamesh's mother said he was a "strong companion, able to save a friend" -- denoting the importance of their reciprocal relationship. At another level of interpretation, Gilgamesh and Enkidu represent the partnership of the inner and outer man, and their story remains one of the oldest recorded allegories of this "twinship." (See "The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Spiritual Biography," Sunrise Oct/Nov 1999 - Feb/Mar 2000.)

A similar but more clearly vertical relationship is expressed in the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna advises Arjuna that a wise person

should raise the self by the Self; let him not suffer the Self to be lowered; for Self is the friend of self, and self alone is its own enemy. Self is the friend of the man who is self-conquered; . . . beholding the Self by the self, he is contented. -- 6:5-6, 20

Thirteenth-century Iranian Sufi Najmuddin Kubra writes in mystical terms about the Self as the suprasensory Guide of light, man's eternal partner and companion, the luminous image of the divine archetypal Man. By following its inner promptings ("each time a light rises up from you, a light comes down toward you"), the aspirant progressively identifies with his "heavenly Witness," also called the Sun of the mystery, Sun of high knowledge, and Sun of the heart. Kubra accordingly instructs his disciple, "Thou art he" -- expressing not a 1 = 1 relationship, but an empowering 1 x 1 identity formulated in the Sufi saying: "He who knows himself knows his lord." Similarly, Mandaean theosophy describes a region of light, an ideal counterpart of earth intermediate between heaven and our physical globe, peopled by a divine race of purified humans. They are said to be descendants of the hidden Adam and Eve, among whom every earthly human being has his Twin of light. (Cf. H. Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism; E. S. Drower, The Secret Adam) The same theme is alluded to in the Gospel of Thomas:

His disciples said to Him, "Show us the place where you are, since it is necessary for us to seek it." He said to them, "Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness." -- Saying 24

Thomas is one of two paradigmatic examples of twinship in Christian literature. John 11:16 refers to him as "Thomas (called Didymos)," and the opening line of the Gospel of Thomas announces the hidden sayings of Jesus written down by "Didymos Judas Thomas" -- the Aramaic name Thomas and the Greek Didymos both meaning "Twin." The Acts of Thomas (39) describes him as the "twin of Christ, apostle of the Most High, and initiate in the hidden word of Christ, who receivest his secret oracles, fellow-worker with the Son of God." Sometimes identified with Judas the brother of Jesus in Matthew (13:55), his relationship is more fully explained in the Book of Thomas the Contender (or Athlete, "one who struggles, or is skilled"):

The savior said, "Brother Thomas while you have time in the world, listen to me, and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind. Now since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, in what way you exist and how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself. And I know that you have understood because you had already understood that I am the knowledge of the truth. So while you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, you have in fact already come to know, and you will be called 'the one who knows himself.' For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the All" [italics added]. -- II.138.5-19, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p. 201

Perhaps the more significant (and controversial) instance of twinship is the mystery of Christ and Jesus, exemplified in the baptism (dove descending), crucifixion (cry on the cross), and resurrection/ascension (divine union) -- in principle a simple, universally-expressed concept.

Proceeding from the one "That thou art" and the duality of both man and cosmos, the ancient theosophies also view man as a threefold being, composed of spirit, soul, and body (cf. 1 Thess 5:23). While many people often use the words soul and spirit interchangeably, Hebrews 4:12 makes a clear distinction between them: "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit." Like the Bhagavad-Gita's composite symbol of man -- Krishna (god Self), Arjuna (human self), and the Chariot (body) -- each component of this integral partnership is seen as necessary for man to exist as a functional whole and to fulfill his individual and collective reason for being.

Viewed inwardly, Gilgamesh is also depicted as threefold: "two-thirds divine, one-third human," which also suggests three modes of consciousness by which we may know ourselves. When paired with Enkidu, himself a composite (the story implies that as the twin or mirrored-image of Gilgamesh, he is one-third human, two-thirds animal), we can visualize a six- or seven-fold individual, the seventh being the highest divine essence linking the other six principles. Modern theosophical literature similarly represents man as a sevenfold being, but also as 10- and 12-, even a 49-fold composite, depending on how each component principle is subdivided or from which perspective he is seen. (See G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, chapters 2, 22, 46) No matter how man is viewed, each of these models tells us something about ourselves. They also tell us to remain fluid in our thinking and not fix our ideas on a single schema, as none of these is the reality itself or the direct knowledge of it. Nevertheless, the story of how the One becomes the many, and how each of us rediscovers both the many and the One in ourselves -- and in others -- is the story of evolution, providing insights and clues as to how we may creatively participate in this grandest story ever told.

Theosophical philosophy teaches a dual evolution of consciousness and substance; likewise a triple evolutionary scheme applying to the physical, intellectual, and spiritual development of the universe. At the human level, this implies that every citizen in our individual "Republic" is evolving also, from the atoms and cells of our body to the human and god within this great chain of being and self-becoming that we are. One could also speak of a sevenfold, twelvefold, perhaps even a trillionfold evolutionary scheme. For most of us, though, a threefold blending of spirit, soul, and body is perhaps a more easily understood and practicable way of thinking about how to balance and work with this partnership in our individual lives. Socrates, of whom the Delphic oracle said there was no man wiser, expressed it in even simpler terms. Addressing the gods and the god whose name means All, he prayed:

Beloved Pan, and all you other gods who dwell in this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

Human Being Menu

Universal brotherhood, which is a sublime fact of universal nature, does not signify merely sentimental unity, or a simple political or social cooperation. The sense inherent in the words in their widest tenor is the spiritual brotherhood of all beings; particularly, that all human beings are inseparably linked together, not merely by the bonds of emotional thought or feeling, but by the very fabric of the universe itself, all men -- as well as all beings, high and low and intermediate -- springing forth from the inner and spiritual sun of the universe as its hosts of spiritual rays. We all come from this one source and are all builded of the same life-atoms on all the various planes.
It is this interior unity of being and of consciousness, as well as the exterior union of us all, which enables us to grasp intellectually and spiritually the mysteries of the universe; because not merely ourselves and our own fellow human beings, but also all other beings and things that are, are children of the same kosmic parent, great Mother Nature, in all her seven (and ten) planes or worlds of being. We are all rooted in the same kosmic essence, whence we all proceeded in the beginning of the primordial periods of world evolution, and towards which we are all journeying back. This interlocking and interblending of the numberless hierarchies of beings forming the universe itself extends everywhere, in the invisible worlds as well as in the worlds which are visible.
It is upon this fact of the spiritual unity of all beings and things that reposes the basis and foundation of human ethics when these last are properly understood. Ethics are no mere human convention or rules of action convenient and suitable for the amelioration of the asperities of human intercourse, but are fundamental in the very structure and operations of the universe itself. -- G. de Purucker