Photo by Matúš Kovačovský on Unsplash

If you travel towards the heart of central Greece, wading your way through the ruins and rumbles of history, you might find yourself atop the grand Mount Parnassos. There, you can see the remains of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where it was said the Pythian oracle dwelt. It seems that, from our knowledge of ancient texts, carved onto a column outside the front facade of the temple were three inscriptions, recording aphorisms devised by the Seven Sages. But for the purposes of this article, I am mainly interested in one: know thyself.

It seems that now, more than ever, we are obsessed with the art of knowing ourselves. People pay for in-depth psychoanalytic tests that determine how best they should approach everything from careers to relationships. Others avoid relationships altogether if the “stars haven’t aligned” and their horoscopes don’t match. Whole Instagram accounts are dedicated to enneagram types and the common problems they’ll encounter.

We assess and categorise; we divide and label. Perhaps this is the human instinct to find patterns and groups at work on a personal and collective level. In many ways, though, the Delphic injunction to “know thyself”, written so many years ago, reminds us that this pursuit of personality isn’t something unique to our day and age.

“The problem is when the categories that result become prescriptive, instead of descriptive”

Confession: I myself am guilty of relying a bit too heavily on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test to tell me what I should know about myself. It assesses an individual across four key “type indicators”: extraverted or introverted? Intuitive or sensing? Thinking or feeling? Judging or perceiving? According to the combination of your letters, you might be assigned a character type, like “Mediator”, or “Defender”.

Since taking the test in 2018, I have been consistently characterised as a Turbulent Protagonist: ENFJ-T – extraverted, intuitive, feeling and judging. When I first read the personality description, I couldn’t believe how accurately it had described me. It was like someone was prying apart my brain and putting all my instincts and intuitions into neatly constructed sentences.

But it seems, more often than not, these personality tests are indicators not of who you are but who you narrate yourself to be. Look at the enneagram test, for instance, where you must rank yourself on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree in accordance with a variety of statements. One such reads: “I am more sensitive than most people; sometimes the world just seems too harsh.”

A fairly reflective person could make a pretty good stab at a self-assessment, but at a deeper level that little phrase – “than most people” – requires you not only to know yourself, but to know the general spectrum of human personality to which you are comparing yourself. What level of sensitivity is “average” in our generation? Who on earth knows that?

“To know yourself is to know that you change, that you’re a contradiction”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think tests like these are bad. In fact, the questions they ask are exactly the kind of probes that get you to think just that bit more deeply about your emotional, social composition, about the impact you have on the world. The problem is when the categories that result become prescriptive, instead of descriptive. I was pretty sure I was an introvert until coming to university. I really enjoyed people’s company, liked speaking to big groups of people, and didn’t mind making small talk too much. But I was so aware of the space and time I needed to reboot, recharge. Then I arrived among these towering spires and cobbled streets. Something about starting afresh in a new place seemed to suppress that introversion.


Mountain View

No more pledges of impossible self-improvement, please! Let’s not resolve to be better in 2023

All of a sudden, I was drawing energy from social events, taking pride in a chock-a-block calendar, defining myself as an extravert to the world, and myself. And those tests didn’t help. But coming into a new term, I’ve found myself again treasuring alone time. Burrowing away at the corner of the AMES library, or tucked up in bed with a bowl of grapes and a Zadie Smith novel. It was the continual definition of myself as an extravert that had perhaps precluded me even realising that I would appreciate more alone time than I was getting.

What I’m trying to say, I think, is something that has already been said thousands of years before. We should know ourselves, but that doesn’t mean zipping ourselves up into the binary of introvert or extravert, or allowing what a test says to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To know yourself is to know that you change, that you’re a contradiction, that perhaps Whitman was unusually astute in declaring that: “I contain multitudes.”

The best way we can know ourselves is to grasp that we, as loved, created beings, are ourselves known. It seems St Paul had it right in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Perhaps, then, to “know thyself” is not so important as to be “fully known”, but can we ever plumb the depths of that knowledge on this side of eternity? Who knows? We might just have to wait and see.