It is quite a curious matter that throughout the human history, the farther we go back from the present, the more outward and far-flung our gaze seems to have been. The earliest sciences have been concerned with phenomena that are physically the most distant from our very selves. Astronomy, natural philosophy, geometry… In contrast, the more we come closer to the present, the more we find ourselves busy with our selves. Subjects that meticulously place the human at the centre of knowledge in which the human becomes both a subject and an object of knowledge… Psychology, anthropology, linguistics… In the past, although many ancients have acknowledged the value of self-knowledge (“Know thyself”), their looking to and grasp of the self have mostly been through the external world — analysing the heavenly bodies, elements of nature, and numbers in order to identify resemblances and analogies of the self; in the present, however, we try to understand the self through the scrutiny of the self via diverse methods that different fields of knowledge offer. We attempt to dive into the secrets of the human mind, the mysteries of our cognition, causes and effects of the conscious and unconscious behaviour, the habits that are inscribed under our skin, the customs that we are inclined to follow, the rituals that we perform, the various means that we express our thoughts and feelings, the root of our desires, the lenses that we equip that provide a certain perception of the world… Thus, as Foucault claims, “man is a recent invention”.
Yet, I wonder whether the knowledge of the self that we curiously and arduously seek enshackle us to our selves—namely the ego—instead of having a deeper understanding of both the carnal and the spiritual self in order to act accordingly, perhaps with a purpose that could be called divine. Despite how much neuroscientists argue that there is no such thing as a self but an illusion of it, as they question free will, we have a postmodern tendency to regard the self as the basis for constructing your own meanings. In other words, although a stream of scientific inquiry sees the self as merely a cultural invention, society urges you to ‘discover yourself’, ‘be true to yourself’, or ‘express yourself’. With the over-emphasis on ‘self-expression’ we have forgotten to listen but let the ego speak. With the deduction of all social institutions to the self, we no longer have mirrors that reflect our crookedness but our self which paradoxically is the only judge of itself while “autonomously” constructing meanings and lifestyles. We no longer speak of duties but rights — that is, there is a preference of others to be useful to being useful ourselves. And not to mention the Darwinian mechanics of the capitalist industry that exploits both the nature and the human in numberless and unpredictable ways—something that has exhausted the inks of concerned scholars yet established itself with an assertion of its compulsory existence.
Perhaps we have misunderstood what was meant by to know one’s self, or never cared to truly understand and act on it. However, one thing seems to be certain. With the human sciences, we may have invented human but eventually killed Human in its core — forming hordes of what Nietzsche refers to as “the overman” (Ubermensch).
Image Credit: Sasha Sokolova