Know Thyself

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Know Thyself

Socrates’ Prison Cell

Journey back to Greece

The beginning of June the girls’ school year ended and summer vacation began. It’s always a scramble to figure out their summer schedule with two working parents. This summer we spread out the vacation time and are going at the beginning and at the end, with maybe some local things in between. Their dad loves Greece and Greek culture and decided to take them on a trip there for a couple of weeks. I was invited to join.

Greece is a beautiful place, with good food options for vegans and we’ve all traveled here together before. This time we’re not rushing around to see sights, but instead are staying on one island, Karpathos, in the Dodecanese chain for the whole trip. It’s not far from Crete and Rhodes. The plan is to spend our time at the beach, by the pool relaxing, exploring little villages, and learning about the history of the island.

Making the most of our time

We had a day and a half in Athens before we caught the ferry to the island. One thing we hadn’t done on previous trips was to see Socrates Prison Cell. As a lover of philosophy and history, it was something that intrigued me. It is unknown if this is the actual site of his imprisonment or not, but it is still a good place to contemplate the past and what happened.

Terribly jet-lagged but wanting to make the most of our time we headed out after a late breakfast to go see it. The girls were pretty grumpy but we persisted. We were staying near the Acropolis. The site of the prison cell is part of the Acropolis complex but away from where the main throngs of tourists gather to see the Parthenon and Erechtheum. It doesn’t get anywhere near the foot traffic.

Click on the arrows to see more pictures

Ideas can be deadly

Socrates was a pivotal figure in the development of Western philosophy. It’s always struck me as ironic that he was literally murdered for his ideas and is now revered as the founder of Western Philosophy. He was the OG Thought Criminal. Ideas can be dangerous, deadly and powerful. If they weren’t a threat to established systems no one would get murdered, imprisoned or exiled for them. Sharing ideas can be transformative. I wanted the girls to learn about this. Not sure how it was received but I did my part.

The primary concepts he explored were “Know Thyself” and “Question Everything.” Know Thyself was an inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Socrates went to seek counsel from the Oracle. It is a question one can spend a lifetime exploring. Who am I? Why am I this way? What is consciousness? What is self? Socrates came to the understanding of knowing that he knew nothing, and that is a place of true humility. Wisdom can never be achieved but in working towards it you grow.

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View towards the Parthenon from the prison

Crumbling artifice

To know yourself is to know the things that shaped you. It is also to know how that has influenced the choices you make, the way you react and the things and people you gravitate towards. The deeper you go into this understanding the more compassion you can have with yourself and develop the capacity to evolve and make decisions that come from this place of knowing. The more self-knowledge you attain the less you are attached to the superficiality of the circumstances of your life and the freer you are.

Truly knowing oneself means understanding your imperfections, blindspots, vulnerabilities, and the parts you’re in denial about. In order to know yourself you have to see yourself honestly, the good, the bad and the ugly. All artifice must drop away, awareness of ego defenses must develop. The more you can look at these places the less at war with yourself you can become, the more understanding you can have with your beliefs and behaviors.

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Bas relief near the prison

The influence of Aspasia

The evolution of his thinking was greatly impacted by his friendship with Aspasia, a woman from Miletus living in Athens. They met when they were in their twenties. She was considered to be very eloquent, diplomatic and engaged with many of the influential people during the Golden Age of Athens including Socrates. Her later relationship with the statesman Pericles made her to be one of the most influential women of the time.

The historical records sometimes label her as a courtesan, prostitute or madam of a brothel, a very common slander for intellectual and powerful women throughout the ages. In Plato’s writings about Socrates she is referenced many times as a teacher and from whom he learned persuasive speaking and thinking.

Death by Poison Hemlock

The people in power said Socrates was corrupting the youth with his questioning of established gods and religion and because of that he must be put to death. His friends and contacts offered to help him escape but he refused. When he was presented with the poison hemlock he drank it in accordance with the laws of the time. 

When asked if he believed in the literal truth of Greek myths he responded:

“I have no leisure for them at all. And the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself. So it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things. And so I dismiss these matters and accepting the customary belief about them, as I was saying just now. I investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.” Socrates

Two ideas, infinite paths

You can go a long way with those two ideas, Knowing Yourself and Questioning Everything. The more you look into understanding who you are and how you came to believe the things you do the deeper you go into understanding all the things around you as well. When you come to know who you are it is easier to accept your differences with others and to have the grace to see them with caring and kindness. People may do things differently than you and those differences are a result of all the things that have happened in their lives and influenced them.

Every individual is an expert in understanding the unique path they have experienced. They know all their influences, suffering and learnings, which are different from anyone else’s. To judge their path is to not be curious to understand how they got there. The more we look for understanding the better we can build bridges of connection.

When we know and accept ourselves, our understanding doesn’t come from a place of judgement, but instead one of acknowledgement. For example, when you know that you are a shy person who likes to hide in the shadows, averting direct attention and working in the background, you don’t judge people who prefer to be visible and commanding people’s attention, or vice versa.

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Revisiting a place and the past

The last time we traveled in Greece six years ago the situation was a lot different. Our family was intact. We traveled with another family from Brazil and we were covering a lot of ground. We explored Athens, then Delphi, Corinth, Nafplio, and the southern Peloponnese. The girls were younger and required more direct attention. The experience was more stressful. It was mid July and I ended up spending my birthday making use of the Greek healthcare system due to a sudden medical issue. That was not a lot of fun, and yet another reminder of the inadequacy of the American health insurance based medical system. I paid nothing and was well taken care of. 

The challenges that traveled with us from back home were very much present and I was greatly in need of finding a new way of understanding them. It was at this time that my regular meditation practice started. After one particularly difficult day, I stayed all day at the hotel while everyone else went out exploring. The majority of that time I spent doing meditation. It was very helpful in relieving my anxiety. My daily practice didn’t start until two months later, but this was where the early momentum began.

Meditation and self knowledge

Quieting the mind and slowing down, getting to know oneself and how your mind works, has turned out to be transformative. It has truly been a gift that has allowed me the inner space to detach from the thoughts and reactions that were causing me more suffering beyond the initial triggering circumstances. There is always more to do and explore, but this beginning time was critical. 

Revisiting the culture, and the place, I can see how much has changed in my life in the last six years and how much I have changed as well. This commitment to self knowledge has made a huge difference and helped me weather the uncertainty and difficulties I have faced. Inside I feel a wellspring of gratitude and I vow to continue on the path tread in different ways by Socrates and Buddha.

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Small Buddha looking at water. Photo credit: Mr1900

Where east and west meet

It’s interesting to see the parallels between Buddhism and Western philosophy, they are often seen as polar opposite paths to understanding the world, but there are many ways they overlap. This exploration of self is the key area where they come together. Buddhism helps quiet the mind by witnessing thoughts and feeling as they arise. Philosophy encourages us to ask questions and delve deeper into understanding. I find them very complimentary.

Quieting the children

The heat was strong and we walked a lot after visiting Socrates’ prison cell. With the jet-lag and the heat, the complaints started multiplying. Then there was much complaining about the complaining. We stopped and took a breather. In the midst of this, I looked up, raised my arms and marveled out loud at the beauty of the green leaves of the trees above our heads. My point was to be present in the moment and stop everyone from complaining. I’m pretty sure they thought I was crazy.

Wanting peace, and fulfilling my familiar role, I sought out immediate solutions. It was a hot day and my delicate San Francisco flowers were wilting. Ice cream to the rescue. We were all refreshed, even though the girls were the only ones with ice cream cones. Somehow, in a moment of grace we ended up at a vegan restaurant near our hotel. We had a good meal and then went back to the hotel and straight to sleep. There were some things we wanted to do the next day before we caught the ferry to Karpathos.

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Tired girls with ice cream

Written by jennalex

Artist and designer who explores the relationship between the natural world and the digital world and aims to create art and design that expands people's consciousness and creates meaningful experiences.

July 3, 2024