Reflection on “Know Thyself.”

I re-read with great pleasure an article on the meaning of the phrase “Know thyself,” immediately afterwards, perhaps by chance, or perhaps – quoting Jacques Monod – out of apparent “necessity,” an article by Lamberto Rondoni (1) devoted to complexity and relatedness in the mathematical, physical and natural sciences (New Humanity). No logical connection arises by chance if there is not an even faint relationship between the parties involved and, again, after dutiful meditation unencumbered by the countless “conceptual” constraints, the blurred contours of a deeper meaning soon emerged, which, after making its way through dozens of alienating and sometimes even contextually detached concepts, soon manifested its extraordinary poignancy.

Why is it that self-knowledge – an initiatory concept with atavistic origins – is so easily caressed by the much younger, modern and unprejudiced universe of rational complexity, chaos and nature deprived of that apparent order that the Greek philosophers had so well imagined and described?
Certainly this could be an apparent overlap that does not reveal objective principles at all, but rather, by virtue of its belonging to the individual universe, draws its “symbolic” energy precisely from the conjunction of a world inherently dominated by intellectual isolation (the psyche) with the ontological principle par excellence: viz, nature as the manifestation of an exteriority that objectifies the existence of “observing” beings.

However, precisely within the framework of conceptual splitting: subjective and objective, observer and observed, yin and yang, the reiterated duality laid the foundation for its asymptotic overcoming and, indeed, precisely in the glory of analysis Jungian, the consequential reading of the two writings immediately let emerge, first in the subconscious and then, “purification” after “purification” even in the full rational consciousness, the pseudo-archetypal image of theOuroboros – That is, the snake that, placed in a perfect circle, bites its own tail.

The circular symbol, contextualized in the landscape that surrounds my stream of thought, was immediately formed in its completeness-filled with the innumerable meanings that even Renè Guenon himself wished to remark at length-but what really caught my attention was not the almost spontaneous idea of eternal continuity, of the end engulfing the beginning and the beginning implying the end: all of this, as glaring as a Sun whose eyes are now used to it, remained in the background, leaving instead the “honors” of the scene to a seemingly trivial and secondary logical implication: namely, that the ultimate (and perhaps utopian) goal of the snake intent on biting its tail is precisely to “understand itself,” to “know itself,” to “make itself definitively its own”!

Then again, isn’t it true that infants initially learn about the outside world by “eating” their own little feet as well? And if Freud wanted to dismiss such a “phenomenon” by ascribing it to a purely “oral” (transitory) evolutionary phase, someone else, several centuries earlier, also pointed out – albeit in a very specific context – that “the Kingdom of Heaven – crowning of the highest earthly wisdom – is, in a seemingly paradoxical way, the exclusive domain of the little ones,” i.e., that intellectual erudition may well increase the height and perfection of rational reasoning, but it will also inexorably distance the “head” of being from its inalienable and irreplaceable “tail”: the beginning from the end, the little foot less and less small, from the head more and more accomplished and solidified, as if inner elevation could and should necessarily disregard the base where the whole being rests firmly.

To know oneself, then, becomes no longer an epistemological problem, the daily bread of philosophers, but rather a real return to the origins of being, understood not as an intellectual regress (which besides being impossible, is also absolutely inhuman), but rather as a “rewinding” of the linear flow of the acquisition of knowledge in order to bring the mouth, now accustomed to foods far harder and “more complex” than milk, back to grasp with the same unstoppable decision of the newborn, the feet that we now rest firmly on the ground.

Of course, the problem, far from dissipating like mist in the sun, seems instead to reinforce its natural essence precisely from the studies that evolutionary psychology regards as cornerstones of modern Western thought, and of which one of the most important axioms states that the oral phase of the individual’s development must be overcome so that knowledge can slowly reposition its instruments of inquiry in the domain most suited to them. The ordinary senses will therefore have to serve exclusively to “capture” nature, while the brain, the mind’s material reduction, will have the honor and especially the burden of consolidating and giving us the longed-for “understanding.”

But it is precisely in this apparent procedural simplicity, in linearity beyond all expectation, that lurks the newly-born specter of “organized complexity,” which is not-as we too often hear repeated-a classificatory philosophy of the difficult and logically “complicated,” but rather a scientific realization that the world of phenomena, far from permanently bending to rules fashioned by truly “elevated” minds, smoulders under the ashes the everlasting embryo of a purely relational impredictability (2), that is, an irrepressible tendency to escape the perfection of observations (which by their very nature require an external observer) in order to bestow the infinite precision of knowledge only on what is physically (and paradoxically) impossible: the particle that “sees” its own position, the beam of light that gains self-awareness about its speed, the observed that does not alter anything about its surroundings since it observes only itself.

But if physics vetoes the dastardly heights that imagination can reach, man’s existential reality leaves no room for misunderstanding: in the (quasi-)spontaneous emergence of organized complexity, intelligent beings have lost the exclusivity of physicality in order to acquire a transcendent awareness: by biting his foot, the infant does not learn to know himself and then relinquish dominion to his ever-increasing intellectual maturity: rather, he, just like theOuroboros, brings its evolutionary apex closer to the base from which its very existence originated in order to complete and perfect its true and deeper knowledge.

Ultimately, therefore, the complexity of phenomenal reality, while on the one hand posing a not insignificant operational constraint for the scientist who staggers in the dark and desperately seeks a light, on the other hand guarantees, thanks to the overcoming of pure cognitive relationality, a concrete possibility of “understanding” oneself in a marvelous intellectual phagocytosis that, from a mere psychological exercise, turns into the self-acquisition of one’s own path of growth and, ultimately, of one’s individual “story.”


    1. L. Rondoni, “Complessità e relazionalità nelle scienze matematiche, fisiche e naturali”, Nuova Umanità 196-197/2011
    2. The term “unpredictability” does not exist in the Italian vocabulary, but it can be considered a scientific neologism expressing the ontological impossibility of a particular fragment of reality.

Also posted at:

Share this post on: