Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Perils of Knowing Thyself

I am not accustomed to failure. I normally excel at the things that I choose to do and am normally quite adept at avoiding situations where I am uncertain of my abilities. The Greeks have an important proverb, perhaps their most important, and they inscribed it upon the Oracle of Delphi, the omphalus or navel of the world - in Greek the proverb reads γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnothi seauton), and in the more famous Latin it reads nosce te ipsum. "Know thyself." Self-awareness, understanding one's identity and being comfortable with it, scrutinizing yourself rigorously and mercilessly - this is what it means to know thyself.

This spring and summer I have been taking two classes at the University, an elementary Latin course and an elementary calculus course. These two classes, in their own way, reflect my own self-awareness - they represent the highs and lows of my academic ability. As a life-long student of the humanities, it was an academic and personal inevitability that I would one day study Latin, the great language of the Classical and Renaissance thought. I have already spent three years studying Koine Greek, so Latin isn't even a difficult subject for me. My education in it has been refreshing, energetic and entirely enjoyable. A whole lot less inevitable (or so I thought) was the notion that I would return to a study of mathematics. Much more so than Latin ever was, math is a foreign language to me. I suppose it was some misguided admiration of Renaissance humanists that inspired me to attempt a course in calculus. Mathematics is, after all, a classical discipline and a part of the Quadrivium - the "four ways" of eduction that were required to complete a study of the liberal arts and which included arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Part of knowing thyself is a willingness to alter yourself. Knowing that you do not know something should become an opportunity to familiarize yourself with it, to better yourself. And so I took a class in calculus, knowing full well that I knew next to nothing about math. Knowing yourself is a painful process, filled with humiliation and embarrassment. Like I said, I'm not accustomed to failure or with academic frustration. It is, of course, necessary to occasionally have your ego bruised. A healthy dose of reality is required should anyone truly desire to know himself. However, no matter how necessary they are, bruises still hurt.

The quest to know thyself is perilous: like Ulysses, you might encounter your own emotional Charybdis, a ravaging psychological cyclops, or vengeful mental gods. Like Ulysses, though, cunning and courage can lead you home, which in this case is a greater understanding of yourself. Of course, I'm pretty sure that Ulysses never had to find the domain of an logarithmic function or graph a quadratic equation.

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