I write a lot about self-knowledge and the process of cultivating it (involution). But so do a lot of other people, across time and cultures. In the spirit of diversifying the perspectives on what it is and why it’s important, here are some quotes:

“…religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness … and if you are never solitary, you are never religious.”

Alfred North Whitehead

“Discard such definite imaginations of phenomena as your own self, thou human being, thou’rt a numberless mass of sun-motes: each mote a shrine. The same as to your shyness of other selves, selfness as divided into infinite numbers of beings, or selfness as identified as one self existing eternally. Be obliging and noble, be generous with your time and help and possessions, and be kind, because the emptiness of this little place of flesh you carry around and call your soul, your entity, is the same emptiness in every direction of space unmeasurable emptiness, the same, one, and holy emptiness everywhere: why be selfy and unfree, Man God, in your dream?”

Jack Kerouac

“Not to seek the Self which is the source of knowledge and ignorance is real ignorance”

Ramana Maharshi

“The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is – the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself – can be altered or entirely extinguished…repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by ‘spirituality’…”

Sam Harris

“The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.”

Alan Watts

“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.”

Laura Riding

“that man as we know him is not a completed being; that nature develops him only up to a certain point and then leaves him, either to develop further, by his own efforts and devices, or to live and die such as he was born, or to degenerate and lose capacity for development…Evolution of man…will mean the development of certain inner qualities and features which usually remain undeveloped, and cannot develop by themselves.”

P.D. Ouspensky

“He who knows others is wise;
He who knows himself is enlightened.”

Lao Tzu

“When Ali asked Mohammad, ‘What am i to do that I may not waste my time?’ the Prophet answered, ‘Learn to know thyself.'”

“‘Seek within – know thyself,’ these secret and sublime hints come to us wafted from the breath of Rishis through the dust of ages.”

Swami Ramdas

“Men do not know themselves, and therefore they do not understand the things of their inner world. Each man has the essence of God and all the wisdom and power of the world (germinally) in himself; he possesses one kind of knowledge as much as another, and he who does not find that which is in him cannot truly say that he does not possess it, but only that he was not capable of successfully seeking for it.”

Paracelsus

“Thoroughly to know oneself, is above all art, for it is the highest art. If thou knowest thyself well, thou art better and more praise-worthy before God, than if thou didst not know thyself, but didst understand the course of the heavens and of all the planets and stars, also the virtue of all herbs, and the structure and dispositions of all mankind, also the nature of all beasts, and, in such matters, hadst all the skill of all who are in heaven and on earth.”

Theologia Germanica

“Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful; he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also:…never cease chiseling your statue.”

Plotinus

“For pray do not…spin your airy fables about moon or sun or the other objects in the sky and in the universe so far removed from us and so varied in their natures, until you have scrutinised and come to know yourselves. After that, we may perhaps believe you when you hold forth on other subjects; but before you establish who you yourselves are, do not think that you will ever become capable of acting as judges or trustworthy witnesses in the other matters.”

Philo Alexandria

These were mostly all from the same source, E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed, which remains the most sane, accessible, insightful text on life itself, as well as calls for self-knowledge as the ultimate human aim, I’ve ever come across. He takes a first-principles look at the whole of life, breaks it down into simple categories, and to the extent that it’s possible in these matters, tells us what to do about it.

One issue here is the lurking undercurrent that seems to imply pursuing self-awareness/knowledge is a worthier pursuit than any other; that we may either submit to our lazy, primal motives, or nobly cultivate an elusive, inner something, with snobby and upturned noses. This sounds like dogmatism and ignorance at their finest. But this is a really frustratingly difficult position to avoid, as some of wisdom’s greatest exponents confront us with maxims like Sri Ramana Maharshi’s, who is arguably one of the most pure and legitimate Indian sages of all time:

“Not to seek the Self which is the source of knowledge and ignorance is real ignorance”

Ramana Maharshi

Adopting the Nietzschean disregard for those who don’t qualify as übermensch, “supermen”, is not cool. Upsettingly, I don’t have a good response for this. Just a general distaste for it. Ignorance is bliss? Karma is one nice way out, that we are all working through our own ledgers of good and bad deeds, played out across numerous lifetimes, and that whatever we are doing in this lifetime is what we have to be doing at that given point on our continuum; we earned it in one way or another. But karma certainly requires a venture out of rationalism’s comfort, and I’m not prepared to publicly go there.

Schumacher touches on this somewhat elitist classification by citing Saint Thomas Aquinas:

“…the real problems of life have to be grappled with. To repeat the quotation from Thomas Aquinas, ‘The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things,’ and ‘grappling’ with the help of slender knowledge is the real stuff of life, whereas solving problems with the help of ‘the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things’ is merely one of many useful and perfectly honorable human activities designed to save labor.”

E.F. Schumacher

Still doesn’t do away with the snobbiness, but at least puts it delicately. Ultimately, I think the deeper you dive into wisdom & compassion, the two guiding aspects of self-knowledge, the more incapable you become of judgment. Feeling that your pursuit is worthier than any other, or looking at someone else’s journey and thinking that they ought to be doing something differently, i.e. pursuing self-knowledge, is a form of crappy judgment. When there’s no longer a discrete self – or ego – looking out upon others as if they’re separate from you, there’s no conceivable way to judge anything or anyone other than yourself, as your “self” now embodies all of that.

Putting that jumbled idea into an eloquent form, Alan Watts has this to say:

“…on seeing through the illusion of the ego, it is impossible to think of oneself as better than, or superior to, others for having done so. In every direction there is just the one Self playing its myriad games of hide-and-seek. Birds are not better than the eggs from which they have broken…I am not even saying that you ought to break out of your shell. Sometime, somehow, you (the real you, the Self) will do it anyhow…”

Alan Watts

And answering the question, “if self-knowledge isn’t any worthier than anything else, why write about its importance?”, Watts concludes with a sentiment that I love and second:

“If, then, I am not saying that you ought to awaken from the ego-illusion and help save the world from disaster, why The Book? Why not sit back and let things take their course? Simply that it is part of ‘things taking their course’ that I write. As a human being it is just my nature to enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses. I realize, too, that the less I preach, the more likely I am to be heard.”

Alan Watts
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