“The unexamined life is not worth living.” ~ Socrates
There are three inscriptions carved over the entrance to the Temple of Delphi: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (“know thyself”), μηδέν άγαν (“nothing in excess”), and Ἑγγύα πάρα δ’ἄτη (“certainty is next to catastrophe”).
Let’s stand on the “shoulders” of the Oracle and attempt to see further by analyzing these Delphic maxims a little more deeply.
1) Know thyself: Question yourself
“Circumstances don’t make the man; they only reveal him to himself.” ~ Epictetus
There is perhaps no better way of getting to know oneself than to question the Self. Questioning yourself takes down your self-erected defensive walls and automatically stretches your comfort zone.
It gets you out of your own way with the use of powerful questions: How might I unlearn what I’ve learned in order to relearn Truth? How might I un-program and then reprogram my beliefs so that they agree with the way reality actually is?
How might I recondition my conditioning so that I’m better able to avoid dogmatic close-mindedness and leverage flexible open-mindedness into my worldview? What will I do with my one wild and precious life? Or, what do I love to do and why am I not doing it?
Such questions go beyond mere questioning. They are interrogations of the self. Self-interrogation is a sound strategy for losing your old self and building a new one precisely because it is a method that aggressively asks mind-opening, heart-expanding, soul-shocking questions.
It proactively outmaneuvers cognitive dissonance by staying one step ahead of emotion through a ruthless form of higher reasoning that never settles on an answer.
Instead, it tears apart any so-called answers. From the carnage, it honors what validates cosmic law and discards what doesn’t. But such honoring is still not an acceptance. Rather, it is a deep consideration for higher probability while still respecting the possibility that it could be wrong.
Thinking in this way is wielding a question-mark like a sword. It shaves the superfluous. It replaces “belief” with “thought.” It nixes notions of certainty. It upends both stagnant apple-carts and carts stuck in front of the “horse.” It opens the Self up to self-overcoming.
Self-interrogation is all about digging down to the roots of the human condition, particularly your own conditioning. It’s about getting to the crux of an issue. In this case, the issue of recognizing the outdated self, learning from it, and then discarding it in order to build an updated, more open-minded, more self-actualized Self.
2) Nothing in excess: Practice moderation.
“Wisdom is the leader: next follows moderation; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice.” ~ Plato
Moderation is one of the four cardinal virtues. If human excellence is the art of character then character is the art of practicing the four cardinal virtues: courage, moderation, wisdom, and justice; which leads to moral virtue. Moral virtue, cultivated over a lifetime, leads to eudaimonia: human flourishing.
Regarding moderation, the beauty of life is that in order for it to exist there must be balance. The ugliness of life is that we’re usually unable to understand what that balance is.
Moderation can be deceiving, especially when we’re not tuned into healthy frequencies. Luckily, health itself is a benchmark.
Unluckily, this benchmark is hidden in a ‘language older than words’ that can sometimes seem impossible to decode.
But, as Aldo Leopold suggested, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
A good rule of thumb to live by is: moderation in all things, to include moderation. This way we’re proactively injecting balance into the cosmos, while at the same time enjoying life. The key is to accept responsibility for the consequences of both our (mostly) moderate and (less occasional) immoderate choices. Tricky indeed, but doable.
Failing any of that, at least try to live by the following wise words of Gandhi, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
3) Certainty is next to catastrophe: Guard against blind belief.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~ Aristotle
This Delphic maxim is the most important one, in my opinion. If one practices the first and second maxims this one comes about naturally, which is why I think it is third.
But, the reverse is also true. If one practices uncertainty, doubt, circumspection, and ruthless skepticism (despite certainty) then one automatically subsumes the first two maxims.
This is the most difficult of the three maxims because practicing this maxim usually means admitting that one is a member of a fallible, imperfect, accident prone, young species which has been historically wrong about a great many things.
To include, especially, our most cherished beliefs. And admitting that we’ve been wrong, especially about our beliefs, is the most difficult thing a human being can do.
Try this: Don’t believe what you think; question what you think. The cure for certainty is curiosity.
On the path between our current condition and a healthier more open-minded condition, it is almost always better to be in a state of disbelief, doubtful, discerning and curious than to be in a state of belief, certain, indifferent and indiscriminate.
Why is this? Because being in a state of certainty is making the mistake of vainly attempting to pigeonhole a utopia into an imperfect state, which inadvertently creates dystopia. Good intentions are irrelevant when one’s intent is to force notions of perfection into an imperfect system.
The fly in the ointment of the human condition will always be imperfection. There will never be a state in which we are perfect. As such, it behooves us to always question whatever state we find ourselves in. Especially states of certainty and dogmatic perspectives.
People tend to think that we have only two options regarding our approach to knowledge: certainty or uncertainty. But neither one gets us anywhere and leads to cognitive complacency. Certainty without uncertainty leads to cognitive stagnation. Uncertainty without certainty leads to cognitive trepidation.
Between the two, there is a third option: cognitive integrity, which is founded upon implementing the philosophical tool of fallibilism. It’s just a matter of embracing and owning up to our fallibility as a species. Plus, it prevents us from falling for the Dunning Kruger effect, the third person effect, and many other cognitive fallacies.
The philosopher Rene Descartes famously stated, “I think therefore I am.” But I think St. Augustine’s infamous quote trumps even Descartes’: “I err therefore I am human.”