Apollo’s oracular injunction at Delphi, γνωθι σεαυτον (gnothi seauton), has been attributed to Thales, one of the seven sages. Juvenal admits its origin:
From heaven descends the precept, Know thyself.11
Cicero, however, was less Spartan about its meaning:
[When Apollo] says, “Know yourself,” he says this, “Inform yourself of the nature of your soul”; for the body is but a kind of vessel, or receptacle of the soul, and whatever your soul does is your own act. To know the soul, then, unless it had been divine, would not have been a precept of such excellent wisdom as to be attributed to a God; but even though the soul should not know of what nature itself is, will you say that it does not even perceive that it exists at all, or that it has motion? 12
In Charmides, a Platonic dialogue on Temperance,1 it is argued that γνωθι σεαυτον was inscribed over the entrance of Apollo’s temple at Delphi as a salutation to those entering the temple, rather than as an injunction; and that it meant “be temperate” or “be wise.”
. . . to know ourselves, is temperance: and I agree with him who inscribed this precept in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. For this precept appears to me to have been inscribed as a salutation of Divinity, to be used by those that enter the temple, instead of hail! 2 So that this inscription does not directly signify joy, or imply that we should exhort each other to rejoice, but rather, to be temperate. For thus the God speaks to those that enter the temple; and addresses us otherwise than men are wont to do, as he also conceived, in my opinion, who placed this inscription. It likewise says nothing else to those that enter, than that they should live temperately. But as speaking prophetically, it says this in a more enigmatic manner. For “Know thyself,” is the same as “Be temperate,” as both the writings and I assert. But perhaps someone may think it has a different meaning, which appears to me to have been the case with those who placed those posterior inscriptions, “Nothing too much,” 3 and “A surety is near to sorrow.” 4 For they thought that “Know thyself,” was advice, and not an address of the Divinity to those that enter the temple. Afterwards, that they might suspend advice in no respect inferior to this, they placed these inscriptions.5
Commenting on Plato’s First Alcibiades, Proclus suggests that “Know Thyself” was a warning to those unfit to commune with the invisible Presence.
For as the public notice warned those entering the precincts of the Eleusinian mysteries not to pass within the inner shrine if they were profane and uninitiated, so also the inscription “Know Thyself” on the front of the Delphi sanctuary indicated the manner, I presume, of ascent to the divine and the most effective path towards purification, practically stating clearly to those able to understand, that he who has attained the knowledge of himself, by beginning at the beginning, can be united with the god who is the revealer of the whole truth and guide of the purgative life; but he who does not know who he is, being uninitiated and profane is unfit to partake of the providence of Apollo. (Tr. W. O’Neill)
There were other inscriptions in Delphi, including the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, the so-called E Delphicum.1 It, too, gave rise to endless speculation and continues exercising scholars to this day. Divine Plutarch, priest of Apollo, student of Ammonius Saccas and teacher of Hypatia, puts forward seven possible explanations about the letter E 2 and, echoing the views of Plato, cites his teacher:
. . . the significance of the letter [E] is neither a numeral nor a place in a series nor a conjunction nor any of the subordinate parts of speech. No, it is an address and salutation to the god, complete in itself, which, by being spoken, brings him who utters it to thoughts of the god’s power. For the god addresses each of us as we approach him here with the words “Know Thyself,” as a form of welcome, which certainly is in no wise of less import than “Hail”; and we in turn reply to him “Thou art,” as rendering unto him a form of address which is truthful, free from deception, and the only one befitting him only, the assertion of Being.
But God is (if there be need to say so), and He exists for no fixed time, but for the everlasting ages which are immovable, timeless, and undeviating, in which there is no earlier nor later, no future nor past, no older nor younger; but He, being One, has with only one “Now” completely filled “For ever”; and only when Being is after His pattern is it in reality Being, not having been nor about to be, nor has it had a beginning nor is it destined to come to an end. Under these conditions, therefore, we ought, as we pay Him reverence, to greet Him and to address Him with the words, “Thou art”; or even, I vow, as did some of the men of old, “Thou art One.”. . . it appears that as a sort of antithesis to “Thou art” stands the admonition “Know thyself,” and then again it seems, in a manner, to be in accord therewith, for the one is an utterance addressed in awe and reverence to the god as existent through all eternity, the other is a reminder to mortal man of his own nature and the weaknesses that beset him.3
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