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Know Thyself

Format: Hardcover, 496 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
On Sale: 05/22/2018
Price: $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-385-54188-6
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
A lively and timely introduction to the roots of self-understanding—who we are and how we should act—in the cultures of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

“Know thyself”—this fundamental imperative appeared for the first time in ancient Greece, specifically in Delphi, the temple of the god Apollo, who represented the enlightened power of reason. For the Greeks, self-knowledge and identity were the basics of their civilization and their sources were to be found in where one was born and into which social group. These determined who you were and what your duties were. In this book the independent scholar Ingrid Rossellini surveys the major ideas that, from Greek and Roman antiquity through the Christian medieval era up to the dawn of modernity in the Renaissance, have guided the Western project of self-knowledge. Addressing the curious lay reader with an interdisciplinary approach that includes numerous references to the visual arts, Know Thyself will reintroduce readers to the most profound and enduring ways our civilization has framed the issues of self and society, in the process helping us rediscover the very building blocks of our personality.

"Rumors of the death of Western civilization must be questioned when a work of popular history as absorbing and readable as this is published. . . . New Western civ classes could ask for no better overview." —Booklist (starred review)

"Rossellini’s epic is dazzling." Publishers Weekly

“In a thrilling story of pride and humility from the Greeks to the Renaissance, Know Thyself offers an entire education in a book. Ingrid Rossellini shows us where we have come from and who we need to be as citizens in a diverse and ever-changing world.” —Barry Strauss, Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University and author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination

“Polymath Rossellini shares the fruits of her broad knowledge of literature, philosophy, art, and history in this . . . highly rewarding work . . . a highly satisfying journey across centuries of culture. . . . Rossellini gives us illuminating classes in art history, Western civilization, philosophy, and religion, all rolled into one book that must be read closely and pondered fully.” —Kirkus (starred review)
INGRID ROSSELLINI was born in Rome and educated there, and later received a BA, master's, and Ph.D. in Italian Literature from Columbia, writing her dissertation on Petrarch. She has taught literature and Italian film at Columbia, NYU, Harvard, Princeton, and other universities. She is the daughter of the actress Ingrid Bergman and the director Roberto Rossellini; Isabella Rossellini is her sister. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
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Who are you?

If someone asked that question today, most people would offer answers that, aside from general references to gender, nationality, and ethnicity, would essentially focus on their personal characteristics, choices, and preferences. The common assumption is that the individual self is a fully autonomous and original entity, capable of selecting whatever path he or she decides to entertain in a way that is completely independent from traditional views and expectations. Individual identity, as we conceptualize it today, is something like a kit whose parts can be chosen, styled, and assembled at will: a do-it-yourself enterprise.

Although that is for the most part true, psychologists never fail to remind us that what we experienced as children remains an essential factor in the shaping of our adult selves. In order to understand our present, we need to revisit our past. The same thing could be said about our collective history: understanding who we were remains an essential component in understanding who we are today.

Do I mean to imply that Know Thyself is a sort of psychological guide to a more rewarding and fulfilling relation with our true selves? Yes, in fact, but definitely not in a conventional way. What I mean is that this is not a book about psychology but a book about history with a psychological slant: in other words, a book that, besides describing crucial moments of history from Greek antiquity to the Renaissance, highlights how the different definitions that the “self” has received contributed to the creation of the values and ideals that, down the centuries, have shaped and motivated the choices and actions of people and the makeup of their society.

In choosing this particular lens for observation, I was inspired by the nineteenth-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges, who claimed that recollecting facts is an insufficient way to look at history without an equal focus on the nature and development of the human personality. What that perspective reveals is that history is a complex tapestry woven from actual events but also from the narratives that we humans have imposed upon those facts to try to make sense of ourselves and our reality.

This book is meant to be not an academic treatise but a guide addressed to the lay reader who, while genuinely curious to explore the past, often feels intimidated by the excessive complexity of scholarly studies. Things have only gotten worse in these last decades: because as the disciplines we generally label humanities have become increasingly neglected in our academic curricula, understanding earlier ways of thinking has become, for many, ever more difficult and frustrating.

To try to remedy that confusion and make this book as clear and accessible as possible, I chose to avoid the over-detailed style typical of specialized approaches, to offer instead an interdisciplinary overview that, although simplified, still provides a comprehensive map of major patterns of history and culture. To clarify the discussion, I have also included many references to the visual arts. This choice is based on the fact that for thousands of years—at least until the invention of the printing press, in the middle of the fifteenth century—visual art was the only available means of mass communication capable of conveying, to a population that was largely illiterate, the models of excellence that the political, philosophical, and/or religious ideology of the times considered best fitted to exemplify what a human being was expected to be.

An important theme that we will explore while looking at the ideals that different epochs nurtured concerns the recurrent creation of legendary and mythical facts—the narratives that, for the sake of inspiration, tradition fostered with an intensity that often appears much too exuberant for the rigorous test of credibility as Joseph Campbell indicated when he wrote that a “myth is something that has never happened, and is happening all the time.”

To begin, let me bring you back to Delphi of ancient Greece, where people went to consult the oracle of Apollo: the Greek god of reason who was also the only pagan divinity who appeared willing to respond to the people who came to seek his advice.

I use the verb “to appear” because how Apollo’s oracle worked was more ambiguous than revelatory, in the sense that rather than offering clear guidance, it only provided cryptic hints and scattered pieces of information. These were as confusing and indirect as the language of his messenger—the priestess, called Pythia, who in delirious fits of trance channeled the voice of Apollo, by whom she claimed to be possessed. The paradox of the oracle was that because it forced people to interpret the vagueness of those utterances, the ball was implicitly returned right back to those who sought its guidance. That way, rather than having the god clearly telling them what to do, people were indirectly led to use their own intellectual faculties to come up with the answers best fitted for their particular challenges and problems.

The key to that clever strategy was expressed in the motto etched at the top of Apollo’s temple: “Know thyself.” The dictum essentially meant this: because the meaning you give to your life is what propels your actions, before asking what to do, ask yourself who you are.

This was (and is) by no means an easy endeavor, as proven by the endlessly varied answers that we humans have come up with all along the centuries.

Take our modern view of identity, for example. To encourage self-awareness in a child, we say, discover the talents and qualities that make you the very special and original person that you are. The corollary idea is that only by developing one’s distinct and unique identity can one become a good member of the “larger self” that society represents.

If confronted with such an example of fierce individualism, the Greeks of early times would have recoiled in horror. To the Greeks, attributing ultimate value to choices and preferences that focused on the singular over the collective self would have been considered an absolutely unethical, if not completely unthinkable, proposition. For the Greeks, one’s place of origin represented not simply a geographic setting but rather the place of one’s family and community and as such the overriding source of one’s identity. Where you were born and the social group to which you belonged determined who you were and consequently what was expected from you. Individual freedom of choice, the way we understand the term today, had little to do with that older mentality. For that reason, the command to “know thyself” essentially meant that you should use the guidance of reason to fulfill, in the best way possible, the ethical duties and obligations that your role as a member of the larger community entails.

This dramatic difference of interpretation may lead us to think that between that past and our present no direct connection can be drawn. As this book will show, however, that’s not at all true. Even if our balance has dramatically shifted toward the singular self, finding a point of convergence between the individual and the collective still remains a very pressing concern of our contemporary existence. What that tells us is that despite the ever-evolving patterns of history, the concept of identity has always involved two fundamental dimensions: who we are independently, and who we are in relation to one another.

The latter aspect has prompted endless debate throughout our cultural history. Are we naturally predisposed to live with others, as Aristotle believed, when he famously stated that man is a “political animal”? Or is society a useful but totally unnatural artifice only created and maintained to increase our chance of survival? Although no definite conclusion has been reached (or is ever likely to be), we can all agree that even if we consider our socially inclined character instinctual, that instinct has nothing to do with the inflexible, unvarying spirit of communal collaboration that rules the life of an ant or a bee. In fact, our all-too-human tendency to favor self-interest well above communal purposes has always been the most consistent obstacle to the creation of a fully harmonic and unified society.

Of course, in the small and culturally cohesive communities of early historical times, keeping the individual in line with the greater identity that society represented was far easier than in the free, diversified, and fast-changing reality of our globalized and technologically connected world. Given such complexity, fostering a civic-minded identity has become more difficult than ever, as we see in the polarization of opinions and ideas that characterize our contemporary world.

What to do about this? This book does not pretend to offer an answer to such a difficult problem. All it proposes is to return to the early times of our history with the intention of rediscovering the building blocks of our contemporary personality. My belief is that only by exploring the ways in which past generations have looked at our inner landscape and the narratives they developed to cope with the contradictions of our nature can we acquire a better understanding of how we got here and what made us who we are today. Even if that alone would not solve our contemporary problems, improving our critical capacity to look within can contribute to increasing, even by just a few degrees, the clarity our present needs in order to find the best way to progress toward the future in a fruitful and positive manner.

Know Thyself is divided into five parts: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, early Middle Ages, late Middle Ages, and humanism and the Renaissance.

The first part of the book explores the Greek belief that man was a creature occupying a point in between an animal and a god. Reason, which was considered the principal quality of human life, was meant to maintain that central balance through the control of all passions, including the excessive expressions of pride and ambition that the Greeks defined as hubris. From Homer’s epics to the development of the polis, the birth of philosophy, and the creation of democracy, the immense faith that the Greeks placed in their understanding of human reason produced one of the most vibrant civilizations the world had ever seen. Yet, despite all their brilliance, the Greeks also imbued culture with some of the sturdiest seeds of bias and prejudice—as in disparaging all non-Greeks as uncivilized barbarians (when in fact Greece owed an enormous debt to much older Eastern cultures, like the Egyptian and the Babylonian) and attributing a gender quality to the concept of rationality. This was a quality that only men were believed to possess to the total exclusion of women, who, as symbols of sensuality, were seen as the embodiment of the irrational passions and appetites belonging to the material body. Assuming that the mind of a woman was too weak to harness the impulses of the body had long-lasting consequences in Western culture. Barring women from all social and political activities was the most damaging effect of that prejudice. Significantly, the word “virtue” derives from vir, which means “man” in Latin, while the word “hysteria,” which was used up to the nineteenth century to indicate emotional instability, derives from hystera, meaning “uterus” in Greek.

One of the most influential views that the Greek philosophical tradition established was to identify in reason the governing force of the entire universe: as the mind ruled the body, the cosmos was believed to have received its harmony and order (kosmos in Greek meant “order”) from a divine and superior rational Mind. To live in agreement with that divine force, man had to apply to himself and to his society the same rules of harmonic collaboration that regulated all other aspects of nature. This view led the Greeks to passionately despise all tyrants and despots: people who, allowing pride to override judgment and rationality, arrogantly assumed that their talent alone was sufficient to rule society. Ironically, the end of the polis era was brought about by what the classical times had feared most: the rise of the monarchic absolutism of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great.

The second part of the book describes the enormous influence that the Greek concept of polis (which is the root of the word “politics”) had on its Roman conquerors—most important, the view that man, as a rational being, could realize his full humanness only through the military, civic, and political participation that the city demanded. For the Greeks, as well as the Romans, civilization (from civitas, “city” in Latin) could be attained only by men who, by fully assuming their role of citizens, brought to full fruition their inner talents and potentialities.

Of all of Roman history, the period that most political thinkers, from Cicero to the American Founding Fathers, considered the best example of an ideal society was the time of the Roman republic, which came to an end with the ascent to power of Augustus and the creation of the Roman empire. To give the impression that his rule did not contradict but rather fulfilled the earlier ethos of Roman times, Augustus tried to instill in his subjects the belief that in following his leadership, Rome would have fulfilled its destiny as ruler of the world—a role assigned to the city by the gods in recognition of its extraordinary contributions to law, culture, and civilization. Despite the considerable boost that the narrative received from Roman writers and artists, that positive image did not withstand the test of time, especially when the corruption of so many emperors who followed Augustus caused the unraveling of the moral fabric that had once sustained the greatness of Rome.

The third part of the book analyzes the rise of Christianity (an offshoot of Judaism, which was also greatly influenced by the Hellenistic tradition and the mysticism of Eastern cults) amid the havoc brought about by the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Greeks and the Romans had optimistically believed, with Aristotle, that men, being rational, were naturally inclined to coexist with others to create a just and balanced society. Christianity sharply refuted that view, affirming that humanity, having suffered irreparable damage after the original sin of Adam and Eve, could not have functioned without the assistance of faith and the intermediary action of grace. The fall of Rome was used as evidence that given the sinful defectiveness of man, no attempt to create a perfect society would have succeeded because human egotism would have always prevailed over communality and hate over empathy and justice. Within that new, pessimistic mind-set, the world was transformed into a place of sorrow and hardship: a locus of trial for a sinful humanity whom God would judge at the end of time. As religion became entrenched with every aspect of the human existence, the church, filling the void left behind by the secular state, assumed a role of leadership and preeminence that, next to spiritual, was also cultural, political, administrative, and institutional.

The fourth part of the book shows how the pessimism that pervaded the early part of the Middle Ages started to lift in the eleventh century, when, with the end of the barbarian invasion, a period of peace and prosperity slowly began. The main characteristic of those times was the rebirth of cities and the rise of a new merchant class eager to establish its place in society independent of the aristocratically led hierarchy of the previous feudal era.

The greatest contribution that those new market towns gave to culture was the creation of universities that allowed learning to spread beyond the cloistered control of the religious orders. The most obvious beneficiary of that revival of learning was the secular state, whose administrative and legal functions were now greatly improved by the service of many educated lawyers and officials. As the secular powers became stronger and better organized, a collision with the ecclesiastic apparatus, which for centuries had kept a tight control over society, became inevitable, making the tug-of-war between the state and the church one of the main characteristics of the late Middle Ages. With the discovery of the Greek heritage (ironically preserved and returned to the West by the Muslims, against whom Christian Europe had launched so many Crusades), a major transformation in views and ideas occurred. Within that dynamic, the revival of Aristotle assumed particular importance, especially when Thomas Aquinas managed to reconcile the principles of Christianity with the optimistic views about human nature advocated by the Greek philosopher. As a consequence, man’s role was radically transformed to become, from a sinful and morally crippled creature, God’s superior and talented collaborator charged with bringing to realization the potential inherent in His magnificent creation.

This new view is at the root of humanism and the Renaissance.To facilitate the comprehension of a period as complex and geographically sprawling as the Renaissance, I chose to limit my analysis to the Italian Renaissance, focusing in particular on the two cities that most emblematically embodied the spirit of the time: Florence and Rome. In Florence, the development of the city-state gave way to a nostalgic return to the political ideals of classical times that, in contrast with Augustine’s view, now enthusiastically revived the value and importance of the city of man. The narrative that prevailed was that by applying the wisdom that the Greeks had associated with the polis and the Romans with the republic, the Italian city-states could finally realize the dream of a just and stable society reflecting, as a microcosm, the encoded order impressed by God upon the entire macrocosm of His creation.

Unfortunately, the optimistic confidence that man’s uniqueness and exceptionalism could assure the permanence of a stable and free society was short-lived, overcome as it was by the despotic rule of the Medici family, who brought to an end the dream of the republic. With the cultivation of beauty that the new masters of Florence fostered, art was given an aesthetically pleasing quality that, rather than promoting civic virtue, was now directed at enforcing a court mentality principally devoted to the celebration of the monarchical power that the Medici represented.

The sense of bewilderment that many people felt when the sweeping republican passion that had animated Florence was suffocated by the Medici reached new dramatic heights when Byzantium (present-day Istanbul) fell into Muslim hands in 1453 and when Martin Luther, rebelling against the widespread corruption of the church, initiated the Protestant Reformation that forever split the Christian world. For the wealthy and powerful papacy that by now had become a monarchical power in its own right, the most devastating event occurred when a German division of mercenary soldiers, sympathetic to Luther, sacked Rome in 1527.

As the pendulum of history swung again in the direction of pessimism and disenchantment, new doubts were cast about the much-praised greatness of man. Hope seemed to be gone, but as history repeatedly shows, it is always within the darkness of winter that spring prepares its return.

What that tells us is that identity, rather than a fixed and crystallized reality, has been, and will always be, a work in progress. The fact that the word “culture” evokes the concept of agriculture is revealing in that sense. Ideas are like any other living thing: once planted, they never remain the same. They grow, they mature, they change. Most of all, as this book repeatedly points out, they travel just like seeds blown by the wind. The point is important also because it reminds us that despite all ideological divisions between West, East, North, and South, identity remains the result of the most fruitful and enriching of all phenomenon—the cross-pollination of peoples, cultures, and ideas.