(This is an essay in the style of Montaigne. His essays were usually reflections about some aspect of man. Quotes were unattributed, but I have here quoted from Shakespeare, Cervantes, Machiavelli, and Montaigne himself.)
In every mirror I have ever seen, there is a soliloquy of me: but reflections are silent, so I must speak my reflections. I cannot see the story of myself, for even a mirror cannot represent the complexities of any man. Rather let us turn one mirror to face another. We can see the infinity of depths that the reflection brings with it: and yet every iteration becomes darker and more obscure. Thus it is with man: we all stand between two mirrors, seeking to understand ourselves.
To each man, he himself is an unfathomable depth. And yet we have a sacred duty to examine each and every layer, tossing out this and that, polishing, amending, considering. For though the reflections go on forever, yet we must know ourselves. We do not seek
all delusions and deceits of the sight…all demonstrations of shadows.
But rather we seek the truth.
And yet one might consider himself forever without making progress, for despite what we have said, we can neither comprehend infinity nor penetrate the dark tempest that our minds are the Prospero’s of. Indeed, we might become a man of La Mancha:
so with too little sleep and too much reading, his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.
Let us not embark on any wild adventures, then, lest we receive a metaphysical thrashing from metaphysical mule-drivers, but let us see whether there is a better way for men to know themselves. For those who pretend to knowledge have the least love for their fellow humans.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?
And let me here note that nothing is plainer than the proposition that man wants to know himself. For what other reason do we write plays and pretenses and put them on display? The subject of plays are always men themselves, the characters and their actions. We want to stand outside life for a moment and be a spectator only. Offered such a godlike opportunity to know life, who could refuse?
From this it is plain that men are able to know themselves by knowing others and comparing themselves with what they have seen.
Just as those who paint landscapes set up their easels down in the valley in order to portray the nature of the mountains and peaks, and climb up into the mountains in order to draw the valleys, similarly in order to properly understand the behavior of the lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes.
Even so, in order to understanding the living, one must be dead, or at least standing outside of life for a moment.
…For the soul can find no rest while she remains afraid of him (death). But once she does find assurance she can boast that it is impossible for anxiety, anguish, fear, or even the slightest dissatisfaction to dwell within her. And that almost surpasses our human condition.
For even though to conquer death is to surpass our human condition, we find ourselves strangely reversed in this matter, for we also must go through a sort of death to even learn what our human condition is.
It is for this that men so bravely place their bottoms in hard chairs to sit for hours at a time watching a make-believe story. What else could induce them to endure such discomfort but the prospect of getting to know themselves and mankind a little better, and being better prepared to face
that sleep of death?
The Prince of Denmark, finding it necessary to reveal the truth about his father’s murder, and paint the killer’s cheek red with the blush of guilt, chose the medium of a play – if a conscience may be caught by players speaking canned words upon a stage, what more proof do we need that real men are the mirrors wherein we may know ourselves? King Harry, when wandering among his men during the night before Agincourt, plays a part, as it were, cloaked under another character, and yet the character he reveals is his own true self: the self who could not be shown in public. An actor may reveal the truth more handily than an honest man: for he cares not for the reputation of the assumed character. What a loss it would be to suffer the end of drama, by whose unashamed mirroring nature we so often receive a reflected image of ourselves!
…the purpose of playing, whose end, both first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
A painting might seem to fall short of our standard of reflection – for it cannot move so freely as men or a mirror. But this is the painter’s genius: no other man is forced tell a story so still, or reveal so much character in so small a space! Many paintings can tell us whether the model is good, or bad, or happy, or melancholic, or kind, or cruel, what his station is in life, and many other things: and all this by immobile coloured daubs on a bit of cloth! For my part I will not deny the talent of the painters.
And all these paintings and plays shows man who he is: he is an explorer: he was reborn, Renaissanced, in order to find that among all he studies he had neglected to study himself. From this we have gotten the humanist movement of education: a system of teaching men how to be men, not books; how to judge history, and not merely record it to spit it up again. Man must be appreciated as man: did not the good Lord make us? Then let us glory in His creation and include us among the many things that are submitted to us for consideration, naming, and dominion.
So here sit I, contemplating myself: an armchair philosopher. But an armchair philosopher, however much he knows himself, knows only his sitting self: and that is a very limited self indeed! How much better it is to know oneself in sport or conversation, to know oneself in gaming or feasting, to know oneself in sorrow, in danger, in love, in religious reverence and awe, and
the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?
How much better to know yourself living than to know yourself as one who sits in a chair and thinks! I am inclined to believe that Plato would have been a better man for a good ride on a bicycle. It is not only the soul that man must know, for the good Lord gave us bodies as well as our souls. So how can a philosopher or any man, indeed, know himself if he knows not his body? A good game of rugby, played well, will tell you once and for all, how well your reason has your body in hand. A hard-earned try tells you as much about yourself as any syllogism. A closely held tackle gives as much glory to God as a finely crafted sonnet.
Mens sana in corpore sano. [A sound mind in a sound body]
Let us be healthy and sane, and taught by both Leonidas and Socrates, by Sparta and Athens. While we may not yet know ourselves, yet we know how to know.
γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Know thyself.