Know Thyself

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Know Thyself” seems to offer up two possible interpretations, and I wonder whether Coleridge believed self-knowledge was possible or not.

The poet asks “Say, canst thou make thyself?” and urges his reader to “Learn first that trade.” Self-creation, it seems, comes before self-knowledge. A human being is not merely made, but self-made.

But is self-knowledge possible even after you have made yourself? The poet describes “Man” as all “Dark fluxion, all unfixable by thought” and merely a “phantom” in his being. Self-knowledge then seems hopeless, and better then to “Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!” For “What hast thou, Man, that thou dar’st call thine own?” All belongs to God.

If this were the whole of the poem’s message, then it would be clear: a human being is unknowable, and so self-knowledge is impossible. The poem would carry a Platonic message: the world of flux and change is unknowable, and all that can be known are the eternal Forms that come from God.

But there is a line in the middle of the poem. If you have first made yourself then “Haply thou mayst know what thyself had made.” On the one hand, this “haply” (meaning “perhaps”) might be ironic: perhaps you might know what you’ve made, but what you’ve made of yourself will still be phantom and illusion, and therefore cannot be the object of true knowledge.

On the other hand, if we take this line without irony, the poet could be saying: perhaps you will know what you’ve made, but only if first you have sought knowledge of God. The final line of the poem, that command to forget yourself and seek God, would be the poet’s clue as to how self-knowledge is possible, describing the essential first step on the path to discovering what you truly are as a human being. The first step is to be humble before God, and know thyself as one of God’s creatures.

I find this poem interesting for the relationship it posits between knowledge, creativity, and faith. All were important for Coleridge, it seems, but one must be wary of raising knowledge, or at least self-knowledge, above all things.

I find this poem interesting for the relationship it posits between Self and God, with the former being nothing without the latter. And what is God, for Coleridge? Reading his poems it seems that “God” signifies the source of all self-making and self-knowing, so that Coleridge is presenting a Platonic picture after all, with God as the eternal Good at the centre of all creation.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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