Oscar Wilde, playwright, general wit, and deathbed convert to Catholicism, is notorious for his epigrams, sometime so clever that we simply read them, chuckle, and move on. But just this week I came upon one that stopped me in my tracks: “’Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”
At first, the distinction might seem pedantic, but in reality it cuts to the heart of how we live today. “Know thyself” supposedly stood etched in the forecourt to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and has longed served as a symbol of Greek wisdom. While its beauty is in its ambiguity, it suggests understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses, growing where one can grow and accepting where one is limited. If I am smart, but know that I am prone to pride, knowing myself would mean recognizing my intelligence with humility, stopping myself when I feel any form of haughtiness, and always being aware of my limitations, so that I might learn from them as part of the struggle that is existence. In religious terms, it means handing ourselves over to the glory and mercy of God, recognizing our brokenness and incompleteness.
“Being thyself” is something entirely other. It means spurning others’ opinions and living as one wishes to live; it means refusing to say “no” to one’s limitations; it means, perhaps, even celebrating what could be considered weaknesses. “Being thyself” sounds good, until we realize that no human being on this planet is perfect. The difficulty of life lies in exploring where we excel and where we fail, so that we may thank God for His blessings and give ourselves to Him in our failings.
In this sense, simply “to be” means to live uncritically, to decline to take up our crosses, to shirk them for a celebration of self. “To know” is to be humble, to give ourselves, and to accept the divine as He gives Himself. Perhaps Wilde knew more than he realized when he wrote these words (he sees “be thyself” as the Christian message), as his eventual contrition and conversion show. Regardless of what he intended, this witty remark stands to show us today that our question is not simply “to be or not to be” but more aptly, “to be or to know?”