Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pithy Poem of the Day

As a lover of aphorisms, and as someone fascinated with issues of free will and identity (an interest only spurred by psychiatry of course), I couldn't resist this short Goethe poem (which I came across in Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise):

No one can know himself,
Detach from his self,
Yet he tries to become every day
What is finally clear from the outside,
What he is and what he was,
What he can and what he may.

If one can get past the quaint 19th-century emphasis upon "he," it is clear that this is a profound glance at the ambiguities of the free and the determined. All the subjective struggle that is at the heart of life (how to live, what to do?) merges in the end with the inevitable. And in a profession that, drawing from Socrates's infamous "Know thyself," prizes self-examination, it is worth remembering that we can never fully succeed at this (or if we did, we would in fact be fully detached, viewing ourselves as biological machines). In fact, Goethe supposedly said at some point, when the topic of self-knowledge came up (and I'm paraphrasing), "Heaven forbid that I should know myself." He meant to exaggerate, of course, but all the same some mystery must remain at the core of who we are.

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