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What Is the Most Unknowable

June 2, 2019

 

Who or what is the “real me”? What could be more important than knowing this? The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) began his An Essay on Man with this assertion: “That self-knowledge is the highest aim of philosophical inquiry appears to be generally acknowledged … This objective … [has] proved to be the Archimedean point, the fixed and immovable center, of all thought.” 

 

“I know myself better than anyone else ever could,” we assume. Yet the continuing relevance of the ancient Greek admonition to “know thyself” suggests strongly that in fact we humans understand ourselves very little, if at all. We may understand distant workings of the universe, we may elucidate the world of subatomic particles, we may determine sequences of the three billion chemical base pairs that constitute human DNA—and yet the one thing we still cannot pin down is the self. 

 

Not long ago, Japanese TV screens were filled with the pitiful image of a live wild duck with an arrow embedded in its flesh, evidently the doing of a cruel prankster. Across the nation, viewersʼ hearts went out to the hapless creature. One day in a restaurant we saw someone stare at a TV image of the duck and grimace, saying, “How could anyone be so mean to an animal”—all the while helping himself to savory duck hotpot. The lesson that people truly do not see themselves was brought home with force. Such self-contradiction is everywhere. 

 

The following conversation took place between an elderly husband and wife living in the countryside. Husband: “In the old days, the rooster always used to crow at sunrise, and tell us the time.” Wife: “Yes, nowadays even roosters are lazy good-for-nothings. Itʼs awful.” Neither realized that the problem was their own growing deafness. 

 

Certain though we are 
that this one thing above all else 
is what we know the best, 
the one thing most unknowable 
is nothing but the self. 

 

In all ages and all countries, stories have been told mocking the foolishness of those who do not know themselves, precisely because the condition is so universal. Here are some more examples. 

 

Long ago in India, the scion of a wealthy family took a lovely wife. After their marriage, the newlyweds indulged in wine to add even more sensuality to the pleasures of the bed. One night, the bride went as usual to the wine-jar and removed the lid; she was about to ladle up more wine when lo and behold, there inside the wine-jar was a seductive young woman. Assuming her husband had been cheating on her, she began to berate him, weeping and shrieking and carrying on. The bemused husband took one look in the jar and saw the face of a lusty young man. Assuming his wife had taken a lover, he began casting loud aspersions on her chastity. In the heat of their quarrel, the jar tipped over and shattered, and that put an end to the matter. Each had been too inebriated to recognize his or her own face reflected in the wine. 

 

 Long ago in China, a minister was famous for his splendid beard. The emperor inquired one day whether he customarily slept at night with the beard tucked inside the covers or lying out on top, and the minister found himself unable to answer. To answer the question properly, he requested one nightʼs grace, went straight home, and climbed into bed to experiment. When he tucked the beard under the covers he could hardly breathe, and with it lying on top of the covers he felt awkward. The beard was long and full; all night long he tucked it in and took it out again by turns, unable to make up his mind. 

 

One day a gang of thieves was holding a banquet in their mountain hideout. Naturally the room was filled with stolen articles. Among the booty was a shining gold goblet. As the men passed it around, each taking a drink from it in turn, at some point the goblet disappeared. The leader jumped up with a ferocious scowl and yelled, “Somebody here is a crook!” He could hardly have said such a thing had he remembered his own position as leader of a gang of thieves. 

 

It is hard not to identify with stories such as these. Kierkegaard warned that “the biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing.” We forget to remove the cash from an ATM and make a great to-do about it, but forget what is most important, our own self, without the least concern. (You Were Born For A Reason Part Two Chapter 12)

 

Missionary Kohei Harada

 

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #22 | 2012, What Is the Most Unknowable

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