In the first act of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” as Laertes is leaving the castle Elsinore to return to France, his father Polonius gives him a whole slew of advice – much of it good, like: keep your ears open and your mouth shut – and he punctuates the short speech with the now-famous lines,
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
I’d been re-reading “Hamlet” in order to teach it this semester, in lieu of teaching “Macbeth,” which is in our textbook, for an eighth time. I thought we’d mix it up a little bit.
“To thine own self be true,” he says. What does that mean? One of the wonderful things about reading Shakespeare, which some readers find more troublesome than wonderful, is that his phrases often have multiple meanings, and “Hamlet” is chock-full of those phrases. The key word here is “true,” which can mean two different things: accurate and correct, or benevolently faithful. To say that a statement is true is one thing, but to say that a lover is true is something else. Which does Shakespeare intend when he has Polonius tell his son to be “true” to himself? It might be both.
However, saying “To thine own self be true” is also not a license to selfishness. To be “true” to one’s self also implies a measure of morality and principles, which Polonius includes in his advice. His statement does not say: to thine own pleasure be true, nor To thine own desires be true. The self is a sum-total of our parts: identity (both public and private) of course, and psyche, but also preferences and desires, principles and beliefs, emotional baggage and defense mechanisms, and more.
Since I’ve finished my book on the Whitehurst Case, and am waiting to begin the editorial work on it, I’ve been reading more than usual, and this idea keeps coming up. Not too long ago, at the suggestion of a friend, I read Randall Jarrell’s The Bat-Poet, a children’s book published near end of his life. I mainly knew Randall Jarrell through his poetry and through his 1953 book of criticism, Poetry and The Age, the title work of which is one of my favorite long essays.
In the story, there is a bat who refuses to behave as other bats do: he likes the sunlight, he observes other animals, and he writes poetry. Of course, the other bats shun him and go on with their conformist ways. So the Bat-Poet proceeds to watch the animals and write his poems, now that he can see clearly in the daylight. His first subjects are ruminations on how it must feel to be those other animals – first a chipmunk, then a mockingbird – but he eventually tries to write about himself. It takes a while, but he does turn the lens inward, and then he finds himself, his true nature, those aspects of his self that are conformist, those that are not, and those that are connected to the world around him. One 1964 reviewer wrote of the book’s ending:
Since it is the purpose of his poetry to tell them about themselves he cannot be separated from them forever or he would become unreal and shallow.
What the Bat-Poet experiences is something akin to Polonius’ advice to Laertes, and also to another notion that has been around for a long time, longer than Randall Jarrell, even longer than Shakespeare.
“Know thyself” is attributed to the ancient Greek writer Pausanius, who lived more than century before Jesus Christ. It may seem like a misnomer. Doesn’t everyone know himself? No, I don’t think that everyone does. I think that, in many cases, people who believe that they are acting on principle are actually acting on whimsy, on socialization, or on perceived self-interest. I also think that self-analysis is too painful for some people, who can’t handle the emotional repercussions of realizing how flawed they truly are, of how many people they have hurt, and of how deeply unprincipled and contradictory their behavior really is. The human mind relies heavily on both reason and emotion, and the unexamined life offers a range of opportunities for the latter to dominate decision-making.
Whether the message comes from Pausanius in the mid-2nd century BC, or from the character Polonius in the late 17th century, or from Randall Jarrell in the mid-20th century, the idea rings true, especially in an American democracy. If thoughtful principles, depth of interest, and sincere exploration guide your life, then your actions – however they may be regarded by others – will be more cohesive, and hopefully justifiable.
Using myself as an example, though my thinking leans to the political left, I’ve never resented a thoughtful conservative with solid support for his ideas. In fact, I have great respect for ideas about fiscal conservatism insofar as their implementation doesn’t damage the lives of powerless people. And, to be frank, I have as much disdain for a counter-productive liberal as any Fox News commentator could muster. My principles aren’t about supporting a political team; they’re about being true to what I believe is right.
If more of us in 21st-century America knew ourselves, we wouldn’t be having these problems with divisiveness, because our diversity of beliefs would demand something better than the either-or system of choosing only between Democrats and Republicans, who create diametrically opposed platforms together, who caucus together, and who perpetuate a herd mentality that we citizens have begrudgingly adopted for some ridiculous reason. While we wish for an end to divisiveness, we participate in it freely.
Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the either-ors make the big decisions and started knowing ourselves well enough to be true to something other than just blue or red.