Aristotle once said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” He missed the mark.
Knowing yourself is important, of course. It is important to learn your predispositions, your talents, and your weak points. But the truth is we are poor judges of ourselves, and we see ourselves through delusional and self-justifying lenses. Introspection is important, but we aren’t very good at it.
The limitations of introspection is not the only reason Aristotle missed – or at least not the most important error of his quote. The most important error of his quote is that, assuming we can accurately get to know ourselves (a big assumption), we must know ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. For example, if you had never seen a fish before and you saw a rainbow trout in an aquarium, you’d have to frame of reference with which to consider the fish. Is this fish big or small? Are all fish this color? Is this a salt water fish or fresh water? You would lack context. In the same way, when we consider ourselves without reference to the world, we lack context.
So let’s get some context.
In Genesis 1 we see that we – all of us – are made in God’s image. We are not randomly mutated pond scum, but rather creations of the most brilliant Creator.
While all of humanity is made in God’s image, and this is a great honor, those of us whom Christ has redeemed are also considered children of God. We are members of the royal family of God, and there are literal rooms in God’s house for us. Jesus reconciled us on the cross and thus afforded us the opportunity to become adopted sons and daughters.
Thus, we should have a high view of humanity. We should understand that the magnum opus of creation is not Mount Everest or The Grand Canyon or The Great Barrier Reef – it’s us.
Right and Wrong
We went astray, though. And more than that, we rebelled against our Maker. It’s not just that Adam and Eve sinned and we inherited the genetic condition of being sinners. No, we sin every day and choose to exalt our will over God’s.
There was a tragic loss of innocence that happened in The Garden, and it is the major distinguishing factor between humans and other animals. We know right and wrong now. We have a moral mind. A doe grazing in a field is uncomplicated, pure. She isn’t thinking about the conversation she had with her deer friends last night over tea. But in any human conversation – say two friends over lunch – there are moral questions and answers swirling around a mile a minute.
So we know right and wrong. And while we sometimes choose to do what is right, we also choose to do what is wrong. This is our nature.
We need help.
Knowing God, Knowing You
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)
If we approach the world as if we are the hero of our own movie, we will destroy anything and anyone that gets in our way – including ourselves. Wise living begins with understanding of who God is and who we are. God is God and we are not.
God’s wrath is terrifying. Even his passive wrath – that is, when God lets us do what we want – is pure horror. But because of the reconciliation of the cross, we have no reason to be scared of God. None whatsoever. He is our Father, and he is forever on our side. But for lack of a perfect word, fear is the only way to define the feeling we should have toward God. The proper feeling is a combination of love, awe, gratitude, reverence, and a recognition of God’s power.
If we want to grow in wisdom, we must grow in our understanding of God. That is the on-ramp to wisdom. Once we have established a proper view of God, we will learn who we are in relation to him. And then – and only then – will we begin to understand ourselves.
Maybe Aristotle wasn’t totally wrong, after all. He just skipped a step. To know yourself in light of God is the beginning of all wisdom.