The final word on … self-awareness

Both ancient Stoic philosophy and modern therapeutic approaches prize self-awareness. Here's why The story goes that the great Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius hired a servant to follow him around. The man had only one job. Whenever anybody bowed to the emperor, or said something in praise of him, the servant would whisper in his ear: “You’re just a man. You’re just a man.” Whether this achieved anything isn’t clear, but it was a sign that Marcus Aurelius  was at least trying to practice what he preached. In his Meditations, he wrote: “These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest. It succeeds in its own purpose.”

The enduring popularity of Stoic philosophy is down to some eternally appealing notions that we might apply in practice. They might even be truths.

Some would now be categorised as ‘soft skills’ and there is even a great deal of overlap with modern therapeutic approaches to personal behaviour. They focus on helping us to understand the strengths and weaknesses we possess, how we might harness and adapt them to interact with others in better ways, respond to events appropriately and improve our lives generally.

And to do this we must first become self-aware. We mustn’t kid ourselves. One of the early philosophers who greatly influenced Stoic thought was Heraclitus who wrote: “Self-deception is an awful disease and eyesight a lying sense.”

The Stoic solution to such deceptions is to look at them with different eyes. Modern practices like cognitive behaviour therapy adopt the same approach. As Marcus Aurelius said: “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

The most prominent teacher of late era Stoicism was Epictetus, a disabled former slave who lived nearly 2,000 years ago, yet is credited with inspiring modern behavioural therapists. He saw self-awareness and a more general awareness of what makes for a good human as central to improving ourselves and our impact on others.

“Then what makes a beautiful human being?” he asked. “Isn’t it the presence of human excellence? If you wish to be beautiful, then work diligently at human excellence. And what is that? Observe those whom you praise without prejudice. The just or the unjust? The just. The even-tempered or the undisciplined? The even-tempered. The self-controlled or the uncontrolled? The self-controlled. In making yourself that kind of person, you will become beautiful—but to the extent you ignore these qualities, you’ll be ugly, even if you use every trick in the book to appear beautiful.”

This is taken from the new issue of IN magazine. Out tomorrow. Or if you’re reading it after tomorrow, out now. 

Image: a truth window. This is an opening in a wall, specifically created to reveal the layers or components within. In a strawbale house, a truth window is used to remind occupants that the walls are actually made of straw. Image by Pengo