Inscribed on the pediment of the temple of Apollo are the words “Know thyself”.
Who am I? To find the answer to this question, I first delved into the murky waters of philosophy because throughout human history this question has sent philosophers to the agora and seekers to the oracles. Two stories in particular helped me to solve this existential problem; Plato’s interpretation of Heraclitus’s “river fragments” and the paradox of Theseus’s ship.
“Heraclitus, you know, says that everything moves on and that nothing is at rest; and, comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says that you could not step into the same river twice” (Cratylus 402A).
I am not who I was just a second ago; the water in which I stepped in at that moment in time has flowed downstream and if I step into the water again it will be a different bit of water that momentarily surrounds my feet before continuing its journey to the sea. Everything changes yet it seems to remain the same. So is it with me; everything changes yet everything seems to remain the same.
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Am I who I think I am? My rotting timbers have so often been changed by fate and circumstance that on the outside I look brand new. But is this really me? And what happened to the putrid planks that were replaced? Have the decomposed remains just been reassembled into their original configuration, and is the “new” is nothing but an illusion?
And if the rotting composition was not real, but in fact just the soul of the new ship? Or are both just an illusion and “self” does not exist except in the image that others see? I am who I think that you want me to be. The mirror reflects a reversed image and I believe that I am really you.
But your shoes chafe at my heels and crush my toes. I hanker for the water that has long wedded the sea. I yearn for my old familiar rotting timbers. I cannot be whom I was, so my existence is bedevilled by my aspirations to become someone else.
So, I am just an illusion, or a reflection of an ideal. Moi perfide.
I have found the answer yet now I speculate how different my life would be if I accepted this illusion for what it is and engage life without envy, expectation or desire.
But then I would be someone else.