Picture: “Echo and Narcissus” (1903) by J W Waterhouse.

The saying “know thyself” is nowadays commonly attributed to Ancient Greece (Greek transliterated: gnothi seauton) as one of the Delphic maxims. In Latin it is given as “nosce te ipsum”. The phrase was later expounded upon by the philosopher Socrates, who taught that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

In “Reading Ovid: Stories from the Metamorphoses”, Peter Jones analyses the text of the story of Echo and Narcissus:

“339-50…Teiresias’ new found prophetic powers brought him tremendous fame…Liriope, Ovid says, was the first to put Tiresias to the test after she had been raped by a river god and borne Narcissus. Even as a tiny baby, he was lovable – and it is that capacity to be loved which will undo him, because of his unwillingness to love in return. Teiresias’ reply to Liriope’s understandably infatuated maternal request is incomprehensible as it stands, since, usually, it is not knowing oneself that leads to disaster…

415-26: From here on Ovid is in literary heaven: a young man looks into the water in which he is slaking his thirst and gradually falls in love with what he sees – himself (one can imagine him watching the surface as it clears, and then ruffling it as he drinks, then seeing it clear again, while self love slowly grows). We must presume that this is the first time Narcissus has ever seen himself…

454-62…Two points. First, Narcissus inhabits a world full of water – and mountain nymphs. That there should be a desirable spirit like form under the water reaching out for him is not a surprise: the woods and rivers are full of spirits, and many of them have already tried to seduce him. Second- and this is the crucial point – he is being punished by the god Nemesis; his punishment is to fall in love with himself, and to do that he has to be blinded to the true nature of what he is seeing.

463-73: With “iste ego sum” the truth finally strikes home: Narcissus realises he cannot say “tu” because that would imply the reflection is a real other person. He is looking at himself, is himself the cause of his feelings, and it is far too late for him to do anything…”.

Dr Jones goes on to add that in “Paradise Lost”, 4.449-76, John Milton “Christianises” the Narcissus story.

In “Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes.”, Natalie Angier reports on “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement In Self Recognition,” a report which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In it, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive…when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.”.

Angier concludes: “When we gaze into a mirror, we are all of us Narcissus, tethered eternally to our doppelgänger on the other side.”.

Daniel Goleman comments in “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships”:

“Self absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”.

Sharon Hamilton published on 10th March, 2007 in “People’s Education” an interview with the American literary critic, M H Abrams, best known for his 1953 work “The Mirror and the Lamp”. He said of it: “I think one of the reasons why it’s been of interest to a broad spectrum of readers is because…it was a very early book to insist on the role of metaphors in cognition, as well as in imaginative literature – to claim that key metaphors help determine what and how we perceive and how we think about our perceptions…”.

In the same interview he said:

“All students are capable of growth. Some of them seem to be very slow to begin with…It’s a matter of what has happened in their lives before. They are all capable of growing, but they will not grow unless you interest them, captivate them in some way, and then make them reach out. Then they will finally enjoy reaching out.”.

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