Nosce te ipsum


My wife and I were watching the Matrix last night. She had never seen it and it’s been years since I watched it. When Neo goes to see the Oracle, she points to a sign that says “Temet Nosce”. She says that it means “know thyself”. My wife, a Latin teacher, was uncomfortable with the Latin used in the movie. She says:

So I was having a problem with the “temet” part…”te” is you, but I had never seen “met” before and didn’t know what it was. In my research last night I found that “met” is used emphatically but I have never seen that before (“ipsum” is much more common for that, so it would be “te ipsum” for “yourself”).

An internet search yields no clues as to why the creators of the movie chose to use this form. The wiki article on Know thyself says that the aphorism is from ancient Greek and is generally given in Latin as nosce te ipsum. Searches for temet nosce all reference the movie. The wiki article on [List of Latin phrases (N)]( only says that it’s a “non-traditional Latin rendering”.

So the question remains, where did this form come from and why did they chose to use it over the more traditional form?

My wife found something that helps answer the first question:

As I was reading through my lines this morning for the Aeneid, I saw a “met”! This time it was “vosmet” (“yourselves” – it’s plural). So apparently that does exist and I have seen it. Like I said though, it is not very commonly used, at least in my experience. I read that the original phrase is Greek, and I couldn’t get a clear answer on whether or not “te ipsum nosce” or “temet nosce” was the original Latin rendering…

…I might be reading too much into the movie, but the colloquial form actually fits in context. The audience is made to think that The Oracle is a mysterious, powerful figure and allowed to assume that The Oracle will be rather ceremonious. In the scene in question, the audience finds out that The Oracle is the exact opposite of what they expected. She is a cheerful old lady who enjoys smoking cigarettes and baking cookies. The scene takes place in her tiny apartment kitchen. The phrase Temet Nosce is on a little wood carved sign above the doorway. It’s a trinket that could only appeal to your grandmother. The scene has a lot of weight in terms of the plot, but the director chooses to juxtapose that weight with an unassuming set. Temet Nosce fits right in.”


A Conference on Early Modern Images Department of History of Art, UCL. Saturday 2 May 2015

“Admiring one’s own face is most easy. To know one’s internal self always has been reputed to be difficult.”

Ulisse Aldrovandi (Italian naturalist, 1522-1605)

The tragedy of Narcissus was his failure to recognise the image he admired on the surface of the pool as his own. His fate might have improved, had he possessed the deeper self-knowledge implied by the Delphic maxim, “know thyself.” The question prompted by Narcissus, of how images pertain to self-knowledge, is especially relevant to the Early Modern period, during which the ancient aphorism nosce te ipsum was engaged provocatively in a range of visual material: it is quoted in illustrations of anatomy, natural history and cartography, and evoked in religious and secular works of art. This renewed cultural imperative to self-knowledge is bound up with the scientific and technological advancements of the period. It is epitomised by the technical refinement of the looking glass, which enabled a person to admire – or better, scrutinise – her own face with unprecedented clarity.

The premise of this conference is that consideration of the Delphic maxim can be productively channelled into interrogating the role of the image in relation to the self: How might images mobilise the philosophical challenge to “know thyself”? What are the mechanisms within images that invite participation in the practices of self-discovery and self-representation?

Speakers include: Anita Sganzerla (The Courtauld Institute); James Hall (Independent scholar); Rebecca Whiteley (UCL); Rosemary Moore (UCL); Thalia Allington-Wood (UCL); Alexandra Marraccini (University of Chicago); Radu Leca (SOAS, University of London); Nathanael Price (UCL).”

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