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instance of this root in action: gnothi seauton, “know thyself,” the maxim written at the temple to Apollo at Delphi, where ancient Greeks visited the oracle to learn about the future. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates says:
But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.
If I really, properly, knew myself — physically, rather that the way that Socrates means here — perhaps I would really, properly, know what the future has in store for me. Instead, my diagnosis has had the effect of reminding me just how mysterious our bodies can be. For months, I was obsessed by the fact that there were things happening in me that I couldn’t even sense if I wanted to. And still, I wept and thought, I know all things now. The scope of my life shrunk down to this diagnosis; nothing else was relevant.
The Delphic oracle was the giver of sometimes maddeningly ambiguous advice. “If you attack the Persians, you will destroy a great empire,” was, so the story goes, the advice the oracle gave Croesus, king of Lydia, when he was contemplating an invasion. He took this as encouragement — not considering that the fate of both empires would hang in the balance. It didn’t end well for Croesus. When I think of the story now, I think of gnothi seauton, dangling like a big comic warning sign over his head. I think of myself in the MRI tube, reciting Yeats with blissful unawareness.
In the face of knowledge, what to do? I say “blissful unawareness,” but I don’t want to suggest that I would prefer not to know. Despite my fears a few years ago, my life has not been permanently unsettled: I have a more interesting job, I have my own apartment, the sky didn’t fall. I manage through periods of fatigue — a whole-body tiredness unlike anything I experienced before — but still, I wake up every morning and I take a pale blue pill that, through its own unseen magic, slows down the rate of demyelination and mostly keeps the symptoms of MS at bay. If I didn’t know, none of this care to safeguard my future would be possible.
The vision in my right eye never fully returned. With both eyes open, I don’t notice this, but if I squint or wink or cover over my left eye, I am reminded that I carry this small neurological scar and that one day I might have more. I’ve wondered, struggling through a bout of debilitating fatigue, if the fog in my brain and the weight in my limbs might never lift and if this would mean I have to give up my ambition to do, to see, to write, to accomplish anything. I try to look straight at the future, but it dissolves, in my flawed vision, into a continuing mystery with a slight possibility, now, of bad things. A life can feel so small. But there is a contingency plan, phone numbers of the clinic to call if I need to. I take a deep breath. I remind myself that Socrates was wrong: there are many things beyond myself that are worth investigating in the meantime. There are so many activities worth doing with a belief in their certainty. When I go to work. When I see my friends tonight. When I finish this essay. When, when, when.
Certain statements from the oracle of Delphi were lauded in antiquity for their perfect ambiguity, which was such that either outcome served to prove her correct. There was possibility but nothing else. If, if, if.
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