Socrates claimed to be the least intelligent man in Athens. “Since I am not yet able to know myself,” he said to his followers, “it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.” And yet, the famous Greek philosopher investigated a vast array of phenomena during his life, as recorded by his student Plato.
The subtle lesson Socrates hinted to was that you could not deepen your knowledge of the outside world without deepening your self-knowledge; as within so without. While getting carried away in arbitrary study is quite easy, the wise man prioritizes his acquisition of knowledge by its ability to teach him about himself.
As Within so Without
As within so without ascertains the value of knowledge by the gold standard of self-knowledge. “The very essence of knowledge is self-knowledge,” said Plato, and the volumes of Socratic dialogues he would leave for following generations all sought to reinforce man’s learning by examining the observable world around him.
As without so within was by no means exclusive to Greek wisdom. The Chinese philosopher Confucius lived at a time in which China was divided into warring states. In this delicate political reality, Confucius was prompted to explicate the rules of government that his country so desperately lacked. In the spirit of ‘as within so without’, his philosophy stressed that one could govern a country only as well as one had government over oneself.
As Within so Without – a Universal Truth
Confucius taught politics parallel with self-discipline. He left such a powerful legacy that, soon after his death, the Xin emperor would use his precepts to unify China into one of the most powerful and enduring empires in history. The glory of subsequent Chinese dynasties all stemmed from this firm Confucian foundation, instructing the emperor to deal properly without as he dealt honestly within.
As without so within subtly encompasses all wisdom. It empowers analogy and metaphor. It lends relevance to Biblical parables and mythical fairytales. It encapsulates the basic relationship of man to the world, instructing him to use the world as his mirror.