By 480 BC, the Pythia of Delphi already amounted to an ancient institution. Commonly known now as the Oracle of Delphi (when in fact the “oracles” were the pronouncements the Pythia dispensed), the Pythia were the senior priestesses at the temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy.
The temple, perched precariously (and beautifully, the site is still a wonder to behold) on the slope of Mount Parnassus above the Castalian Spring, had long been the centre of the Greek world, going back into the mists of time.
The site may well have had religious significance as early as 1,400 BC, during the forgotten days of the Mycenaeans, with devotions to Apollo being established in the eighth century BC. Delphi remained a centre of worship until 395 AD, meaning that it was in use for at least 1,100 years.
During this long period, the Pythia was seen as the most authoritative and important soothsayer in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to visit the temple and have their questions about the future answered.
Sitting in a small, enclosed chamber at the base of the edifice, the Pythia delivered her oracles in a frenzied state, most probably imbibing the vapours rising from the clefts of Mount Parnassus.
Given the pharmacological basis for the Pythia’s special insights, it is amazing how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, of which more than half are said to be historically accurate. We can name a goodly number of modern political risk firms who would kill for that record.
There is a very simple explanation for the Pythia’s extraordinary success. Carved into the entrance of the temple to Apollo at Delphi, standing watch over the Pythia’s rites since time immemorial, was a simple Greek phrase, “Know Thyself”.
The aphorism is often wrongly attributed to Socrates, who brought it into fashion. It amounts to one of the oldest and best pieces of advice given to humans. The aim of both modern psychology and foreign policy analysis could be put as simply as: figure out who you are.
If you know yourself, you might untangle the snarls you get into in life. You might do better interacting with others; when you understand your motives clearly, you have a shot at seeing others with clarity. You might even be able to do good in the world, rather than be a slave to selfishness and rage.
Many among the pantheon of the gormless we have visited over the past three years – from a Donald Trump who cannot understand why firing the FBI director who is investigating him might be a bad idea, to Jean-Claude Juncker and his EU minions who fail to see that the EU is the past and not the future, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who continually confuses caution and wisdom – stumble over this primary intellectual hurdle.
They have absolutely no idea who they are, and thus have little clue as to their place in the world. From this simple but devastating mistake, everything else follows.
Of course to know thyself takes great courage, to look accurately at a person’s (or a country’s) strengths and especially weaknesses is a heroic, Homeric endeavour. But the analytical rewards of doing so are legion.
Abraham Lincoln saw that the American Civil War was about something far larger in the history of the world, just as Winston Churchill put into stirring words that Britain’s peril in 1940 was about more than the fate of a country, but more broadly the survival of decency in the face of utter barbarism.
Neither of these moments would have been remotely possible without a real understanding of where Lincoln and Churchill stood in the universe, why their moments mattered. This in turn required the magic elixir of self-knowledge.
This column is the last in a series of articles we wrote together. We looked at what countries do, and then looked at human behaviour, and what science has gleaned about the workings of the human mind and brain. We combined psychology, history and current affairs in this series, because the first directive in these disciplines is to discover the root causes of human behaviour and events.
In each of these fields and for all of humankind, this boils down to the individual, and for that individual, understanding begins with the self. So for this column, giving modern-day advice about the present, it seems like a good place to end – at the beginning.