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Know Thyself: from Ancient Greece to Psychoanalysis

Gnōthi seauton, a Greek aphorism inscribed on the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, translates to "know thyself". The need for identification has been a social construct since the first signs of civilization. From ancient Greece, we can see how man identifies himself from otherness. This phenomenon, carefully studied in psychoanalysis, is a prerequisite in the identification process for every society, culture, and individual. An "other" is delimited, different from the "we" that enunciates; it is in this manner that identity is paved. To get to "know thyself", it is necessary to know others. The different identities are constructed and transformed through complex and closely related elements that define us in relation to the "other".

In his first texts about the identification of the subject and the relation to the “other”, Jacques Lacan states that there is no image of identity, but a fundamental alterity relationship. For the author, the self cannot provide any kind of identity on its own, this would only be possible in what he calls the imaginary order: a narcissistic stage in which the human subject fantasizes. For identity to consolidate itself, recognition of the existence of the other is always necessary. There is no self-identity without the presence of the improper; there is no identity without otherness. It requires this border encounter with the external, with what one is not.

Even though the alterity theory is considered a modern idea, the ancient Greeks were the first to show interest in the Other and their influence is significant for us nowadays. The Greeks were in need of what they called barbarians; without them, they were orphans of identity. They created an identified "we" from the negative confrontation before an "other" that was foreign to them, who were segregated and excluded. It should be noted that at that time, Greece was not politically linked, they had separate polis, but they were identified as one because they shared a common tongue. The barbarians were those who did not speak in their same language, they were the misunderstood.

Figure 1: Red-figure bell-krater depicting Orestes visiting Delphi to request help from Apollo and Athena, 4th century BC, via the British Museum, London

The Vision of the Other in Ancient Greece

The vision of the Other plays an important role in the construction of identity, and we could already perceive this in ancient Greece. In order to know what something is, it needs to be seen and what is seen needs to be narrated as well; told in a story as a form of evidence for its existence. In his book, The Greek Man, historian Jean-Pierre Vernant (2000) emphasizes that the divine command "know thyself" does not speak about making an introspection and an inner analysis. For the ancient Greek communities, this implied knowing one's limits, knowing one's mortal self and not considering yourself as equal to the gods. Greece was a culture about honour versus shame, framed by competition and rivalry. Individuality was not emphasized in the subjectivity of a personal conscience, it was built based on a social construct. Society gave each man a name, a beginning for their story, a position within the community. It was about being seen and being recognized by the other. Plato, in his Dialogues VII Alcibiades, says the following:

"So you have noticed that the features of the person looking into the eye appear in the pupil of the person opposite, as though in a mirror, and we actually call the pupil ‘a doll’ because it is an image of the person who is looking in."

The crossing of the eyesight between two Greeks was the essential scenario for shaping both identity and otherness, it spoke of what it is to be a man versus not being an animal, to be male versus not being a woman, and to be Greek versus not being a barbarian. In a symposium, for example, it was the context for coexistence among "equals". The perceived and recognized face of each one was delimited through the look and the exchange of words, the individual was shaped by the social bond, by the name and the honour that the other gave him. (Flores, 2010)

mythology, greece, painting
Figure 2: Ulysses and Penelope from Francesco Primaticcio (Italy, 1560)

In the ancient texts of Hesiod, Homer, and Thucydides, among other famous writers, we can see the importance given to the condition of the eye and the identity. In the Odyssey, for example, we have the scene where Penelope is introduced to a stranger and she, through a game of looks, recognizes him as her husband Ulysses. This game between seeing and being seen sets the pattern of personal identity. The Greek man is based on vision. Vernant (2000), says the following:

"In the first place, to see and to know are the same thing; if ideîn "to see" and eidénai "to know" are two forms of the same verb, if eîdos "appearance," "visible aspect," also means "proper character," "intelligible form," it is because knowledge is interpreted and expressed through the world of vision. To know is, then, a form of seeing." (p. 22-23)

The construction of self-identity for the Greek man lies in his admiration, it is shaped by the exchange of glances and words. The face of his identity is contemplated in the eyes of the one who looks at him and it is this eye that acts as a mirror; the one that returns our own image. The physical body forms a fundamental part of identity for the Greek, therefore the existence of an "inner life" was not yet conceived. The idea of a soul, as historian Jan Bremmer (1983) perceives it in his book The Early Greek Concept of the Soul, is not conceived as autonomous to the body. In fact, there was no concept of “my soul”. “The psykhē is nothing more than a nebulous reality, a vehicle of identity but not identity itself. This was understood as a breath of life that comes weeping out of the warrior's body to become a shadow of shadows and, therefore, it is more appropriate to say that what exists is 'the soul in me'”. (Bremmer, 1983) There is no belief in the immortality of the soul, therefore the importance of an individual identity lies in the collective memory, in being recognized and not forgotten by the other. (Flores, 2010)

Identity and Alterity in the Greeks

As mentioned before, the borderline dividing Greeks from non-Greeks was an imaginary construction where the term "barbarians" was born from otherness. This creation of the Greek was a vehicle to try to naturalize the difference between the "own" and the "foreign", thus forging the Greek identity. The construction of identity was limited to the structure of the polis, where each city recognized itself through multiple narratives that were governed by a criterion of otherness where the foreign created the image of ownership. In the Iliad, Homer refers to the "barbarians" as ethnic groups whose pronunciation when speaking was unintelligible. Their language was an exotic, foreign tongue, and thus the polarity between Greek and barbarian is delimited by the one who speaks Greek from the one who does not. In her essay, En el espejo de tus pupilas. Ensayos sobre alteridad en Grecia Antigua, Flores (2010) states that "The name "Hellenes", Thucydides points out (I, 3), was applied collectively to all Greeks when the cities began to understand each other, that is, when they began to speak the same language." (Flores, 2010)

greece, painting
Figure 3: Tomb of the Diver (The painted tombs of Paestum) 500–475 BC

The close relationship between speaking intelligibly and being rational (speaking Greek) made it easy to distinguish the face of the barbarian, as well as that of the slave, as "lacking both". The term barbarian takes on a pejorative connotation when Athenian reasoning turns into imperialism. Thus, the imaginary construction of this otherness begins to make room within the stereotypes of the barbarian. The speech about an other and the other takes place, defining a strategy where that which is not Greek, that which lacks civilization, is to be condemned. This sharp distinction between Greek/barbarian takes on a political sense, where society is structured in this bipolarity making an inclination towards the superior over the inferior. (Hartog, 1999)

We can see how both vision and language are fundamental in the construction of identity for the human subject. The sight, as it constructs an image and reflects, can only be confirmed through language. Thus, identity is understood as a social construction that is born from the image and is accentuated within a symbolic order regarding the other. To be human belongs to natural law, but to be man, to be Greek, belongs to a social law. Psychoanalytic theory seeks to explain this process by understanding the dichotomy of language, which is why otherness is intrinsic to identity.

The Mirror Stage: Construction of the Subject

The difference between object and subject in psychoanalysis is fundamental to understanding the process of identification that Lacan proposes in the mirror stage. The object is that which is outside the subject, on the exterior, but in close relationship with it. It must be understood that, as Freud (1917) mentions in A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis, "the ego is not a master in its own house", so it is "subject" to a knowledge of which it does not know the unconscious. However, how much of the subject is constructed in relation to the object? We must understand that both the imaginary and the symbolic order are relevant in such an inscription. That is to say, both vision and language play a key role in the origin of identity.

The mirror stage is a foundational process that structures the child's first reality. It is this moment that allows a first distinction between the self and the other, that which is outside of him. This happens at an imaginary level, through his eyes a child perceives an integrated image of the body of his peer, and that is when the other becomes a mirror for the child. The other is an image that the child sees and, by looking at him, he finds himself in it. Thus, we build our identity when we recognize the existence of the other. (Diaz, 2014)

art, painting, mirror
Figure 4: La reproduction interdite from René Magritte (Belgium, 1937)

We can say that one does not speak from unity but from difference. In his essay Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud (1905) explains that a child's curiosity is not an aspect that comes naturally, it is rather about the manifestation of infantile jealousy that generally arises from fraternalism. The child is forced out of his place, displaced from a narcissistic position by the arrival of another, a sibling for example; a form of rivalry before an object is thus inaugurated. The appearance of the object and the rival is a spectrum that occurs in the register of the image and reveals the power of the latter regarding the transformation of the subject. However, Lacan (1949) points out that this aggressive perception of rivalry against the object happens in a secondary way. At first, the scene of recognition in the mirror stage is a process in the formation of the ego, where the subject and the object are identified as equals. It is only secondarily, when the child succeeds in his introduction to the symbolic order, that the child is constituted as a subject and a differentiation with the other emerges. In the first scene, the child identifies himself in a fantasy, he only then passes into reality within otherness. It is not the existence of the other that constitutes an identification of the self, it is the comprehension of this existence that establishes one's own identity.


Identity does not come naturally to the human being, it is the construction of man, an idea structured by the passage of a relationship with the other. Otherness, then, is an inescapable phenomenon for the result of one’s own identity. Undoubtedly, psychoanalytic theory describes how vision and language are fundamental to this process; one needs the other just as identity needs otherness. The image is not enough since there would only be a phantasmatic identification, referring only to an idea. In order to establish oneself as a subject within reality, a symbolic order is required. This is the only thing that allows differentiation. Otherness, then, only exists because language does.

We can understand that the history of man, the Greek man, has its foundations within what psychoanalytic theory explains centuries and centuries later. Identity and otherness are two phenomena that occur from the beginning of civilization, and mythological texts help us understand how this process occurred. The relevance of mythology is essential for psychoanalysis, it evidences the process of identification of the subject from his early beginnings. Greek man was the first to establish the importance of vision for the self, the first to give us signs about psychic life despite having no conception of it. Everything belonged to the exterior, to the visible, to the account of the other, and this itself made it possible to shed light on profoundly internal processes with respect to the constitution of the subject. It was not until Socrates that the phrase "know thyself" speaks to us of a reflection on the inner life. However, the fact that this phrase was contradictorily inscribed when "know thyself" was considered to be knowing oneself through the external, the other, allows us to understand at a macro level what psychoanalytic theory studies in a singular level.

Bibliographical References

Bremmer, J. (1983) The Early Greek Concept of the Soul

Díaz, C. (2014) Imaginario, Simbólico , Real: aporte de Lacan al psicoanálisis. Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá

Flores, L. (2010) En el espejo de tus pupilas. Ensayos sobre alteridad en Grecia Antigua. México

Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey (1962). New York: Basic Books.

Freud, S. (1917). A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis. In the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis” and Other Works (Vol. XVII, pp. 135-144). London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Hartog, F., Lloyd, J., & Cartledge, P. (2001). Memories of Odysseus: Frontier Tales from Ancient Greece. Edinburgh University Press.

Lacan, J. (1949) The Mirror Stage Pp. 1-3 and 172-175 in Écrits: A Selection. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1977

Lacan, J. (1993). The Psychoses. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book III 1955–1956. Ed.

Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. and notes Russell Grigg. London: Routledge.

Plato (350bc) Alcibiades 1 tran. By The Dialogues of Plato: A New Translation by David Horan from The Foundation of Platonic Studies. Ireland: RCN 20206186. retrieved from

Vernant, J. (2000) et al., El hombre griego. Editorial Alianza. Madrid, España

Visual Sources

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Gabriella Yanes

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