Nosce Teipsum: The Senses of Self-Knowledge in Early Modern England

  • Elizabeth L. Swann
Part of the Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern Literature book series (CKEML, volume 1)


For early modern men and women, striving for full self-knowledge was a religious obligation—and achieving it was an impossibility. On the one hand, following Augustine, the quest for self-knowledge was conceived as coterminous with the quest for God. On the other, as a range of sceptical and Reformed authors—from Montaigne to Hooker—argued, true self-knowledge was thought to pose an insurmountable challenge precisely because of what might initially seem to be an epistemic advantage: that is, the proximity of the self to the self. In the Reformed tradition, I argue, this scepticism about the self’s intelligibility was levied for pastoral ends as a source of comfort and reassurance, introducing an element of welcome doubt to temper the blistering certainties of Calvinist predestination. The second half of the chapter explores the highly visceral, sensory terms in which authors frequently describe the pursuit of self-knowledge. I focus in particular on early modern iterations of an ancient analogy comparing the soul to an eye which cannot see itself. For Sir John Davies in his poem Nosce Te Ipsum (1599), self-knowledge is (paradoxically) predicated on a productive form self-estrangement. Poetic language is instrumental here, as metaphor works to make the soul extraordinary to itself, untethering it from its own illusory over-familiarity. Such analogies articulate or ‘make visible’ the limits of our knowledge: they function as a means of expressing, and thereby knowing, human ignorance.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth L. Swann
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of EnglishUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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