It sounds simple enough, it just took me a lot longer than most folks to figure it out.
When Bill Shakespeare dropped that little pearl of wisdom via his character Polonius advising his son Laertes in Hamlet, his platitude launched an existential debate that has been going on ever since.
As in what does it mean to be true to oneself?
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte would likely concur with Polonius’ statement on a basic level, but he probably aligned more with Hamlet himself, who disliked “the tedious old fool.” After all, Polonius was more of a company man, into the power and wealth and not really concerned whether or not his son followed his dreams or not. The evils of society and compliance versus the individual, or individualism appears to be at the very heart of Sarte’s core message.
Or if we seemingly run counter from Sarte and go farther back to the metaphysical thinkers, like Socrates and Plato, it gets a little more fun. Plato’s writings reference the ancient phrase “know thyself” inscribed above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and pushing him to examine the power of self-knowledge.
And their philosophy, in essence, made some sense; we have to know about ourselves before we can begin to understand the world around us. Or the bigger curveball from Socrates, “The only true wisdom is that I know nothing.”
Now I feel like Neo in the The Matrix right before The Oracle gives him a cookie to make him “feel right as rain.” Forget about figuring whether or not there is or is not a spoon, as perception versus reality would really derail us at this point.
Returning to the line from Shakespeare then, once we gain knowledge about our self, and learn of the world, then we get existential, and live a life true to individual providing meaning in a world that often feels meaningless.
Skipping over a few thousand philosophical and theological debates over that previous paragraph — if we are lucky enough to find what drives us, fires the engines of passion, then we are being as true as we know or understand how to be.
Other than a phrase that looks great on a bumper sticker or an Internet meme next to a fluffy mammal, it is a fairly powerful combination of words. Being true my own self is this very discussion with the world in the form of writing. Be it a blog, or a poem, or longer bit of fiction, this extended conversation on paper has become the only truth I know. I write, therefore I am.
I can’t ask him, yet I ultimately think Shakespeare was giving a shout out to the ancient Greeks, as he often did among his works. However, for poor Polonius, it was likely a platitude, a throw away line for a character who loved the sound of his own voice, but, “to thine own self be true” has taken on a life of its own. Overall, it becomes common sense, but for me, when I first read the words I wasn’t quite capable of answering what I was all about.
And now it’s a quote that generates a lot of business for tattoo shops, cross-stitch patterns and life advice posters. However you interpret the line, above all dear reader — be true to you too.