Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Man, Know Thyself!

The Ancient Greek aphorism Man, Know Thyself was painted on the signboard above the Liverpool Museum of Anatomy which was visited by Lowry circa 1927. Lowry refers to the sign in a letter to Conrad Aiken dated 14th September 1952 (Collected Letters Vol 2 Pg. 597).

The Ancient Greek aphorism "Know thyself" (Greek: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, transliterated: gnōthi seauton; also ... σαυτόν ... sauton with the ε contracted), is one of the Delphic maxims and was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek periegetic (travelogue) writer Pausanias (10.24.1).

The maxim, or aphorism, "know thyself" has had a variety of meanings attributed to it in literature. The Suda, a 10th-century encyclopedia of Greek knowledge, says: "the proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are,"and that "know thyself" is a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude Wikipedia

The use of the sign at the Anatomy Museum may relate to the use of the aphorism in relation to anatomical fugitive sheets which were illustrations of the human body specially created to display internal organs and structures. The museum contained a variety of exhibits to show the internal organs of the body.

From 1539 onwards the phrase nosce te ipsum and its Latin variants were often used in the anonymous texts written for anatomical fugitive sheets printed in Venice as well as for later anatomical atlases printed throughout Europe. The 1530s fugitive sheets are the first instances in which the phrase was applied to knowledge of the human body attained through dissection.

However, a further clue to the use of the phrase by the Museum are the use of lines in their catalogue from Alexander Pope:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;

These lines are taken from Pope's poem 'Epistle II: Of the Nature and State of Man, With Respect to Himself as an Individual' (1734) which opens with an argument; "The business of Man not to pry into God, but to study himself. His middle nature; his powers and frailties. The limits of his capacity" and also contains the lines:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.

We must assume that Joseph Woodhead, the founder of the Museum, was familiar with Pope's poem.

The phrase was also used by Conrad Aiken in his novel Blue Voyage; "Know thyself!" he reflects, 'was the best joke ever perpetrated'. And what was he? A hurricane of maggots which answered to the name of Demerest." (Pg. 16). Lowry would have been struck by the coincidence of the sign with Aiken's use of the phrase.

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