Friday, April 12, 2013

To Thine Own Self Be True: Meaning and Me


Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

What does it mean to be "true to yourself"? What did Shakespeare have in mind? Is there any application for us in the these oft quoted words, "To thine own self be true."

I'll argue that, even though Polonius was essentially foolish, he gives good counsel here. Then, I'll explore what it means to be true to self.

I. What Was Shakespeare Saying?

First, read the words "to thine own self be true" in context. You'll find the entire speech above.

Second, be aware, this speech comes from Polonius. Polonius, while not a diabolical bad guy, is not really a good guy either. Over the course of Hamlet, he is presented in a mildly negative light as a prattling busy body. In fact, Hamlet judges him "foolish (III.IV.30)." Therefore, quoting him as representative of Shakespeare's views is problematic.

That said, I do believe there is genuine wisdom in Polonius' words: a genuine wisdom we should endorse. That wisdom? Do yourself real and lasting good.

Interesting: One of the wisest speeches in all of Shakespeare comes from a man that is not all that wise: A sorta bad guy spewing very good wisdom. Much can be learned from this: pure wise poetry comes, sometimes, from polluted lips. We can learn from all types of men. We can sometimes get wisdom from even our enemies.

Bad guys can be found saying good things throughout Shakespeare's canon. On the one hand, Shakespeare is imparting to us a feature of the Christian worldview: even the worst men are made in the image of God, and shine forth with gifts. In entertainment of our day bad guys are often painted in the darkest colors possible; villains are villified. However, if you ever known a villain, you will sometimes be surprised at their "good side." Shakespeare presented his villains in a light truer to reality, truer to their identity, and truer to the world in which we live. That is, Shakespeare loved even his villains; he loved his enemies.

On the other hand, I could also argue that Shakespeare's bad guys are sometimes good because their maker was, himself, a fount of goodness. I sometimes wonder, when I read poetry in MacBeth's mouth, or wisdom on Polonius' tongue, if I've come across the sheer goodness of Shakespeare overpowering his bad guys; like, how God's power overrules and redirects the actions of evil men for good. I wonder.

II. True To Yourself?

To thine own self be true.

This is wise and helpful counsel if applied correctly. However, what does it mean?

It means:
-Be concerned about your own good.
-Mind your business and practice, toward yourself, what you preach, to others.
-Do yourself real, and lasting, good; follow your good, and not your heart.

a. Be True To Self = Be Concerned About Your Own Good

This means taking time to think out, and being honest with yourself, about what is actually good for you. Consider your own long term best interest; then, act wisely in accord with your true long term lasting good.

This is not advocating pure selfishness (this is usually how the line is interpreted in 2013); rather, a right self-interest and care for ourselves: i.e. a genuine care for ourselves.

We may think it strange that a man would need to be urged to "look to his good." Yet, look around you, and you will see scores of people acting in self-destructive ways: being "untrue" to themselves. Astonishingly, many act to their own disadvantage. They sow destruction in the world little realizing they must eat the fruit of their crop. Being untrue to yourself means acting as if your deeds had nothing to do with your good: as if, your own self interest did not interest you.

Now, of all the things that may interest us, surely we should find our own self-interest interesting, important, and worthy of consideration. That's the wisdom implied in "being true to self." Be zealous, as much as it is in your power, to do yourself good. Of course, before we can do this, we need to be "interested" in our own interest. We need to see that we are responsible for our actions, and those actions will rebound back on us either to our hurt or help. A similar truth is taught in the scriptures, Proverbs 8:36, "If you are wise, you are wise for yourself." The wise man knows he is the ultimate benefactor from a wise life; he is also the ultimate loser in a foolish life. He thus takes accountability for himself, and pursues his own lasting good.

b. Be True To Self = Reck Not Your Own Rede

A wise man is more eager to apply wisdom to his own life than the lives of others. He preaches, first of all, to himself. Ophelia, after receiving the pleading counsel of her brother Laertes, responds with a call-back to the concept of "being true to self." She tells her brother: practice what your preach:
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,And recks not his own rede (Ophelia, Act I, Scene III).
The theme of wise self-interest weaves its way through Hamlet. Ironically, Polonius' tragic flaw, the one that gets him killed, is failing to mind his own business. In Act III, Scene IV, he hides out in Queen Gertrude's room in hopes of discovering the cause of Hamlet's madness. Snooping around in other people's business lands him at the wrong place, and wrong time, and Hamlet -- thinking him his wicked step-father Claudius -- stabs him to death. Hamlet's obituary on Polonius is fitting, "intruding fool III.IV.30)."

So, "be true to self" constitutes a central theme in Hamlet. It means, at bottom, "Mind your business. Be concerned with what concerns you. Don't look to others before looking to yourself."

c. True To Self = Follow Your Good, and Not Your Heart

Being "true to self" does not mean doing "what feels right," or "following our feelings/heart." We often say "just be true to yourself" as a way of urging someone to "follow their heart." Translation: do what feels right right now; following your immediate impulse. However, one who is true to himself knows our immediate impulse is often our unwisest impulse. Our first first response, often, our worst response. So, we should not follow our heart so much as our good. 

In fact, we ought to learn to disregard impetuous impulse; a fleeting feeling, if followed, may lead us into long-term harm. Read the speech above; most of the things Polonius counsels against are things which feel right in the moment; that is the problem: they are passing whims, 'but of a moment,' and do not lead to long term good. Things like borrowing money and lending money are short term fixes which bring long term grief. Polonius is urging, and I second him, a deep integrity: being honest with yourself about the truth of what is good. Not: follow your feelings. But: follow your good.

(Do Yourself Good)

Shakespeare's use of the line in Polonius' advice to Laertes is richly ironic... being 'true' is being devoted to one's self-interests, in sharp contrast to the more idealistic interpretation... So being 'true' may in fact involve acting in ways to please others, if doing so advances one's own goals or status.


(Be Honest)

In other words: To yourself, be honest.

It’s easy to deceive. We all know that. But what we don’t realize is that, often, the easiest person to deceive is ourselves.

(Do Yourself Good)

From Enotes:

Polonius has in mind something much more Elizabethan than the New Age self-knowledge that the phrase now suggests. As Polonius sees it, borrowing money, loaning money, carousing with women of dubious character, and other intemperate pursuits are “false” to the self. By “false” Polonius seems to mean “disadvantageous” or “detrimental to your image”; by “true” he means “loyal to your own best interests.” Take care of yourself first, he counsels, and that way you’ll be in a position to take care of others. There is wisdom in the old man’s warnings, of course; but he repeats orthodox platitudes with unwonted self-satisfaction. Polonius, who is deeply impressed with his wordliness, has perfected the arts of protecting his interests and of projecting seeming virtues, his method of being “true” to others. Never mind that this includes spying on Hamlet for King Claudius. Never mind, as well, that many of Polonius’s haughty, if not trite, kernels of wisdom are now taken as Shakespeare’s own wise pronouncements on living a proper life.


(A misinterpretation = Be Self-Centered)

She does the same thing when she’s sad, lonely, happy, up, down, in, out, excited, needy, afraid, strong, weak, depressed, moody, joyful, exhilarated, stressed, etc. Any and every reason is valid because she’s being “true to herself”. a primary philosophy the slogan is merely the codification of childishness... They may as well come out and (say): don’t let anyone tell you what to do.


‘Above all…to thine own self be true’?

Man finds himself by giving himself away in devotion to what is objectively good and true and beautiful; the converse also is true, that he loses himself by narcissism. Witness the Greek myth of the boy, Narcissus, wasting away as he gazes upon his own image in the pool. It is impossible to lead a nation of narcissists, then, because there are no fully realized persons to lead. Narcissists do not endure the snow and the ice, with mere rags binding their bleeding feet. A narcissist may well sweat and slog for his own prestige, to be the center of an adoring crowd; but a hundred such, to the extent that they cling to their narcissism, will be like a hundred cats, unable to unite even for the common good...

I say that people who swear to do as they like cannot be led. I do not say that they cannot be imposed upon. They will not be free citizens. They may well be underlings in a tyranny...

One final comment. It is bad to be ignorant, but someone who is ignorant of the courses of the planets can yet be wise in the ways of men. Stupidity is different. Stupidity, I believe, takes real work. Nature provides each of us with a certain measure of dullness and sluggishness of mind; it is only by means of persistence and, for some, hard study that one can deepen that dullness into stupidity. The leaders of the Girl Guides give us a fine example. They say they have striven to be “relevant,” just as the cultural lemmings of the last fifty years have striven to be relevant, whatever that is supposed to mean. So they took a fine old oath, one that just might jog one girl in a hundred from her sleepy self-satisfaction, and tossed it away, in favor of their new invention. They are too stupid to suspect the stupidity. That is well and good, since if we have to be peons, at least we can be peons that primp and preen. Lemmings, unite.

Excerpted from Anthony Esolen, "Lemmings Unite! Be True To Yourself."

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