Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
A recent Thrive article concerning mental health warnings caught my eye. What struck me in particular about this piece was its focus on the signs and triggers of stress. Like many students, I have experienced periods of stress and anxiety and have learned not to take mental health for granted, and so seeing Thriving Mind push for more attention on an upstream approach to mental health has been gratifying. It cannot be overstated how important it is to try to address the problem before it manifests fully. It is just one of the reasons why the discovery of the eight “biotypes,” and the way negative stress affects the circuitry of our brain, has been so important in the fight for better mental health. However, while the science behind the biotypes is cutting edge, the idea behind them could hardly be more ancient.
That we should seek to understand what is going on inside our own bodies and more importantly within our minds is hardly revolutionary. Thriving Mind is the continuation of an idea that is already well over 2,000 years old. Knowledge of the self is so important that the Ancient Greeks inscribed it on the wall of the Oracle at Delphi, the most sacred and revered site in the entire world at the time — gnothi seauton, or Know Yourself. This was not a trite buzz word that could be used by politicians of the day to gain quick favour with the people. This was a direct order from the gods themselves to each individual to understand themselves and their place in the world in service of a better life.
Indeed, this principle can be seen throughout Ancient Greek history. Socrates, perhaps the most famous philosopher of all time, embodies it quite clearly. The Socratic method is relentless in its questioning of the interlocutor until the subject reaches a state of aporia — contradiction and confusion — and only then would Socrates try to move towards a resolution. This was a test of how well the interlocutor understood their own argument, their own reasoning, and by extension themselves. Socrates always won the argument because his self-knowledge was superior to all others. Even his most famous line, “The unexamined life is not worth living” underscores the importance of self-scrutinization. Not to look inwards and not to examine oneself and how one interacts with the world would be a denial of life.
Over a hundred years before Socrates, Solon, the great Athenian reformer of the 6th Century B.C.E., lived by this idea of self-knowledge. In fact Plato identifies Solon, an exemplar of sagacity, perspicacity and self-understanding, as the source of the Delphic inscription itself. Because of the power his self-knowledge brought to bear he was able to achieve extraordinary success. He established new norms, values, policies that would later lead to Athens and indeed the rest of the Greek city states uniting against and defeating the overwhelming might of the Persian invasion.
Indeed, Athens itself suffered a debilitating plague much like our own, which claimed the lives of ordinary men and great figures alike. Most notably, Pericles, the greatest hero in Athenian history, succumbed to the disease and with his passing, threw the rest of the city into even greater fear and disarray. However, despite the tragedy and horror of the plague, Athens flourished culturally in the years after with the arrival of such figures as Thucydides, Aristophanes and even Socrates himself. In fact much of how we view ancient Athens comes from this period and it is perhaps in part because of this plague that Socrates became the philosopher that he is known as today.
And so during times of turmoil and suffering, we may turn to Socrates for help again. If we take the biotypes we may ask ourselves a set of questions with Socratic honesty and rigor — what physical and mental sensations am I feeling, what stimulus am I responding to, how might I change my response — and come to some conclusions about the symptoms we might be experiencing. When we know what is happening in our neural pathways, we may be able to figure out how to manage them.
Know Yourself. Know what makes you happy, know what makes you sad, know what defeats you. Although this perhaps goes beyond how the ancient Athenians would have interpreted it, lifelong self-inquiry could be extremely beneficial to understanding our mental health. This lockdown and its isolation give us a greater opportunity to examine ourselves and our mental health. During periods of hardship and suffering, our nature becomes clearer. When Socrates was offered a choice between a world without knowledge and no world at all, he willingly chose the latter because life without knowledge is no life at all. When travelers came to Delphi, they were looking for answers about an uncertain future. Perhaps the secret to the Oracle and the answer that people are truly looking for is that the future becomes much less frightening if you know yourself.
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