Plato: Know Thy Selfie

The selfie has emerged as one of the defining modes of self-expression of the smartphone era. Sometimes, it seems like half of all photos uploaded to Facebook or Instagram each day are selfies. While it’s easy to view these “selfies” as just another example of how technology is turning young members of the Millennial generation into narcissistic, self-absorbed individuals unable to maintain any intimacy in their relationships, maybe there’s another explanation for the popularity of the selfie.


Perhaps the “selfie” is the modern-day, technological version of what the ancient Greek philosophers referred to as "Know Thyself." As Plato and other philosophers pointed out, it's impossible to understand the world around us if we are unable to understand our own selves. In the Dialogues of Plato, "Know Thyself" becomes one of the key themes mentioned by Socrates -- a Platonic ideal. Over the centuries, that maxim has changed and evolved, but it has always implied that self-knowledge is a good thing. For example, it was used by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac: "There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one's self."

Which brings us back to the selfie.

The Week recently did a fascinating survey of why people took "selfies," and the answers were enlightening. It wasn't just that there was "some low-level narcissism complex at work whenever anyone takes a selfie," as we've been led to believe. And selfies aren't just taken by teenage girls. There were a host of other factors as well. For example, a former TIME magazine news director says that taking a selfie helps him to reflect a specific mood and communicate something different about himself to others. One photojournalist said it was a way to add a bit of humanity to her photos and to understand better why her photos helped to engage the community.

What’s happening, perhaps, is that smartphone technology is giving us unique insights into what makes us human by giving us the power to document every moment of our lives. This fact might explain why something that sounds superficial - like "Instagram accounts that contain only smiling selfies" - can go viral on the Internet these days. Benny Winfield Jr. has posted 100 smiling selfies and now has 32,000 Instagram fans -- all of them apparently curious to see how his next smiling face will differ from his previous faces. Each face, it seems, will add a new nuance of meaning and help us better understand who Mr. Pimp Good Game really is.

Consciously or not, we're all struggling to understand our identity in a modern, technological world. We all want to understand how we are changing on a weekly, or even daily, basis. And the ease of a selfie solves all that.

This, certainly, seems like a more hopeful explanation than simply seeing the Selfie as a modern-day form of narcissism. The Selfie might end up defining the new Millennial generation, not just in the way that we think. On the surface, of course, the premise of the selfie is fairly ridiculous – a badly taken photo in poor lighting that could have been taken far more professionally by someone else. Which, is why, perhaps, throughout history, the self-portrait has never been viewed as seriously as the portrait. It may be the case, though, that the selfie will change all that. And, in the process, it will make each of us more capable of Knowing Thyself. 

image: Three Young Female Friends Taking a Selfie / Shutterstock

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