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

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

7 fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.

Photo by Raunaq Patel on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
  • Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
  • These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
Keep reading Show less

Why the number 137 is one of the greatest mysteries in physics

Famous physicists like Richard Feynman think 137 holds the answers to the Universe.

Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • The fine structure constant has mystified scientists since the 1800s.
  • The number 1/137 might hold the clues to the Grand Unified Theory.
  • Relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics are unified by the number.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
  • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
  • The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Keep reading Show less