On the Delphic Oracle

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Or, “The Monster at the End of This Book”

Having become a father only recently, and having had my own father fill my youth with countless myths and classic tales, the library of which refuses to fit within a single house any longer, I have received (or at least occupied myself with) one question more than any other about how I will raise my own child.

“What is the first book you will read to her?”

During pregnancy, my wife and I would soothe our doubts and uncertainties by spending far too much time and money digging through the children’s section of our local used bookseller. We picked out some new beloved reads, many of which she and I had never seen before. Books from my father, as I mentioned, take up shelves upon shelves, and I will handle his Chronicles of Narnia with the most delicate care when I finally introduce C.S. Lewis to my daughter, and I will emphasize to her that perhaps my most prized physical possession is the copy of A Christmas Carol I received at the age of eight.

It was my mother, though—who has given me comparatively few books over the years—who knew exactly which book I would choose. Without my having so much as mentioned this one in a decade or more, she magically produced for her granddaughter a board-book copy of the classic The Monster at the End of This Book.

I should have known. Oh, I am so embarrassed…

No spoilers—read it yourself, and then read it with your children. Given that you are on a classical education blog, though, the story is probably a familiar one.

Having answered the riddle of the Sphinx to his great credit and success, the hero finds that the same answer awaits him as he seeks out the great shame in his city: man—he himself. Unwilling to hear the voices of friends and family telling him he is not the knight errant he believes himself to be, the hero finally confronts the Knight of the White Moon, who vanquishes him by presenting the one argument he cannot defeat: a mirror. After learning from three Spirits what he has missed by shutting his heart away, the hero kneels at an unmourned grave and reads an unmourned name: his own.

Whoever he is, of course, he could simply have read the inscription at Delphi and saved himself a deal of trouble. Be he Oedipus, Don Quixote, Ebenezer Scrooge, or lovable furry old Grover, the Greek phrase γνῶθι σεαυτόν (“Know thyself”) is the first advice, the final answer, and the entire journey in between. So it is with all protagonists in all books, and so it must be with every human, my daughter included.

My favorite iteration of the oracle’s wisdom comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the great nineteenth-century American transcendentalists. The transcendental movement runs the risk of appearing, from the outside, as little more than nature worship. Emerson’s most thorough work is titled Nature; his friend Henry David Thoreau famously retreated into nature at Walden Pond; his aesthetic inheritor Walt Whitman made a poetic meal of pondering Leaves of Grass. Those who reduce transcendentalism to nineteenth-century tree-hugging, however, do so precisely because they view it only from the outside—the “outside” is all they can see. What they do not realize is that the transcendentalists were concerned with nature precisely because they were concerned with the Delphic imperative, “Know thyself.”

In modern education, we tend to look outward. Scientia, Latin for “knowledge,” has come to mean what the Greeks understood as φύσις, the root of our word “physics,” by which they meant all of nature and the world around us. Books, we understand, are beyond ourselves; they are for us to assimilate. Great books come from those who know something deep and true about the world, and we must go to them to partake in what they know. To be objective, we must treat all topics of study as objects.

But Emerson asks the question, “Is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof? And finally, is not the true scholar the only true master? But the old oracle said, ‘All things have two handles: beware of the wrong one.’” He warns against letting the object control the thought, rather than having the student master the object for herself. 

The student must learn “that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. …the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.” While Nature’s objects of study grant us a tangible certainty we require, they are also temptations to disbelieve that which is not identically firm. Such temptation, to view what is external, objective, provable as more valid or valuable than what lies within, true Reason forbids.

Soul, though, is so difficult to grasp, its essence the opposite of Nature’s tangible certainty. It remains invisible, incorporeal, unprovable. This is why, Emerson explains, we have Nature to reflect, part for part, what we cannot see within ourselves. “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other.” In studying the object of Nature, we may discover the divine features of the subject of Soul. The reason to read all the objects of our world is to know ourselves. 

So too with the objects we read in books.

In preparation for my daughter’s birth, I had been looking outward, to the books my father has given to me, to my own old favorites, to scaring up new favorites with my wife, to all manner of Seamus Heaney-esque digging, seeking a book out there, somewhere. But, Emerson reminds me, I was seeking the wrong handle. “The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.” The book I most need to teach my daughter to read, then, is one I will be learning to read alongside her. It is the one my wife held first, and then handed to me: her own soul.

I should have known. And that’s the point.

Oh. I am not embarrassed at all.


Nathan E. Bradshaw has been a liberal arts teacher for his entire professional career, having studied Literature at Davidson College and the Great Books in the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College.  He and his wife are currently co-directors of East Burke School, a human-scale high school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where they tailor their curriculum to introduce rural students to the classics.

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