I Don’t Know You

This is the sixteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVI: The Thousand and One Nights

Self-awareness is an invaluable trait. To be virtuous generally is undoubtedly good, but to be so without recognizing and understanding one’s own virtues and failings is stunting. How can one ever hope to improve, or even maintain one’s virtue, without first being aware of oneself?

Consider, for example, the barber of Bagdad from The Thousand and One Nights. The barber, in his own narrative about himself, tells the Caliph that that he is known as “the silent sheik” because, despite his immense learning, he is sparse of speech. He then, with little prompting from the Caliph, volunteers to tell six stories, one about each of his six brothers.

By the end of his lengthy recitations, everybody who’d heard him is “convinced of his impertinence and loquacity.” Although the barber claims to be reserved in speech and action, it proves not to be so.

That misapprehension about his own qualities distracts from the reality that he is actually excellent at what he does. As a “barber surgeon”, he is shown to be quite competent. The barber’s tale appears in the midst of a series of stories about a hunchback who has choked on a fishbone and is thought to be dead by everybody who comes across his body. But the barber, talented as he is, skillfully uses ointments and tools to save the hunchback’s life.

If he had a better sense of his own virtues and failings, the barber would be a better man, precisely because he would know better in what ways he could improve. Instead of coming away as a hero for saving the hunchback’s life, we see the barber is a fool for not understanding himself.

Beer of the week: Lech Premium – This Polish lager is pale gold, with minimal white foam. There is something distinctly different between European macrobrews and American macros. The seem more malty and rounded. Although this particular beer is not especially good, it is certainly serviceable. And, in my opinion, better than equivalent American beers.

Reading of the week: The Barber’s Tale of Himself from The Thousand and One Nights – Within the overall frame story of Shahrazad telling tales to keep the king from killing her, there are several stories within other stories. The barber of Bagdad appears in, and then narrates sub-stories to, the story of the hunchback. This is the part where he introduces himself and sets up his brother’s tales.

Questions for the week: Is it possible to be aware of one’s own lack of self-awareness? Or is that a paradox? In what field or characteristic have you badly misjudged your own capacity?

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