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In the introduction to the original, English version of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes says:

… there is another saying not of late understood, by which they might learn truly to read one another, if they would take the pains; and that is, Nosce Teipsum [sic], Read Thy Self: which was not meant, as it is now used, to countenance, either the barbarous state of men in power, towards their inferiors; or to encourage men of low degree, to a sawcie behaviour towards their betters; …

But nosce is not usually translated as "read" but "know". It's Greek counterpart in the original phrase meant "know" too. Could this have been a reasonable translation at one point in time? Is it a valid but uncommon translation today? Is he just bad at Latin (I'm in no position to judge), or deliberately stretching the definition to make his point?

Could someone clarify this for me?

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    I'm the opposite of an expert, but looks odd to me! Nosce relates to the Greek gnosis - knowledge, as you indicated - I would think to know oneself would be more accurate. – TheHonRose Apr 1 '16 at 0:43
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As @Cerberus says, it's an unusual but valid translation.

I think, however, it becomes clearer when one adds the beginning of the paragraph, so that it reads:

There is a saying much usurped of late, That Wisedome is acquired, not by reading of Books, but of Men. Consequently whereunto, those persons, that for the most part can give no other proof of being wise, take great delight to shew what they think they have read in men, by uncharitable censures of one another behind their backs. But there is another saying not of late understood, by which they might learn truly to read one another, if they would take the pains; and that is, Nosce Teipsum, Read Thy Self: which was not meant, as it is now used, to countenance, either the barbarous state of men in power, towards their inferiors; or to encourage men of low degree, to a sawcie behaviour towards their betters; But to teach us, that for the similitude of the thoughts, and Passions of one man, to the thoughts, and Passions of another, whosoever looketh into himselfe, and considereth what he doth, when he does Think, Opine, Reason, Hope, Feare, &c, and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts, and Passions of all other men, upon the like occasions.

In other words, he's contrasting reading oneself to reading books. People who read books may think themselves wise and put themselves forward as such, but to be truly wise one must read oneself. So I suspect that he chose "read" simply because the contrast between "reading books" and "knowing thyself" isn't nearly as striking as the contrast between "reading books" and "reading thyself."

That is to say, the choice of "read" as the translation was rhetorical.

What I find interesting is the claim that nosce te ipsum was used "to countenance, either the barbarous state of men in power, towards their inferiors; or to encourage men of low degree, to a sawcie behaviour towards their betters." I'm trying to figure out how that shift occurred and what the phrase meant in that usage.

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    Re your last paragraph, if one understands it as a statement of confident individuality, like "be true to yourself" "know your passions and act on them" etc. you can see how it could be seen as encouraging a kind of over-confidence in ones, perhaps illegitimate, actions. – Lucas Apr 1 '16 at 15:49
  • Right. Something much more like what a self-help book of today might prescribe. – Joel Derfner Apr 1 '16 at 17:53
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Both the Greek "gnothi" and Latin "nosce" indicate a process; see Lewis & Short, point I:

from the root gno; Gr. γιγνώσκω, to begin to know, to get a knowledge of, become acquainted with, come to know a thing (syn.: scio, calleo).

I always struggle with the translation "know" because it's actually better to say "get to know / recognize yourself" as this is not likely something you will ever be finished with. So "read" is quite fine.

  • But gnôthi is an aorist, which ordinarily indicates that it is not a process but something short and non-terminative. The inchoative suffix -sk- from the present stem, indicating that one begins an action, is not used in the aorist, so "get to know" doesn't seem right. // At any rate, it is probably a gnomic aorist, which means it is to be considered a timeless truth, something that is is the case in general. // Latin nosco has the inchaotive suffix, but it can also be used more freely as simply "know". // @Torin Gnôthi is the normal active aorist imperative singular of gignôskô. – Cerberus Apr 3 '16 at 23:05
  • @Cerberus I agree with the rest of your comment (especially that γνῶθι doesn't necessarily indicate a process), but I've never heard of an imperative, or any other non-indicative, described as a gnomic aorist. Gnomic aorists are statements about the world rather than commands/wishes/etc., which pretty much by definition confines them to the indicative. – TKR Aug 12 '18 at 21:24
  • @TKR: Hmm, ahh, I should have read up on the gnomic aorist before posting that. At least I added "probably"... it has a gnomic sense to it, but it is nothing like the gnomic aorist. – Cerberus Aug 12 '18 at 22:02
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It is a bit odd that Hobbes should translate nosce as "read". However, it becomes clear from the context that by "read" he means roughly the same as "know", i.e. "understand". So I think it is reasonable enough.

What remains to be explained is why he chose "read". Perhaps he did so because the expression "read someone" as in "understand someone's character" was already in common use? Reading the passage in Leviathan gives me the impression that this was indeed the case. So it is a variation on that expression: if you want to read other people (sc. understand their characters), you must first read yourself.

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