In Act 1, Scene 3, of “Hamlet,” Lord Polonius delivers one of the more memorable lines in the history of theater: “This above all: to thine ownself be true.” This Shakespearean sentiment has traveled through the years to the point where few actually realize it came from the bard. We simply know it because it has been so widely used and believed. But what does it mean?
Some today resort to this aphorism when protecting their own desires against common sense or at least the sound arguments of their opponents. It becomes shorthand for “I’m entitled to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it, when I want to do it.” For this group the line becomes a license for self-centered living.
Others consider that it speaks the truth about self-interest. We must remain true to whatever it is that best promotes our wellbeing. In this sense, the statement becomes synonymous with looking out for yourself, pulling your own strings, and generally ordering your life so you come out on top as much as possible.
But there is a truth about literature that must not be overlooked here. Every piece of written communication, be it a letter, book, play or any of a number of other literary instruments, derives its meaning from the intention of the author. The beginning place of meaning for any written word is, “What did the original author intend the original audience to understand from the words that were written?”
If we run back to “Hamlet,” Act 1, Scene 3, we’ll find the rest of the quote: “This above all: to thine ownself be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare is talking, not about self-interest or selfish desires, but about an ethical consistency that arises from the core values of one’s being. To be true to self is to be unwavering in one’s convictions and practice as measured by that set of beliefs one has come to hold as fundamental. We might paraphrase this sentiment as, “Above everything else, don’t compromise your personal values, and if you remain true to them, you can’t be false to anyone. They will see you as consistent even if they disagree with you.”
I think Shakespeare is right. To the extent to which our thoughts, words, and deeds conform to our core convictions, we become trustworthy individuals, not open to the charge of hypocrisy. But there is a catch. We actually have to have a consistent set of ethical beliefs first.
By a consistent set of ethical beliefs I mean a set of core convictions about the world and ourselves. Whatever your worldview, it has to be cohesive and coherent. It has to be able to explain why there is something rather than nothing. It has to explain why evil exists, and how suffering and pain can be explained coherently. Additionally, it has to give a substantive reason why life has meaning, and whether history is really going somewhere or merely spinning slowly down to die.
Today the post-modern ethos is shouting that such consistent belief systems are not only old-fashioned but also fatal. In attempting to explain our world, they actually confine authentic, creative thinking and living, or so they want us to believe.
But there is real danger here. If we stop having any core truth, to what shall we remain true? If the self becomes an incoherent set of inconsistencies motivated by in-the-moment self-interest, can we really afford to be true to that self?
If Shakespeare were writing today, he just might look at our society of self-absorbed individuals and suggest that we stop being true to that kind of self simply because, in the end, we have become false to almost every man. We need to be true before we stay true.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.