Even if you’ve never read much Shakespeare, there’s still a good chance that you’ve heard this famous quote from Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Polonius, Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3
Most people interpret this to mean, “Do what you think is right, even if it’s different from what other people think is right.” In a way, they take this to mean that Shakespeare is encouraging us to determine our own morality.
However, a little digging led to this information from enotes.com:
Polonius has in mind something much more Elizabethan than the New Age self-knowledge that the phrase now suggests. As Polonius sees it, borrowing money, loaning money, carousing with women of dubious character, and other intemperate pursuits are “false” to the self. By “false” Polonius seems to mean “disadvantageous” or “detrimental to your image”; by “true” he means “loyal to your own best interests.”
Interesting, right? It seems that the original intent of this language was to encourage adhering to a generally accepted standard of right living, as opposed to choosing what we feel is right, because in the end this will be more advantageous to yourself. According to enotes.com, it even seems a little superficial, in that it’s more about image than about integrity.
Here’s my take. Generally accepted social behavior is a common way of determining our own behavior. And some people, whether right or wrong, decide to go against what’s socially acceptable. Whether that’s right or wrong is, to some extent, determined by the motivation. Am I bucking social trends because what I’m doing will make myself and society better? Am I doing it because I’m determined to live my life in pursuit of something greater than myself? Or is it because I want to “follow my heart” (aka, cravings) and do what feels best for me?
Sometimes those distinctions are tough, and it’s very easy to justify certain behaviors in myself or even to fool myself into believing that these behaviors are for something besides satisfying my own cravings.
I remember going trick-or-treating as a kid, and the huge bag of candy that I would come home with. My natural inclination was to devour as much as I could, never thinking about the stomach ache that would be the end result. Thankfully, my parents were there to add some discipline and keep me from going crazy, because they had my best interests in mind.
Now, as an adult, I’ve learned to avoid certain behaviors; I have enough self-control to avoid ingesting mass quantities of chocolate in one sitting. But that’s an obvious consequence; there are other behaviors that may have much more subtle consequences. I’d like to say that I can trust myself to always act in a way that is beneficial to myself and to those around me. However, I’m honest enough to know that this isn’t always the case. I occasionally lose my temper with my kids. Sometimes I’m hurtful when talking to coworkers. And I’m sure there are other behaviors that I should change that I’m not even aware of yet.
So how do I know how I should act? I think the only way is by adhering to a moral code, something outside of myself. I may have blinders on, but to my mind, the only moral code that is sufficient in breadth and example is God’s Word, the Bible. While the Jewish Torah, the Old Testament, provides the structure, the ideal, the New Testament balances it with grace and forgiveness, because let’s face it, we’ve all screwed up. And because I’ve been given grace and forgiveness, it provides the basis for me to offer that same grace and forgiveness to those around me.
If I do that, and if I continually examine and change my behavior to more closely adhere to God’s precepts, I won’t have to worry about my image and reputation. That will take care of itself, and others will gradually come to trust my integrity and motivation.
To thine own self be true? No. To God’s precepts be true.