Ingrid Rossellini’s Know Thyself: Western Identity From Classical Greece to the Renaissance, is a rich and engaging introduction (or reintroduction) to major ideas—particularly visual arts, literature, philosophy and religion—that influenced the development of Western civilization. Rossellini focuses on Greek and Roman antiquity, the Middle Ages, Humanism and the Renaissance. Her sweeping survey is meant for the general reader who is interested in—but perhaps intimidated by—academic studies. Well-written and interdisciplinary, Know Thyself wisely emphasizes the visual arts, since for thousands of years they were the only means of mass communication.
The motto “Know Thyself” was etched on Apollo’s temple at Delphi, but it has meant different things to people throughout the ages. In Greece it was understood as knowing one’s role within society. Through the years it has been interpreted within the frame of government or religion. Quite different approaches have shaped the ways of history. Rossellini includes incisive discussions about, among many others, the differing views of Plato and Aristotle, of Pythagoras “who best succeeded in finding a point of convergence between mystical aspirations and scientific conclusions,” and Thomas Aquinas, who believed that if reason were properly used it would always support the Christian faith. At the heart of Niccolo Machiavelli’s thought was a profound sense of disenchantment with human nature. “Men are fickle cowards, greedy and envious,” he wrote.
During the Renaissance, faith remained central but the Reformation and the advance of science led to greater understanding of the place of humans in the universe. Excellence and originality in art were abundant but rather than the result of creative freedom, artists produced what their rich patrons demanded. There are well-done descriptions of works of art and their background and over 100 color photos of famous paintings.
Rossellini is an independent scholar who has taught at major American universities. Her excellent overview enlightens and entertains and should be of interest to many readers.