Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

John Davies: Adversity Makes Us Look Within

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JOHN DAVIES (1569 –1626) was an English poet and government official.  His poem Nosce Teipsum (Know Thyself) — an outstanding example of Elizabethan verse — enjoyed great popularity both during and after his lifetime and deserves more attention today than it receives.  The core of the work consists of a series of arguments for the soul’s immortality largely adapted from those of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 1.  Here Davies begins by commenting on how adversity has the compensation of forcing us to direct our attention within. The circumstances surrounding the composition of Nosce Teipsum not without interest. Davies wrote it during a period of seclusion and remorse after being disbarred for cudgeling a former friend in response to a public insult from the latter.


And as the man loues least at home to bee,
That hath a sluttish house haunted with sprites;
So she impatient her owne faults to see,
Turnes from her selfe and in strange things delites.

For this few know themselves: for merchants broke
View their estate with discontent and paine;
And seas are troubled, when they doe revoke
Their flowing waves into themselves againe.

And while the face of outward things we find,
Pleasing and faire, agreeable and sweet;
These things transport, and carry out the mind,
That with her selfe her selfe can never meet.

Yet if Affliction once her warres begin,
And threat the feebler Sense with sword and fire;
The Minde contracts her selfe and shrinketh in,
And to her selfe she gladly doth retire:

As Spiders toucht, seek their webs inmost part;
As bees in stormes unto their hives returne;
As bloud in danger gathers to the heart;
As men seek towns, when foes the country burn.

If ought can teach us ought, Affliction’s lookes,
(Making us looke into our selves so neere,)
Teach us to know our selves beyond all bookes,
Or all the learned Schooles that ever were.

This mistresse lately pluckt me by the eare,
And many a golden lesson hath me taught;
Hath made my Senses quicke, and Reason cleare,
Reform’d my Will and rectifide my Thought.

So doe the winds and thunders cleanse the ayre;
So working lees settle and purge the wine;
So lop’t and pruned trees doe flourish faire;
So doth the fire the drossie gold refine.

Neither Minerva nor the learned Muse,
Nor rules of Art, nor precepts of the wise;
Could in my braine those beames of skill infuse,
As but the glance of this Dame’s angry eyes.

She within lists my ranging minde hath brought,
That now beyond my selfe I list not goe;
My selfe am center of my circling thought,
Onely my selfe I studie, learne, and know.

I know my bodie’s of so fraile a kind,
As force without, feavers within can kill;
I know the heavenly nature of my minde,
But ’tis corrupted both in wit and will:

I know my Soule hath power to know all things,
Yet is she blinde and ignorant in all;
I know I am one of Nature’s little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.

I know my life’s a paine and but a span,
I know my Sense is mockt with every thing:
And to conclude, I know my selfe a MAN,
Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.


Davies, John.  Nosce Teipsum (extract). In: Alexander B. Grosart, (ed.), The Complete Poems of Sir John Davies, 2 vols, Vol. 2, Chatto and Windus, 1876; 22−24.

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