“Be True to Yourself” and “The Devil is in the Details” are actually misquotes. The correct quote for the second is “God is in the Details” attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German architect, but many believe he wasn’t the first. The German art historian, Aby Warburg, said it before van der Rohe, although it is not attributed to him. Even Gustav Flaubert was known to have said it. The age of the quote is unknown. The Devil didn’t come into the quote until much later. Some attribute it to a German Pop singer, Blixa Bargeld, “Der Teufel steckt im Detail”, but is also found in Lutz Röhrich’s Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen Redensarten.
Once a quote is co-opted and changed, the original becomes lost. You might choose between God and the Devil over the details, but never has quote been more lost than the worst misquote of them all, “Be True to Yourself.”
“Be True to Yourself”, comes from the great Bard himself, William Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, lines 78-82, a scene between Polonius and his son Laertes, and our subject. Polonius is the one speaking. It goes like this:
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And, it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not be false to any man,
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
What Polonius meant is debated wildly, but if we are to be as accurate as possible, the meaning must be approached from the viewpoint of an Elizabethan. Shakespeare wrote the character Polonius as a man who tried to do what he thought was right. Naturally, he asked the same from his only son, and blessed him with that knowledge. Although, many view Polonius as a silly man, sometimes even duplicitous, I don’t see him in that way. I think, as many of us mothers and fathers do, we try to impart the best to our children from ourselves, to be faithful to those ideals, to tell ourselves and the world the truth, and therefore, not be false to others or our children. If Polonius was anything, he was weak and cowardly.
Most people, when they use the quote, “Be True to Yourself”, are speaking of centring themselves, going within to find a respite from the world, or answers that can only be found within themselves. Oddly, that isn’t even close to what the original quote meant. These ideas behind the misquote have been applied over the last century to allow anyone to do whatever they want, because, they reason, they are being true to themselves, true to their natures. With that kind of logic, you could convince yourself of just about anything when you rely on your nature, your feelings, even your inner life. Inside I feel as if I’m twenty-five, ready for anything, but the truth tells me otherwise.
Polonius wanted his son to be a good man, to sup on the objective standard of Truth until it became a part of him, therefore, becoming a truthful man, and would naturally do what was right. From an Elizabethan point of view, Polonius was looking outward to the world, to a standard, not inward. The inward life had to be shaped by truth, and all a person’s actions flowed from that fount. He wanted his son to be filled with this truth so he wouldn’t harm others. This idea comes from the Christian standard of the Golden Rule, and from the Ten Commandments. Truth was the penultimate every person was to strive toward. Truth was objective, outside of ourselves, a standard everyone could look at and know for a certainty. It remained the same, in season and out. There’s a huge difference between what Shakespeare meant, and the meaning behind the misquote today. Being true to yourself has become a subjective exercise, a search for our own special desire, which is the opposite of Shakespeare’s view. The misquote makes truth as changeable as the wind, because it resides within each person, and we are all secret worlds, as different to each other as there are stars in the heavens. The fallacy of searching yourself for truth is apparent in all the characters of the play. The quote was the standard, but none of the character’s heeded its call. Instead, they followed their own volatile natures and died.
I see Polonius as an integral part of the story in Hamlet, and his murder is a powerful testimony of how evil can flourish within lies, killing the innocent, the virtuous, as well as evil. The quote is the lynch-pin of the story. His manner of death presents the idea that the truth must be sought even in the secret hidden places. Shakespeare saw a king as the pivotal point of a country, and when a king lies, when he kills, when he subverts the truth, he destroys everyone around him. This is what Shakespeare meant in the quote, that truth must rest as our centre. And those words were a blessing, but even Laertes didn’t learn anything from what his father said. He was impetuous, sought vengeance, which is not truth. Vengeance is a passionate poison from which he would die, as did Hamlet, the king, and Hamlet’s mother. The lies they all told, the murders they committed to further their own natures’ desire, became their executioner. And that kind of thinking kills innocence, illustrated in the character Ophelia.
Polonius’ instruction to Laertes is the signpost that points toward safety, toward life, which is the point of that scene, and a pivotal point in the story. Polonius wanted to send his son away because he feared for the boy’s life. Danger was everywhere. Foolishly, Polonius believed he could hide, learn the truth, and slink away without discovery. And Polonius did learn the truth, but at the end of Hamlet’s sword, while he was hiding in the Queen’s bedroom. It was his cowardice that killed him. If he had stepped out, been willing to support the truth, he probably wouldn’t have died. Essentially, it was his cowardice that killed him, and Hamlet’s vengeance was the means.
The lesson from Hamlet, from that quote, is to never hide behind a curtain of isolation to learn the truth about ourselves, or about others, or about anything, but to be open and honest about what we seek. We should search for only what is true, and make it become a part of us. It is our natures that deceive us. As I’ve said before, Truth is objective, not subjective. Truth stands alone no matter who looks at it, or who tries to bend it to meet their philosophy. Truth rises above everything and transcends time, cultures, and beliefs. The truth about ourselves must be sought outside of us. Truth should always be our standard. And we should never be afraid or shrink in the face of that knowledge. It is good to look into our hearts, to seek to understand the universe within, to dream and wonder about the beauty of our world and how it affects us, and we should contemplate our actions and where we might fit in the outside world. Yet, we should never confuse our natures with the truth, our inward life for a standard, for they are as different as night is to day. The next time someone says, “Be true to yourself,” tell them that’s wrong. It’s not your nature that you seek, but an objective truth.