The Great Conversation:
Opposition

By Gabriel Blanchard

Opposition is one of the richest ideas in the Great Conversation.

Opposite-ness is a particular species of the broader genus of difference. “Old” and “young” are opposites, in the sense that they stand at contrary extremes along a single continuum; they are incompatible and yet imply one another’s existence, in a way that “old” and “red” do not. The same thing can be both old and red, like a star, or young and red, like an unripe blackberry—here we have distinctness, but not opposition. The same thing cannot be both old and young in the same sense simultaneously.

Many of the great ideas from Adler’s list occur in complementary pairs of this kind: necessity and contingency, one and many, war and peace. This raises the question of whether things can have more than one opposite. At first glance, it seems like the answer should be no; there can’t be more than two “ends” on a spectrum, can there? X and not-X seem like pretty straightforward concepts. And when oppositions are defined as strictly as X and not-X, the are indeed only two categories possible. In trying to decide whether fungi are animals or plants, biologists had (and ultimately exercised) the option of declaring them to be a third kind of thing, but in determining fungi to be either animals or not-animals, no third option would be possible.

However, in the Nicomachean Ethics, when discussing the nature of the virtues and vices, Aristotle advances the thesis that each virtue does have two opposites. Courage has an obvious opposite in cowardice, but rashness is also an opposite of courage (and of cowardice as well, in a different way). One is the opposite of many in a certain sense, while also being the opposite of zero in a different sense, and the opposite of negative one in a third. Opposition can be measured along multiple axes for the same thing, depending on which aspect of it we are considering: man is “the opposite” of animal, woman, robot, child, nature, alien, angel, and so on, as we choose to view him.

He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Besides being conceptual or definitional, opposition can also be a phenomenon—one thing acting or tending against another. This might be destructive, but it might equally be an essential ingredient in the structure of something, like the opposing tensions that maintain an arch. In nature, the classical elements might counteract one another, as when water extinguishes fire; but in the human body, the same properties that made the elements were held to constitute the humors, who might work against each other or in harmony, producing illness or health respectively. This concept of reconciled or synthesized opposites also lay behind the half-magical, half-philosophical tradition of alchemy, which, besides helping pave the way for modern chemistry, had a significant impact on western literature, particularly in early modern poetry and drama.

The preceding examples have been of unconscious forces acting against one another; intelligent free agents, minds, working against one another is arguably the most “extreme” version of opposition. Even this is sometimes formulated as a positive: some versions of political liberalism consider a principled, organized opposition to government (no matter who is in power) an essential ingredient in maintaining liberty, perhaps by acting as a watchdog, or because its counterweight provokes the government to action.

But opposition often means something far grander and darker than this. Every war is founded upon a grave opposition. Conflicting ideas may be mutually enriching, but they may equally be mutually incompatible. Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Gnosticism, are all famous for depicting a spiritual cosmos in the throes of a war between darkness and light that has been going on for millennia, and that has at times been used as a pretext for wars on the material plane as well. Circling back to the political, orthodox Marxism posits an equally universal, if less metaphysical, war between the proletariat and the capitalist class. The philosophy of history advanced by some German idealist writers held out the possibility of infinite progress, of the positives in every set of contraries being gradually synthesized; the apocalyptic imagination of Christianity or Islam retains the equally triumphant, but rather different, possibility of unilateral victory.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Categories
Galen, Natural Faculties
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Sec. VI
Georg W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

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If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of the other entries in our “Great Conversation” series, like this one on good and evil or this one on eternity. You might also like our Journey Through the Author Bank, a weekly series of seminars on the brilliant men and women throughout history whose texts we use on every CLT.

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