The Union of Opposites: Difference, Dialogue and Encounters with the Other



It’s Full Moon in Aries today – one moon phase that is turning out to be particularly intense, but also exceptionally interesting in a number of ways.  

On a personal level, it has coincided with a series of synchronicities and developments that have proven to be both affirming and incredibly thought-provoking.

First of all, I have become deeply aware of how, in my own life, a large proportion of my intellectual and personal growth has been driven by conflict –  both the internal struggle of trying to reconcile opposing points of view within myself; as well as the tumultuous, often unsettling, emotions stirred up by encounters with people who are either very different to me or with whom I fundamentally disagree.

In today’s online world, the art of vigorous debate and respectful disagreement seems to have virtually vanished – there is no middle ground anymore. On social media, we’re inundated by a lot of self-indulgent and often banal opinions (many of them ill-thought-out or unsubstantiated) on one hand; and on the other, anyone demonstrating a willingness to engage in intelligent debate/conversation must be prepared to deal with:  a) either being ignored by the majority of people who are just looking for easy entertainment, or b) being abused by those unwilling to constructively engage with/respectfully consider points of view different to their own without things descending into personal mudslinging or a spiral of conflict.

As the world becomes increasingly polarised and people become much less mindful of how they express themselves - or, indeed, cognisant of how their words/posts may affect others - such experiences seem to be becoming increasingly common, especially online. Something that my peace-loving but intellectual Libra Sun finds quite disturbing.

Freedoms such as the right to express yourself are important, but they should not come at the expense of other people's mental wellbeing or personal dignity. There are no freedoms without responsibilities. We cannot simply throw out the social contract, or our humanity, just because we disagree with someone. Or, perhaps more to the point: set aside our empathy just because we no longer have to look someone in the eye before venting our spleen. To me, this is the lesson of the Aries Full Moon (which is, in effect, a coming together of the Libra Sun and Aries Moon): emotional freedom does not equal selfishness, bullying or rudeness. Nor does it equate to petty, childish and often passive-aggressive personal digs disguised as 'critique,' 'art' or 'free speech'. In this respect, I think that Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology is right - the biggest threat facing humanity behind climate change is not war or nuclear bombs but the downgrading of our humanity via technology addiction and algorithms. According to him, this 'attention capitalism' is making us nastier, more stupid and less likely to find common ground with others.

That being said,  I do feel it is important to be able to disagree with others openly.  Conflict is certainly one way to grow, to clear the air, to learn to appreciate differences. Indeed, as Steve Goodier, once said:
“We don't get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.”
A sentiment I think the Pythagoreans would have agreed with wholeheartedly. But respectful conflict and constructive debate seems to be a dying art form. And in this respect, we do need to develop, or at least define, some rules for engagement. On this subject, I think astrology, Greek philosophy and a former lecturer of mine have quite a lot to teach us.

Astrology & The Concept of Polarity/Opposition

In astrology, difficult encounters/experiences are often reflected via transits marked by square and opposition aspects. These catalyse growth, either through struggle/creating uncomfortable friction (square), or via the reconciliation/balancing of opposites (opposition). 

Of these two 'angles', it is the opposition that is the aspect par excellence of relationship.  It divides the circle into two equal but completely different halves - the hemispheres of day and night, ruled by the Sun and Moon respectively. Which in and of themselves symbolise the primary dualities that exist in the cosmos - male /female, conscious/subconscious, active/passive etc 

However, the important thing to bear in mind is that an astrological opposition links two polar opposite but equal points which differ but are on the SAME spectrum. (Some might say they resonate at the same frequency). Indeed, as we see so perfectly at Full Moon (when the Sun, Moon and Earth line up to form a straight line - 180 degree angle), it is through compromise - by finding  middle ground = the mid-point on this line or spectrum, that the trinity/third thing/child is born. 

This is the basis of creation in many forms of numerology. In Pythagorean sacred geometry, it is through the coming together, or harmonious union of binary opposites (the monad and the dyad which are akin to the yin and yang of Chinese cosmology) that the world (triad/trinity) is: a) created and b) stabilised.  

We see a similar idea reflected in the DaodeJing about Chinese cosmology:
“The Tao gave birth to One.
The One gave birth to Two.
The Two gave birth to Three.
The Three gave birth to all of creation.

All things carry Yin
yet embrace Yang.
They blend their life breaths
in order to produce harmony.” (Lao Tzu, DaodeJing, Chapter 42)

It is also the thinking behind midpoints in astrology - an old idea embedded in the so-called Arabic Parts used by Hellenistic astrologers - as well as phenomena such as the lunar nodes - the so-called head and tail of the dragon, - both of which are so wonderfully illustrated in this image taken from a notebook of Johannes Reuchlin's which forms part of the Wellcome Collection.

Opposites Both Attract and Repel

And yet, there is sometimes no getting away from the fact that, fundamentally, these two people or positions ARE different - literally poles apart. Like the signs of Aries and Libra. Indeed, Henry Coley, the English astrologer, wrote in his compendium that the opposition is the 'Aspect of Perfect Hatred'. But then, as one clever Austrian psychologist wrote:
"There is no love without hate; and there is no hate without love. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference; the opposite of feeling can only be the absence of feeling. Disinclination, which is coloured by feeling, often only serves the purpose of concealing and protecting oneself against an inclination. Love and hate must go hand in hand; and the people we love most we hate also, because hate is grounded in the nature of love.”
Indeed, the result of this friction is a great deal of energy and emotion, which has the power to 'swing' either way. Nonetheless, it is still generative, creative energy that must lead to some kind of alchemical reaction: both parties have the potential to affect/change both themselves and the other person. Something that I think is captured very well by this quote from Andreas Weber - a philosopher whose work I was introduced to by Patrick Curry - more on whom below.
"Being in the world is primarily an erotic encounter,
An encounter of meaning through contact,
An encounter of being oneself through the significance of others — humans, lovers, children, But also other beings, companions and competitors." 

Dialogue and Dialectical Forms of Learning

For centuries, the predominant way of learning within many wisdom traditions has been through dialectical discussion and debate, often between two people. The relationship between teacher and pupil, master and novice, guru and initiate, and even between an individual and his/her inner guide, is often central to the process of acquiring and then testing out, the validity and veracity of important spiritual truths.

For example, amongst the collection of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum, a large proportion take the form of dialogues between mythical teacher figures such as Asclepius/Hermes and an unknown disciple. What is interesting is that, rather than simply being one-way ‘lectures’ from ‘wise knower’ to innocent pupil, they reveal themselves to be intimate two-way exchanges that have the power to change/affect both of the parties concerned.In this sense, they are both ‘gnostic’ (allowing for knowing through individual experience) and reciprocal - relationships in the purist (perhaps most Platonic) sense.

Platonism & Patrick Curry

Which brings me onto my own personal experiences. One of the people who has probably affected my thinking the most in the last few decades has been Patrick Curry, who served as one of my supervisors and lecturers when I was studying for my MA in Cosmology and Divination at the University of Kent.
Patrick is an Aries and in typical fashion, is not afraid of arguing or of saying things passionately or in a way that generates a stir. At the time I was studying, I found many of his ideas and views both polemical and jarring with my own, not least because of his seemingly irrational (in my view) hatred of Platonism (the irony of which will become apparent below). But, no doubt, some of this tension arises from the fact that our Suns sit at opposite ends of the zodiac spectrum. Here I feel it important to add that, in the true spirit of academic discourse, our differing views never affected our personal relationship, which was always amicable, if rather lively from time to time. I think this can be put down, in large part, to Patrick's honesty, along with a remarkable ability, perhaps as a result of his Buddhist beliefs, to remain intellectually fluid, respectfully engaged and comfortable with complexity. As a result, he makes an excellent dialetical teacher.
And so, despite our initial ideological antipathy, it is the concepts he introduced me to that continue to stimulate and drive my thinking more than a decade on from graduating. Perhaps this is also in part because they are now so relevant to the current problems that plague modern times. The issues he cares about: ecology, the role of enchantment/fantasy/imagination in sustaining us spiritually in an increasingly shallow, disconnected and creatively bleak technological world and the magic/sacred as it is encountered in everyday life – seem to be more vital to our sanity (and indeed survival) than ever.
His new book, ‘Enchantment: Wonder in Modern Life’ offers some respite from what sometimes feels like an apocalyptic wasteland of species collapse, inept governments, increasing social alienation and modern slavery. It also reminds me of a quote by Socrates (another highly polemical and provocative individual):
“Wisdom begins in wonder”
Actually the correct translation is ‘philosophy begins in wonder’. But, what is philosophy but a love [phylos] of wisdom [Sophia].

Taken from a Platonic dialogue about the nature of knowledge, the Theatetus , it centres around a discussion between a mathematics teacher and his pupil, facilitated by Socrates.  Socrates makes the point that the act of seeing/apprehending/perceiving something involves a two-way exchange or experience between the knower and the known that is both reciprocal and fleeting: the eye only truly sees when it gazes upon something. And that thing/person in turn, is only really known/seen in that particular light at the moment of being seen/perceived by the seer.
"When the eye and the appropriate object meet together and give birth to whiteness and the sensation connatural with it, which could not have been given by either of them going elsewhere, then, while the sight is flowing from the eye, whiteness proceeds from the object which combines in producing the colour; and so the eye is filled with sight, and really sees, and becomes, not sight, but a seeing eye."
Socrates therefore concludes that it is only through encounters/relationships between two equal subjects that anything can ever be truly seen or indeed, known. Indeed, he says:

And from all these considerations, as I said at first, there arises a general reflection, that there is no one self-existent thing, but everything is becoming and in relation.
Which, as anyone familiar with Patrick’s work (and Buddhist practice) will know, is one of his fundamental premises. How very Libran [and Platonic!] Don't tell him that...

(Of course, the irony of a Libran writing about a Sun Aries and opposition aspect on the day of a Full Moon in Aries hasn't escaped me either…)

While this naturally prompts me into further thoughts about Plato, Eros and the desire to connect/relate that underpins so much of human (and indeed, more than human) experience; in the interests of brevity, I will refrain from doing so on this occasion.  

Suffice it to say, if you are at all intrigued by the man and his work, I urge you to take a look at this very stimulating YouTube discussion between Patrick and the hosts of The Good and Basic Podcast (or his website: www.patrickcurry.co.uk) It covers an array of interesting topics, including the relationship between magic and technology, nature and enchantment, and the enduring work of JRR Tolkien, to name but a few. Along with some of the concepts I have explored today.

I will leave you with a quote from his latest book about Eros/Love, which I think epitomises both what Socrates was talking about, as well as the thrust of much of Patrick’s work:
"[Erotic love] is one of the three great threshold experiences in human life (so Hermes attends all): being born, dying and in-between, meeting another person in a way at once personally intimate and universal, even cosmic….The effect is the enchantment that results from participating in something larger, older and deeper than oneself."
Amen to that!

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