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Week 13 of Wisdom: Insight Through Contradiction

In the West, there has been a movement towards a society that is orderly and rational. Historically, the roots of this movement can be traced to the Enlightenment, when a fear of human intuition, emotion, and superstition led to a hyper-rational ethic that persists till this day. But this ethic can be a barrier towards gaining wisdom.

As Iain McGilchrist argues, in his book The Master and His Emissary, the East and West differ with regards to how they interpret reality. In the West, the emphasis is on taking a side. There is a winner and a loser, a correct argument and a false argument, and no room for contradiction. Whereas in the East, it is the opposite. Children are taught to understand the world through its contradictions. That is, contradictions are a source of trouble in the West, but in the East, they are a source of illumination.

When I read the Tao Te Ching, this became apparent to me through two contradictory ideas. In Chapter 36, Lao Tzu tells us that if you want to solve a problem or get rid of something, you must allow it grow or to expand. But in Chapter 64, he tells us that a problem that is dealt with swiftly is less likely to haunt us in the future. Below are the passages I am referring to.

Chapter 36

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.
The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.

Chapter 64

What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.
Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.

To the Western mind, the first reaction will be to recognize this contradiction, and to feel betrayed by either the Tao Te Ching or the entire concept of wisdom altogether. Another reaction will be to try to think of how the contradiction is only apparent, but not real. That is, the two statements are complimentary to one another, and not contradictory. In either case, what we see is the rejection of contradiction.

To take a concrete example, think of the protests in the U.S that took place after the death of George Floyd. If one were to apply the wisdom of the above passages to the current protests, what would happen? Should the conclusion be to put an end to the protests in the shortest amount of time, or allow the protests to manifest, and thus better highlight a greater, and more insidious systemic problem in the US?

First, we would need to define a time frame and perspective, since no perspective is aligned. From the perspective of the current administration, who are most interested in remaining in power, and maintaining short-term order, the best course of action is to get rid of the problem (the protests) quickly.

But for an American who cares about the future of their country, it is more important to address the systemic issues that have led to current events, and from that perspective, the protests are a manifestation of a deep problem that should be allowed to expand before it is solved.

It is not that the passages are not contradictory. I think they are, but that is okay. In the West, there is a desire for either/or solutions, a contradiction is a problem. In the East, a contradiction is expected and is a source of wisdom. In any apparent contradiction, we can learn that wisdom depends on what your perspective is, and what your goals are. In this particular contradiction, we learn that there are two fundamentally different ways of solving a problem, and we must exercise clear thinking to figure out which is more appropriate.

2 replies on “Week 13 of Wisdom: Insight Through Contradiction”

Thank you for your content, really good stuff.

Open question: in your concrete example, are you not still saying that “the contradiction is only apparent, but not real. That is, the two statements are complimentary to one another, and not contradictory….what we see is the rejection of contradiction.”

You solved the problem of an apparent contradiction by placing the situation of George Floyd within a specific context, i.e. a particular vantage point (the administration versus average American). But it seems that on some level we may hold both views at all times because there’s always the simultaneous question of what is better for me the individual versus what is better for the collective group. Perhaps this may be wherein lies the tension or contradiction?

Verse 36 to me is essentially to use your power like Judo to take the inherent directional energy of the object you’re engaging with and use it in your favor. Verse 64 feels like the classic “you reap what you sow” or “measure twice/cut once,” whether you take the time to ensure a good start to your journey thereby increasing your odds of success, or you are “rushing into action” and “forcing a project to completion.”

I agree with your conclusion, “that there are two fundamentally different ways of solving a problem, and we must exercise clear thinking to figure out which is more appropriate.” In essence, that the principles we live by may be contradictory when juxtaposed, but the proper application of them requires wisdom which transcends this apparent contradiction.

Well said, Frank. Thank you for this comment!

In the George Floyd example, it seems like the contradiction is not there, when looked at from different perspectives. Yet the passages from the Tao Te Ching, if you wanted to apply them to the this specific example, you would end up with different solutions. In other words, the wisdom you apply depends on who you are and what you want. In some ways, this resolves the contradiction, as you mentioned, because relativity ensures that only one course of action is followed. But as you perfectly stated here, “there’s always the simultaneous question of what is better for me the individual versus what is better for the collective group.”

And to take this a step further, there is always a contradiction between what is better for me as an individual today, and what is better for me as an individual in the future. Or what is better for me as a biological being vs what is good for me as a citizen in society) etc…

The existence of this infinite number of simultaneous contradictions, ensures that a streamlined consistent way of thinking is an illusion at best. It all depends on your level of analysis. So it’s not only that the passages have ideas that can contradict each other, it’s that no matter what ideas you have, when it comes to their application, they will be met with multiple layers of contradiction. One would feel the need to pick a side, but I think we must go beyond this illusion.

You stated it perfectly here.
“In essence, that the principles we live by may be contradictory when juxtaposed, but the proper application of them requires wisdom which transcends this apparent contradiction.”

For this to be possible, one would need to be mindful of the contradictions inherent in each behavior, and not to see this as a problem that should be solved.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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