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By George Elder, 3/25/24

In Western philosophy, the “problem of opposites” is as old as the fragments of Heraclitus’ thought around 500 BCE. He is famously quoted as saying, “you cannot step into the same river twice”—the point being that rivers are always “changing” even though always the “same,” a pair of opposite attributes. Heraclitus was keenly aware that “cold things warm up, the hot cools off, wet becomes dry, dry becomes wet,” etc.  And he called this basic dynamic of life, enantiodromia, a “flowing into the opposite (enantios).”

In the fifteenth century, the German monk Nicholas of Cusa became aware that opposites “attract” in a coincidentia oppositorum. He agreed with Socrates that the more we acknowledge our “ignorance,” the “wiser” we are. He taught an unexpected geometry: a circle’s circumference and center are opposites, yet if that circumference were reduced, it would eventually coincide with its center. He applied this principle to thoughts about God—who is fully “transcendent” yet fully “present” in the world, a coincidence bordering on paradox.

Then, in the nineteenth century, another German, named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, applied the “problem of opposites” to a philosophy of history—acknowledging his debt to Heraclitus. Every age, Hegel noted, expressed a dominant idea or attitude—yet one that contained its own limitation or error, generating over time an antithetical dominant cultural idea. The tension—and even revolutionary clash—between these two “opposing” world views, nevertheless, was creative. As a recent review puts it: “New conceptions emerged that synthesized both the old conceptions and their contradictions. History did not merely cycle, or bounce randomly, but spiraled upward.” (Wall Street Journal, 2/24/24)

Marx was impressed by this model of historical progress through opposition (i.e., “class struggle”)—and that changed our world.

In Eastern thought, the “opposites” are even more conspicuous. In India, the pairs are often called “duality” (Sanskrit, dvandva: literally, “twoness”—the dv- reflected, incidentally, in English tw- in the word “two”). Around 800 BCE, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad stated that the duality of “subject and object” is an illusion since the only reality is the one divine Brahman or Ātman (“Self”): “For where there is duality, as it were, there one smells another, there one sees another, [etc.] . . . . Where, verily, everything has become the Self, then by what and whom should one smell, then by what and whom should one see, [etc.] . . . ?” (2.4.14)  The scripture implies a saving experience of immortal Oneness lying behind (or perhaps within) everyday “twoness”—freeing the wise person from mortality.

A few centuries later, the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad put the matter differently by way of an image: “Then just as one driving a chariot looks at the two wheels, even so he will look at day and night, at good deeds and evil deeds and on all the pairs of opposites (dvandvāni). Thus one, freed from good and freed from evil, the knower of Brahman goes on to Brahman.” (1.5.4) Here, the focus is on freedom from karmic “opposites”—from worrying whether one has done good or done bad—and occurs when the wise person is able to see “two” at one and the same time   


Indian Buddhism is famous for its “Middle Way” between indulgence and mortification. But that  isn’t a “problem” of opposites and is easily solved—as Aristotle did—by a “mean” or compromise between two extremes. Around the first century CE, however, “duality” became for Buddhists not only a problem but even the culprit that “attaches” us to objects, persons, and ideas—keeping us from the “non-duality” (nir-dvandva) of Nirvāṇa. In the Vimilakīrti scripture of the Mahāyāna, a goddess is criticized by a monk for remaining female when only males can become Enlightened: whereupon she magically transforms the monk into a woman and herself into a man. Her point? “In all things, there is neither male nor female.”

Yet we keep insisting on this “binary” (a person might say today) that causes us to identify with one side of a pair of opposites, and then criticize the other side—when these distinctions are merely creations of our thoughts and our language.

A late tantric text proclaims the goal in poetry:

            As oneself, so an enemy. . .

            As one’s mother, so a whore. . .

            As urine, so wine. . .

            As food, so shit. . .

As pleasure, so pain.

Here, the point seems to be that we should train to become indifferent to the “opposites”—pay them no mind. Then, we are free. (See my many discussions of this topic in The Self and the Lotus.)

The ancient Chinese were also keenly aware of the “problem of opposites.” They called them yin and yang as early as the 14th century BCE, as attested by oracle bones inscribed with their graphs. Perhaps they were not yet paired and meant only what a hill is like in the morning—a sunny, warm side (yang) and a shady, cool side (yin). By the 8th century BCE, however, these words were being discussed in texts about the nature of the cosmos and all the particulars (including human beings) within it.

We see what the sages concluded in an image that was drawn long afterwards—the one at the close of this essay. It is familiar to all of us, demonstrating China’s influence upon the modern West and demonstrating, also, that “West” and “East” are a pair of opposites that belong together. (See “Yinyang” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Let us explore the image. It is a true symbol (not just a sign) because it feels inspired—saying visually many things at once, saying more than we can elucidate. Yet it is also visually simple, direct—and aesthetically pleasing, despite being only black and white. By it, the Chinese tradition is saying that reality is indeed whole or One, yet dual or Two at the same time. The traditional word for this oneness is Tao or the “Way” things are—or should be, if we wish to live correctly in harmony with the universe.

That reminds us of the Upaniṣads that knew of a unifying Brahman behind “twoness.” But there is no hint here that duality is an illusion as in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka or—as with Indian Buddhists—a mistake that we must train ourselves to overcome. Instead, the Tao consists of opposites: yin (the black parts of the image) and yang (the white parts). The former came to signify not only what is shady and cool but also what is passive and moist, the night and the moon, earth, the feminine side of life. The latter came to signify not only what is sunny and warm but also what is active and dry, the day and the sun itself, heaven, the masculine side of life. We observe that these two sides are not contending but fit together—visually, in a kind of embrace.

Finally, the image shows us that the “opposites” are dynamic forces that move—expressing Tao’s cosmic “energy” called ch’i.  Significantly, this energy operates in alternative ways. As we see, when “white” yang grows from its slight beginning to its fullest expression, “black” yin takes over slightly until it reaches its fullness—round and round, unending. And that is because within either the “masculine” or the “feminine”—or any other pair of opposites—there resides a black dot or a white dot as the seed of its eventual other. The opposites, therefore, are not absolute principles of our existence but relative to each other, complementing each other—in a harmonious cosmic whole.

Does any of this have to do with psychology? Absolutely. In fact, Jung says it is all psychology in the guise of metaphysics or laws of the universe. Does it pertain to our “polarized” state of culture and politics? For certain. I will address these topics in my next Post on the “problem of opposites.”


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