Jonathan Delavan explores the idea of two apparently contradictory natures being able to coexist within someone.
If you remembered from my earlier article on my “Steppenwolf”, I introduced the concept of there being a multitude of natures within each person—natures that could be nurtured or neglected, that could either be in harmony or in discord with one another. I’ll admit, this concept sounds a bit “New Age-ish” on the surface. However, I believe there is a deeper truth that is represented by Hesse’s “multitude of personalities” conception in Steppenwolf. A truth that was also explored a couple of decades before Hesse’s novel by an eccentric, Victorian Englishman known as G. K. Chesterton.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was quite the passionate writer during his day and never shied away from a vigorous debate with his intellectual contemporaries whenever the opportunity presented itself. He tried to develop a personal, positive philosophy of life that he realized to really be what he considered orthodox Christianity. In 1908, he published a small book titled Orthodoxy to explain and explore his revolutionary discovery of a forgotten religious philosophy.
Chesterton spends a portion of his autobiographical and philosophical dissertation discussing a particular paradox of orthodox Christianity: the paradox of fostering seemingly contradictory passions or concepts—a paradox like that of courage. “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage,” as Chesterton admits.
In other words, the trait that is courage requires someone to savor his/her life absolutely while being indifferent enough to it so as to do what is necessary in order to preserve it in the long run. How can one value his/her life while being equally indifferent to it at the same time? Would not such opposites lead to a conflict of wills or passions that leads one to become paralyzed with indecision? I think there is a simple answer to this apparent contradiction: Both traits are able to exist simultaneously yet harmoniously to create the greater trait of courage because the courageous person is able to evoke them equally without diluting either one.
Chesterton goes on to apply this explanation to Christianity’s contradictory historical and religious record, such as the optimistic saints and the pessimistic theologians or the peacemakers and the fire-brands. Because orthodox Christianity reflects a greater truth beyond human comprehension, according to Chesterton, he believed it made sense that both the spiritual optimist and the religious pessimist, both the gentle peacemaker and the dogmatic fire-brand, ultimately reflect both sides of the same coin that is orthodox Christianity. Thus, what critics of Christianity considered great flaws of the religion, Chesterton has argued they are simply the manifestation of the multitude of natures inherent of the deeper truth that orthodox Christianity represents.
It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colors which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates the evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray… All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colors coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.
If anyone wants a modern proof of all this, let him consider the curious fact that, under Christianity, Europe (while remaining a unity) has broken up into individual nations. Patriotism is a perfect example of this deliberate balancing of one emphasis against another emphasis. The instinct of the Pagan empire would have said, “You shall all be Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent; the Frenchmen less experimental and swift.” But the instinct of Christian Europe says, “Let the German remain slow and reverent, that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental. We will make an equipoise [equality in distribution] out of these excesses. The absurdity called Germany shall correct the insanity called France.”
At this point, dear reader, you may be contemplating the image of the yin-yang symbol with its equal portions of black and white in a harmonious swirl with each other. I’ll admit, this is a good visual representation of what I am trying to express here, but I still have reservations over applying this image fully as well. My main reservation centers on the circular nature of the taijitu (yin-yang symbol). In my perspective, the circular nature denotes a zero-sum concept; thus, the white yang represents fifty percent of the whole while the black yin represents the remaining fifty percent of the whole—neither can grow or flourish without diminishing or diluting the other.
I do not think Chesterton was advocating that apparent contradictions can be harmonious in such a fifty-fifty fashion, ultimately leading to a limitation or dilution of both. Rather, I think he was arguing for a paradoxical harmony that denotes a one hundred percent of one thing and another one hundred percent of its supposed opposite that creates a new two hundred percent entity, allowing for the full and simultaneous expression of both in one person. You may be wondering why I am splitting hairs over this issue of fifty-fifty or hundred-hundred when it comes to two different colors, the two different natures. Does it really matter? Yes, it does! Otherwise, such a fifty-fifty representation can easily become that “dirty grey” where the two natures become lost in each other, losing their respective strengths and passions in the process.
So what are some examples of this paradoxical yet harmonious balance between two natures look like? For starters, there is the trait of courage as mentioned earlier. Then there are the natures of the mind and heart—the rational nature and the emotional nature present in every human being that are often pitted against each other. Additionally, there are the natures of the peacemaker and the warrior as embodied by people like Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela who strove for societal peace while combating social injustices at the same time.
Another example that comes to mind is that of the natures of masculinity and femininity. For millennia, these two gender natures have been depicted as complete opposites, especially in the Western cultures. Are they truly mutually exclusive of each other like trying to mix water and oil together? Or can either a man or a woman embody a full feminine nature and a full masculine nature simultaneously? I will explore that question in my next article.
In the meantime, consider what I have shared with you today, dear reader. And please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings about this paradoxical concept in the comments below.
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