Sunday, May 25, 2003

Without Fear or Fava Beans

According to Aristotle, the Pythagoreans understood everything by reference to a list of ten contraries: limited and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong. These terms are not just a set of dimensions or co-ordinates. All the first terms and all the second terms were believed to go together as if they reflected a single cosmic polarity. Now presumably there aren’t a great many Pythagoreans around any more, but their way of thinking endlessly resurfaces because it is, formally speaking, the default strategy of the indolent mind, which is to say the default strategy of the mind. We’d still like to believe that if something is left-handed (or just leftist), female, and oblong, it’s very likely to be devious, dark, and evil or—to be fair-minded for once—to think that all conservatives are racists because both terms are found in the right hand column of our personal list of contraries. That’s perhaps permissible in the context of the coarse games of politics, where all sides have to forgo the truth in order to play at all, but it’s just a vice if we want to understand something, even something political.

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