The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was most surely necessary – even if they vowed to themselves, “de omnibus dubitandum”.
It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.
Another recent Big Think guest, philosopher Alain de Botton, might disagree with the metaphysics of Buddhism, but he shares this core belief – that beneath our often horrible outward behavior toward one another, there exists a set of shared human values such as kindness, compassion, and value of children – and that our biggest challenge as a species is not losing track of them.
Of course if you believe that, at their core, people are violent and competitive and cruel, then neither argument is likely to interest you much. But if you agree that hatred, anxiety, greed, and jealousy are secondary and deeply destructive aspects of our nature, then – after survival – finding some reliable method to control or eradicate them – and thereby liberating our better angels –becomes pretty much the only worthwhile human pursuit.
Metaphors, they’re so interesting. The neatness and poetic symmetry of a well-constructed one can create an intellectual glamour that we mistake for truth if we’re not careful.
Like here: what does it mean to say that our positive actions and values lie “beneath” our horrible outward behavior? Why would “good” and “bad” behaviors be so conveniently two-tiered? Or again, with the idea that at our “core”, we are either positive or negative, with the other being a “secondary” group of characteristics. Either way, we get the implication that originally, human nature was simpler, purer, “better”. Our negative tendencies are accretions that have built up over time and need to be scraped away. Depth equates to profundity.
Simplicity and purity are often found together in these metaphors, and they usually signify truth, as does the equating of “ancient” with “wisdom”. Long ago, things were pure and uncomplicated and everyone was content, but somehow… of course, all these tropes are just derivatives of one of the sturdiest myths that mankind ever invented, that of the fall from grace. There’s even a hint of Gnosticism in this particular case, with the idea that our better angels are trapped in this fallen state, awaiting liberation.
Like you may have learned in geometry class, when the given you start with is flawed, none of the steps in your proof are going to make up for it. I kind of feel that way about metaphorical constructs that are so obviously deficient.
As for the ridiculous idea that good and bad are so neatly distinguished and capable of being separated in order to elevate one and eradicate the other, well, there’s an old story of a Taoist farmer that’s pretty good as far as myths go. Good turns to bad and bad turns to good; the changes have no purpose and no end.