The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
I was always attracted to views that challenge my current assumptions. Having formed an opinion, I attempt to dismantle it by seeking out material that can offer a strong counterpoint. What I found is that rather than always having one idea “win” in the end, I have ended up retaining multiple ideas that are seemingly in complete opposition to each other.
For a long time I believed the fact that I was not able to eliminate one idea for the other was a failing on my part, a weakness of my mental faculties. I now believe the opposite. The seemingly opposing ideas I retain are not facts, which are either true or false, but perspectives, which depend on the subject. Reason versus Faith, Socialism versus Capitalism, Tradition versus Progress—all these are stances towards the world that depend on the subject’s situation in it. The particular facts can be extracted and proven true or false, but the perspective remains unchanged, and it remains unchanged because it does not reside in the objective fact, but in the seeing eye of the subject.
Thus Nietzsche says: “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.”1 And thus Proust says that the true voyage of discovery “is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds.”2
Hannah Arendt, writing about ancient Greek impartiality, points out that this impartialty was based on the readiness and possibility of the Greeks to view the same thing from different perspectives: “Greeks learned to understand—not to understand one another as individual persons, but to look upon the same world from one another’s standpoint, to see the same in very different and frequently opposing aspects.”3 Thus Herodotus wrote about “the great and wondrous deeds displayed by both, the Greeks and the barbarians”, and thus Thucydides covered the history of the Peloponnesian War from all sides, including those caught between Athens and Sparta.
Fitzgerald suggests that it is difficult to function whilst holding opposing ideas in your head. I think this is true only if the mind is actively trying to purge one or the other idea. But if you make the distinction between fact and perspective, you will see that while contradictions in assumed facts can be eliminated, the opposing perspectives need not be. And indeed, it is just the opposite with them, for while you want to eliminate false information, you should acquire as many perspectives as possible, every new one augmenting your sight like an extra eye on the world.
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- Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
- Proust, In Search of Lost Time
- Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future