The Paradoxical

Arthur Panaro - August 20, 2014

'Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise'

The Paradoxical         By Arthur Panaro

"Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise." (1) 

Trying to make sense of this life, as I often do, the idea of “paradox” began to seem the pattern for what I experience all around me. Here are assembles accounts (my own and others’) that do I believe illustrate that life is paradoxical (seemingly absurd or self contradictory – Oxford Dictionaries).  The general utility of what follows is questionable, and Colin McGinn pinpoints this.  He writes: “ . . . are capacities for theoretical intelligence the kinds of capacities that the genes want to promulgate?  Theoretical intelligence is apt to go with an unworldly disposition, not a propensity to maximize one's progeny.  Why spend years on child rearing if your main interest is cosmology and the nature of consciousness?  Maybe our frontal lobes will shrink over the next million years, and interest in natural philosophy will fade away. " (2)

What follows may be just a case of mental self-abuse.

Case 1 Being and “Entropyng”
            “Reality”, the sum total of everything, may also be called “existence”, “actuality” or “being”.   “Being” refers to both the nonmaterial, such as thought, and also to all the identifiable entities all around us in the material realm.  Regarding the latter, the entities appear to be inertly static to the eye.  Ah, but we know better.  The material beings are at base in constant motion, a condition of entropy, and an ongoing “BE-coming” and “BE-going”.  Reality is both being and "entropyng" (I may have coined this word.  I don‘t know.  You are welcome to goggle it.)

            Here, then, is a first example of paradox: existence “as” progressive disorganization and reorganization of the seeming identities and entities.
Case 2 Being Born as Pointless
            "There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, 'Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.'"  (3)

Case 3 Dying as Happiness
            Solon hearing from Socrates that the brothers Kleobis and Biton are the happiest of men, dying from exhaustion having dutifully pulled a cart bearing their mother so that she may arrive at her temple in time to serve her goddess faithfully.  In gratitude to her sons she prays to the goddess that her sons may die the happiest of men, as they have been so full of piety in her service. And indeed the boys die from their devotional exhaustion and pure labors for their mother, as they lie worn out under a tree in the temple garden. (4)

Case 4 “No one is ever born or ever dies.”
            “Once, sage Vajashrava gave off everything that he possessed in a sacrifice including his son Nachiketas. Nachiketas wanted to know as to whom his father was going to give him. So out of curiosity he began to ask his father repeatedly regarding this matter.
The father got furious and said, ‘To the lord of death I will give you.'
The son said: 'I go as the first, the head of those who still has to die, I go in the midst of many of those who are now dying. I wonder what Yama has in store for me?'
Nachiketas entered the abode of Yama.  There was no one to receive him. When Yama returned to his house after an absence of three nights, He became aware that Nachiketas had received no hospitality, so Yama gave three boons to him.  . . . .
            “Nachiketas said: 'when a man is dead please tell me what happens to his soul? This is my third boon.'
            “Yama said, ‘This subject is too subtle to discuss, even the gods are unable to understand its shades, trying to get to the crux of the matter is not that easy.
Choose another boon, O Nachiketas, do not press me, and let me off that boon.'
Nachiketas said: 'On this point even the gods have doubted, and you Lord Yama has declared it to be very difficult to comprehend. Since another teacher like you can never be found I would like only you to instruct me regarding this.
            “Yama said, 'If you can think of any boon equal to that, choose wealth, and long life. Be a king on the chosen realm of the wide Earth; choose progeny who shall live for hundred years, possessions like cattle, elephant, gold and horses.  I will fulfill all of your desires, but do not ask me about death.'
            “'These things are ephemeral,’ said Nachiketas, ‘they wear out the essential energy of the body and mind. Also life is short.  I choose my boon and stand by it. The pleasure produced by beauty and love is nothing compared to the knowledge of immortality, so tell me about the great hereafter.’
Extremely pleased and astounded by Nachiketas’s perseverance, Yama said, ‘Now that you have dismissed pleasure and chosen knowledge I shall tell you!
            “No one is ever born or ever dies.” (5)

Case 5 Civilization? Has it been worth it?
            It seems to me we humans would have saved ourselves a lot of environmental apocalyptic trouble had the following transpired.  As the creatures we were once upon a time, ever so long, long ago --- as we became aware and self-conscious of our alimentary canal workings and bowl movements, this might have been enough evidence for a species-wide decision to stop evolving toward greater and greater levels of awareness, intelligence, introspection, technology, science, philosophy, etc. etc. etc.  Has this not resulted in our upending the balance of nature?  The halting of "progress" might have also been triggered by a pre Homo sapiens sapiens (Linnaeus, 1758) realization: "My God (or some transcendent being or higher power of those times) did I just hunt, kill, and devour a sentient being?" 
            Why not remain just somewhat sapient and mostly animal and thus more in tune with nature?  Why deny our animality with a pretense of intelligence?   With all the culture and art and thought of the ages, are we really any further along in our quest for . . . for what?  Society as paradise?  No. We are still using clubs and stones at one another, only more sophisticated stones.
            In this little thought experiment, this decision to not evolve, if that had been what it might have been, probably would have had to arise from something like that hundredth monkey business mixed in with some numinous or cosmic subconscious consensus.
        The bone thrown into the air, as in 2001 A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, would never have morphed into a space station.
            What we have now is animal in the bottom half and what goes by the name intelligence in our top most part, which has proven to be no match to our basic instinctual, physical and chthonian drives, to say nothing of our unconsciousness. The astronaut in his/her space suit still has to defecate and urinate while tumbling, weightless in space.  I've seen the NASA documentary.
            Magnificent though our science and technology might seem, we are still rooted deeply in nature, have set ourselves apart to the point of badly damaging Her and also our Oh so intelligent selves.   There is trash on the surface of the moon, trash orbiting the earth, "garbage patches" in our oceans the size of which is debated, the Gulf of Mexico is badly traumatized, and an apocalypse has appeared in Fukushima.  Hasn’t Japan had enough nuclear stuff?
            What is to be done?  Probably nothing can be done. We have here a paradox --- both the marvelous and deleterious, the hypertrophic progress and its externalities. The positive and negative trajectories are awe inspiring, but also shocking.  Remember “Shock and Awe” and all the mess that made and is still making? 
            I admit I may be mildly misanthropic, and somewhat pessimistic about the history and future of humanity as a whole.  On the other hand regarding individual people, to counter the weirdness of all this and to reassure myself and any reader interested enough to care, I am most hopeful and confident that everyone, including myself, can grow and even become enlightened even if we are breathing the air of social craziness.  My “Life Vision / Mission” trumps the paradoxes of civilization.  Here is my vision and mission:  "I awaken and empower myself and others by fiercely caring."   Do I achieve this all the time?  No.  These words nevertheless leaven my consciousness subliminally.
            So, no complete answers.  Maybe just that mental self-abuse I mentioned above.  Oh well . . . and so it goes . . .
            However, the ancient legend with which we close shows that far back in human development there were already inklings of the paradoxes and pessimism of civilization.        Read the closing legend and best wishes.

Case 6 Civilization Yes, but Violence, Greed and Destruction as well . . .
            “The ancient Sumerians, the creators of the first civilization, told a wonderful myth about its origins.  It was, they said, a devil’s bargain.  It offered the noblest ideals of humanity but it also brought violence, greed and destruction. All this is civilization, the Sumerian God of Wisdom tells Inanna of Uruk, who will take it back to her city, and thence give it to the world.  And if you wish its benefits, he goes on, you must take all its qualities without argument:
            . . .The Art of being mighty, the art of dissimulation, the art of being straightforward, the plundering of cities, the setting up of lamentations, the rejoicing of the heart.
            The craft of the carpenter, the craft of the copper-worker, the craft of the scribe, the craft of the smith, the craft of the reed-worker.
            . . . The art of being kind, the kindling of fire . . . The weary arm, the hungry mouth, the assembled family, procreation.
            . . . Fear, consternation, dismay, the kindling of strife, the soothing of the heart . . .
            All these things I will give you, holy Inanna, but once you have taken them, there can be no dispute, and you cannot give them back.” (6)

            (1) The Śuraṃgama-sūtra (c. 700) is a Mahayana sutra and one of the main texts used in the Chan school of Buddhism. [Also]   As quoted in 1,001 Pearls of Wisdom (2006) by David Ross   
            (2) The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World, by Colin McGinn.  Basic Books, 1999, p 219.     
            (3) The Birth of Tragedy (Chap.3) Friedrich Nietzsche
            (4) Professor Daniel N. Robinson in his Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, The Great Courses
            (5) Nachiketas and Yama: Insightful Discourse   By: Vyjayanthi Iyengar on Jul 13, 2013
            (6) Legacy: The Search for Ancient Cultures, by Michael Wood.  Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1994