Contrarium Eadem Est Scientia
There is an episode of the TV sitcom Seinfeld where the character George Costanza, in an effort to improve his life, sets out to do the opposite of everything he would normally do. In the course of the episode, George becomes the image of success. His career and his personal life soar simply through this opposite behavior.
Of course, in the end George goes back to his normal, unsuccessful ways. Because this is a TV show, and everything has to be reset for the next episode.
In reality, George may have experienced longer-lived success. Opposites provide more than just a shallow life strategy. Knowledge of opposites increases our knowledge of everything, helps us to be well-rounded, and prepares us for the infinite number of things that can happen. Or, to put it differently, “Contrarium eadem est scientia.” Knowledge of a thing comes from knowledge of its opposite.
II. We can see this exemplified in the natural world. At the time of this writing, it is fall, or autumn for the pretentious folks.
Leaves are falling, and plants are going dormant. The warm weather is going cold, and long hours stretch into dark nights. If you take these conditions at face value it is quite terrifying. The world is freezing! Everything is dying!
For most of us the fall is not a scary season. This is not because we are unafraid of the cold, but because we have knowledge of its opposite. Most of us know that eventually spring will arrive. It will get warm again, and life will be renewed. This is an obvious and simplified example, but there are many more opportunities to learn about opposites.
III. “In times of peace, prepare for war,” said the Roman writer Vegetius. But there is another side to this statement. “In times of war, prepare for peace.”
This seems like a contradiction, but in truth is the only way to go about any conflict. Conflict, while bad, is unavoidable. We would all do better to learn how to handle it.
“In times of peace, prepare for war,” is not a warmongering statement. It does not mean you should be actively seeking out enemies, and trying to annoy them enough to start a conflict.
All it means is that peace, while great, cannot last forever. It just can’t. With knowledge of the coming storm, we can batten down the hatches and mitigate the losses. People at peace should prepare for war, just like people who live below sea level should prepare for hurricanes and flooding.
“In times of war, prepare for peace.” This side of the equation is more difficult. When you are in conflict with someone, you hate them, and are certainly not thinking about the well-being of your enemy. But eventually the conflict will end. It always does. And we all still have to live in the same world.
In the last several decades we have seen the major powers of the world fail to grasp this essential quality of war and peace. At the end of the Cold War, the Western powers sat back on their laurels. They enjoyed a relatively peaceful decade, and by the time conflict reared its ugly head the world was unprepared. After another decade of conflict, things began to wind down again, but no seeds for a lasting, stable peace were sown, leading to unexpected and unfortunate consequences.
There is yet another element to the war and peace dichotomy. At the end of the U.S. Civil war, president Abraham Lincoln had a wise and noble ambition about how to heal the divided country. “Victory without malice,” he said. And then he died. But even had Lincoln lived, his plan would not have worked. For in order for there to be victory without malice, there must be defeat without bitterness.
IV. Upon accusations of his widely publicized wisdom, the Philosopher Socrates famously said, “I only know that I know nothing.” It is unclear if Socrates said this out of humility, or was just mocking his accusers. Either way, the point of the quote remains. In order to gain knowledge, it is important to be familiar with its opposite: Ignorance.
If you already know everything, how can you learn? If a person has never felt stupid, then there is no desire to be smart.
V. “Contratium eadem est scientia.” Knowledge of a thing comes from knowledge of its opposite. We have seen several examples of this, but there is a disturbing conclusion. In order to know the truth, do we have to learn how to tell lies?