Have you ever had the desire, the urge, the dangerous little need to contradict yourself for its own sake? Or for the sake of something quite unspeakable? The words “paradox” and “contradiction” come eerily close to being synonyms—they mean the same encounter of irreconcilables—yet they connote different moods. A contradiction is the dumbest, most obvious falsehood, while we treat paradoxes as exalted mysteries. The two words themselves, meaning the same thing but different, are a contradiction, or a paradox. For complicated reasons, we make decisions about when something looks like one and when it looks like the other. Contradictions can be dismissed; paradoxes cannot. Paradoxes thrust themselves into our desire.
The theory of double truth, to speak historically, was a heresy in medieval Christian Europe. Often synonymous with “Latin Averroism” (after Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, the Arab philosopher), it grew out of the thirteenth century’s encounter with Islamic philosophy, and through it, ancient Greek thought. After several centuries of possessing only the barest scraps of Plato and Aristotle, Christiandom had gone its own way, ceasing to address questions the ancients’ ideas raised. So when Aristotle’s Metaphysics suddenly appeared, and “the interpreter” Averroes insists that his system means that the universe is eternal and souls are not, some valiant thinkers decided they had little choice but to agree. Among these were Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia. They did so knowing, however, that Catholic dogma forbids such conclusions, and in those days there was no arguing with Catholic dogma. The only choice was to accept both truths, the dogmatic and the philosophical, at once.
In 1277, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, condemned those who “hold that something is
true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as if there are two contrary truths, and as if in contradiction to the truth of Sacred Scripture there is a truth in the doctrines of the accursed pagans.” Both Siger and Boethius lost their teaching posts. The following decade, Siger was supposedly murdered by a secretary with a pen. Neither admitted to practicing the theory of double truth, and constantly sought to reconcile or explain the inconsistencies between philosophy and sacred doctrine. But the condemnation stuck. Still, for reasons we don’t quite understand, Dante depicts Siger in heaven with Thomas Aquinas (who opposed him in life) singing his praises.
Nobody quite admits to believing the theory, even those who are perpetually drawn to it. Somewhere, there has to be a resolution to the apparent contradiction—a single truth beneath the appearance of two. Trusting in that, what seems like a contradiction is really a paradox.
The theory is no stranger to Jewish thought. The Talmud tells of Elisha ben Abuyah, a brilliant scholar who was seduced by the Hellenic culture and ideas that surrounded him. There are stories of Elisha as both a great sage and a rather insane heretic. Apparently, he was both. Attested to in the books carried by Jews everywhere the diaspora took them, he became an icon of the problem of identity or assimilation. Rabbis argued about whether he ever made it to heaven. Just as Dante did with Siger, some thought he deserved a special place there. Others declared him an outcast, or, as the twentieth century rabbi Milton Steinberg would depict him, as a leaf driven to fall from his tree. For short, the rabbis in the Talmud call Elisha אחר—the “other.”
It was another Jew who truly carried the theory of double truth into the twentieth century, and in doing made it politically aware. Leo Strauss, a German-born philosopher, re-read double truths in great thinkers of history like Plato and Maimonides. Such men, in order to accomplish their political goals and avoid the persecution of power, had to tell two truths. They taught an exoteric one, safe and acceptable to the world, believable enough, and good for ordinary society. But within it they hid an esoteric teaching, one that paid no homage to the gods of the world. Both teachings were true, and needed to be said. Ordinary folks needed the exoteric to live by, and philosophers needed the esoteric to understand.
It reminds me of an altar in a Catholic church I once visited in Guatemala. The first time I went, I sat in the pews in silence. Nobody was there. It was an ordinary, Spanish-style church. The second time, it was morning, and people were coming in for their prayers. I saw them, one by one, go behind the altar. Finally I went back myself and saw that it was covered in feathers and candle wax and symbols of a different religion entirely.
At the University of Chicago, Strauss built himself a following, and some of his students went on to become prominent neoconservatives—notably Bush’s deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. Adam Curtis’s gripping documentary, The Power of Nightmares, argues that neoconservatives used evangelical Christianity as the exoteric guise behind their esoteric greedy nihilism.
George Orwell famously associated double truth—”doublethink”—with the dystopic world of his 1984. Promulgating double truth—indeed, filling the world with righteous paradoxes—becomes the policy of totalitarianism. Blur people’s ability to see contradiction, and they will believe anything. They will become utterly subservient to power.
Then again, another anti-totalitarian novelist celebrates the theory. Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which closed the deal on his Nobel Prize, tells of a man named Ka caught in the bloody, black-or-white mix of Turkish political culture. As a poet from Istanbul, he cannot escape being a member of the secular bourgeoisie, which controls the army and the revolutionary legacy of Ataturk. Nevertheless, he becomes intrigued by the world of provincial Islamists, who carry hopes for a revolution of their own under the banner of ancient religion. What distinguishes Ka in the novel’s world is his desire for both, for the double truth. He falls in love with each, separate and together. And it does him in. Turkey has become a place where the theory of double truth is especially and undoubtedly dangerous.
That is the thing about double truth. It is dangerous. On a number of fronts, I am deeply drawn to it, inhabiting contradictions, playing many roles, and trusting each as real. And for the moment I can write about these sensations here and there, a few people read them, and not much happens. But times can change quickly. When they do, in one way or another, the rules concerning double truth change too. What makes a paradox and what makes a contradiction gets mixed up. Pamuk’s Ka gets trouble for double truth among Turks, but in Europe Pamuk gets the Nobel. To Christians the Trinity is a paradox, while for Muslims it is a foolish contradiction. The difference can be deadly.
The appeal of double truth, however, has persisted throughout history in whatever forms it can safely find. It must. Within it probably lies, in fact, a single truth, a cohesive reason why people are drawn to opposing things. In simplest terms: We people are complex, and we do not fit into our own logics. Our worlds are not satisfied with single truths, though they might hold one’s attention for a little while. Now, a cycle. The single truth that explains double truth will fail to satisfy. It is the illusion, and double truth the truth.