When thought attempts to measure something it can only do so with reference to something else. Without standard references like inches or seconds, measurement has no meaning. The good or the beautiful can only be assessed in comparison with the bad or the ugly. Hot versus cold, clear versus opaque, meaning versus chaos – the list goes on.
Does this dualism exist outside of thought? If there is no thought trying to measure things, do these pairs of opposites persist? One might argue that ‘what is’ can be seen in a singular state, without reference to an opposite. In such a case the mind is not actively measuring, it is silent.
In the Kybalion it is said that opposites are identical in nature but different in degree. A degree being of course a measurement; a reference of something moving against something else that is fixed.
Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.
~ The Kybalion
Hot and cold are polar extremes and in their singular form are subjective assertions. Hot for one person might not be hot for another. However when two things are compared, the relative position between them becomes (perhaps ironically) an absolute truth. Day is warmer than night is an absolute statement of fact. But whether night is warm or cool is a subjective statement because it is made without reference to a standard.
Therefore the ‘degrees’ alluded to in the Kybalion should be considered carefully and not just taken for granted. Stating ‘everything is dual’ without specifying that everything is dual through the filter of rational thought, is irresponsible. In fact the rest of the quote above, when taken by itself, is hubris.
Man’s understanding of nature is based on interacting forces; they can attract or repel. Electric fields, magnetism, gravity and so on are what give nature its dynamic quality; they ‘cause’ things to move. The cycle of evaporation from the sea and the precipitation of rain is a ‘dance’ of the two opposing forces of buoyancy and gravity. The electrical discharge of lightning is the confrontation of two charged clouds. Even night and day fight it out so that the biosphere with all the earth’s flora and fauna can thrive.
With this knowledge, man can build scientific models that replicate nature and these models give him a degree of accuracy in predicting the future. They also give him the means to fashion nature into something more convenient for him; something that provides greater security from the many creatures large and small that want to eat us.
While science with its quality of absoluteness gives man a modicum of stability, we have already noted that man’s a priori experience of the world is subjective. Hot and cold are determined by him in accordance with his own relativistic experience that might not fit with someone else’s. It is only when two things are compared that absolute assertions of truth can be made objectively. From the unbounded vastness of relative experience emerges the bounded structure of absolute truth. This acknowledgement of the irrational as the cosmic source is quite poetic.
We have also posited that quality can be seen without measuring it; when the mind is silent. Feeling is singular. Everything is connected (mitakuye oyasin in the indigenous Lakota language). The beauty of a babbling river winding its way under a forest canopy is a singular feeling. The death of a loved one is also a singular feeling. These two feelings, one expansive the other implosive, are only connected to each other when they are compared by thought. And it is in this comparison that the so-called degrees between extremes of positive and negative are made.
The two statements in the Kybalion: everything is dual and everything has its pair of opposites can be combined to rebrand the first statement as nothing is dual. Which is not very helpful. Perhaps it redeems itself by going on to say all truths are but half-truths but by this point it would probably have been better not to say anything at all.
In its effort to awaken the latent intelligence or nous in sapiens, any wisdom can be easily reduced to hubris. From novelty we get dogma. In its quest to measure everything, thought is looking for a counterpart to itself, no less. Without its own opposite, its nemesis for reference, there can be no truth fashioned out of the conflict that comes inevitably between them.
This is the downside of philosophy, including the Hermetic doctrine. All truths are but half-truths. We think we understand philosophy but what we are actually doing is indulging thought in its penchant to measure. There is no peace to be found in this. In this sense, myths and legends succeed where philosophy fails.
The mind loves harmony and order but its weakness is its attraction to contradiction; to the point it can become fixated on by a problem. It wants to solve things; from petty personal things to grand existential things. And it is encouraged along its journey by a series of partial successes and affirmations. If you want to get someone’s attention don’t tell them the plain truth; instead feed them a contradiction. Mix truth with non-truth; the subtle contrast will be have a hypnotic effect.
If you can make the error barely perceptible then their curiosity will be piqued. Charm them with your positive reassurance while you express your flawed doctrine; they will learn to associate the good vibes they receive from you with the slightly disturbing error in your words. The contradiction becomes a fractal; both within the doctrine and between the doctrine and your reassurances. And more importantly, the contradiction is interpreted as being their error in understanding. It is a beautiful situation where the mind becomes trapped in a dilemma without any possible way out and yet drunk on the excitement that it offers. When this happens you are ready to start your own cult.
In its pathological form, the projection of error outwardly onto another is known as ‘gaslighting’. You should continuously feed your victim a suitable blend of sense and nonsense to keep their attention fixated. They will feel they nearly understand you and therefore will internalize the contraction that you have strategically planted. Your earnestness with the truth must be compensated with a sufficient dose of deceit. This may be playful deceit or it may be an act of war; it’s up to you.
A good piece of art (be it a fine Picasso or a rambling Bob Dylan score) will make just enough sense for you to follow along; the Pied Piper effect. But also enough nonsense to confound you so you are left facing your own subconscious impressions. If this two-pronged ‘assault’ of art succeeds then you will be fully onboard with it; not just intellectually but passionately. Because you won’t quite understand it.
Is that what the Kybalion is doing? Is it making enough sense to appeal to your intellect? Does the text make the suggestion that it will satisfy your burning existential curiosity? Does it appeal to your self-image of becoming an illumined one? Do you have a feeling that you sort of understand the text and that if you invest a bit more time then things will fall into place? If the answer is yes then congratulations you have been hooked!
However this should not be a cue to discard the Hermetic doctrine of the Kybalion. Perhaps this was its intention all along – to disarm the reader with its beautiful hubris so that you can eventually safely see through its persuasion as part of your initiation. The Kybalion is the first test. Most of its defensive readers will remain on the porch outside the temple, tethered to the illusory steadfastness of the pillars and principles; stoned on the aromatic haze of its mysticism. A few may laugh at the preposterous deceitfulness of the Kybalion, throw the book down and boldly enter the Temple of Hermes.