Pax Idem: Sameness and the Difficulty of Diversity

“They should all just get with the program and change to the right”, says one commenter. Some countries are “just stubborn”, says another. These are some of the tongue-in-cheek comments appearing underneath a world map posted on twitter. The map indicates which countries drive on the right (i.e. left-hand) side of the road and which drive on the wrong (i.e. right-hand) side. [1] Wait! What?

Sweden switches traffic left to rightNo, I too am of course only joking about one side being ‘right’ while the other is ‘wrong’. This example of cross-cultural banter did, however, bring to mind a common approach to dealing with uncomfortable differences: an insistence on sameness or uniformity as a prerequisite for mankind’s Progress towards Peace. History is understood as some ‘program’ along which we progress. We ultimately hope to get everyone on the same page, or side of the road if that’s what it takes. Even those ‘stubborn’ Enemies of Peace ought to get with the ‘program’ eventually.

Whether Peace refers to the world at peace or simply our own inner worlds at peace, we share a desire for it. In fact, our lives largely consist of (failed) attempts at bringing it about. What we do not share is an understanding of what it is, why we are not enjoying it right now and how it ought to be brought about. What often follows is the popular solution of Pax Idem or, ‘Peace by Sameness’.  The idea that Peace is found through a doing away with our differences. Unfortunately, much like Pax Romana of old, this peace is all too often offered as a Caesarian edict: obey peacefully, or else!

Dealing with differences is difficult. We typically opt for one of two ways to deal with it. On the one hand we insist that all that is different must conform and become the same. We tend to call it unity. On the other hand we insist that everyone conforms to the idea that what appears to be different is actually the same. We tend to call it diversity. Each position merely expects what is different to conform to itself. We struggle to exist within the tension between unity and diversity.

Ellis Potter

Earlier this year, I attended a Worldviews seminar in which Ellis Potter gave his 3 Theories of Everything talk. Drawing from what he shared I will consider an underlying Monistic worldview, and its understanding of ‘what went wrong with the world’, as a belief system that encourages the insistence on Sameness. Monism, in short, is the doctrine that ascribes Oneness to all things, often leading to the belief that ‘all is one and all is God’.

Potter posits that all people approach life with some basic prejudice, adding that we approach it with a prejudice towards life rather than death. In an adaptation of the famous Cartesian cogito from ‘I think therefore I am’ to ‘I hurt therefore I am’, he emphasised how we approach reality from the (experiential) realisation [2] that ‘something’ is wrong. And hence follow our attempts to set things right, i.e. bring about Peace. While we might not agree about what Peace is, many agree that the solution is to be derived from something that is and did go wrong. But what exactly did go wrong?

Potter, a former Zen Buddhist monk, introduced Monism as one approach towards ‘Peace as Sameness’. This worldview originates from India and is foundational to Hinduism and Buddhism but is not necessarily limited to these belief systems. The Monistic view is a response to the observation that the world consists of very strong unities along with much diversity. Unities are deemed stable and faithful while diversities appear unstable, disruptive and problematic. I will use the sky above us, as example. On the one hand we know that there is only ever one expanse to which we refer as the sky while on the other hand we refer to the day-time and night-time skies as if they are two different and opposite entities. The same could be said of the different seasons which are all one prolonged phenomenon, influenced by the same rotation of the earth around the sun. So too, land and water are ‘opposites’ used to describe the earth itself. All these are experienced very differently and yet each is enjoyed and appreciated in its own right. Each is so different, yet uniquely enjoyable and beautiful.

In giving different names to different parts or manifestations of supposedly the same thing, we are seen to create meaning where no actual meaning exists. This is considered problematic. Debates arise about whether summer or winter is better. Or, whether the night is too scary and miserable or the day too cheery and busy. No serious conflicts arise from these differences but what about those contributing to our more serious misunderstandings and feuds? Our different sexes, religions, cultures, ethnicities, languages, persuasions and inclinations are seen to destabilise our one humanity, which is deemed stable. Apparent difference is said to distort actual sameness.

It is a fair observation of which we are all aware. But how do we interpret such observations and how do we go about finding Peace?

Monistic faiths hold to the idea that we all suffer because an illusion of diversity has entered our consciousness. The idea that there are things which are essentially different or ‘other’ to one another, is an illusion. All truly is one. ‘Otherness’ is a nightmare from which to wake up, i.e. we are to shed the darkness of night – which in truth only seems real because our eyes are closed – and become enlightened. Then we may embrace unity and enjoy stability. The goal or hope is to become one with all that is not disrupting the Peace. One could call it ‘becoming one with divinity’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘becoming free from all the non-divine meaning we ascribe to ourselves and our world’. Free from that which defines us as other than divine or True.

A crude (but perhaps accurate?) interpretation of what was further said by Potter is that diversity, which translates into movement, irregularity and (attempts at) meaning, is understood as rotating around an axis of ‘possibility’. This is the case in Buddhism, in particular. This axis is the possible One into which we will enter should we shed our illusion of diversity and meaning. It is pure Sameness with nothing to meaningfully distinguish from anything else – meaning causes suffering; it disturbs. This possibility is described as a pregnant ‘nothing’, that potential something we will enter once we have shed everything. It reminds both of Heraclitus’ pure potentiality and Sartre’s nothingness. It is the absolute unknown other into which ‘we’ – the confused self-aware beings who use the self-referential term I – dissolve once our misperceptions of ourselves and reality disappear along with self-awareness. All that remains is not-self and not-reality: nothing.

SamenessPotter emphasised that while Monism may have come to prominence through abovementioned Eastern beliefs, it is not necessarily absent among Westerners or others.

He provocatively pointed out that many Westerners conclude the Monistic understanding of reality to be true, not despite their Western worldview but because of it. A strong emphasis on – or perhaps misguided notion of – reason, as the means by which truth is known, developed in the West in the modern age. This leads people to conclude that because something is both logical and rational, we will necessarily deduce the true meaning of that something in the process. I.e. Westerners (and perhaps many Easterners too) ascribe to the idea that Truth is reached by making sense of things. Such Westerners might then conclude, ‘Monism makes sense to me’ or ‘… makes most sense to me’ and is therefore True. But! A story that makes sense is not necessarily true. A true account of events does not in itself reveal the true meaning of those events either. We are rather concerned with Truth as Peace, namely the true way of being and relating to all else.

My conclusion, in short, is that Monistic thinking is attractive because it is empowering and it is easy. It is empowering because it makes us one with Truth and easy because the problematic diverse ‘other’ by whom we are confronted, merely needs to be dissolved into this Truth with us.

All that said, why do you and I not just go ahead and dissolve into nothingness then? Why not do it without insisting on sameness or being frustrated by others for not getting with the ‘program’? The true Monist might ask the same questions. The true Monist understands that an insistence on sameness is a Truth claim and an ascription of meaning. The true Monist considers the idea of a self as other than the one reality, an illusion. It appears that, for the true Monist, we exist as a nightmare of self-awareness from which Divine Reality is hoping to wake up. In this nightmare, we are amongst the diversity of creatures through which it experiences its false existence. Once reality wakes up, the illusion of beauty, pain, happiness, nostalgia, love and all other judgements and experiences is no more. We are no more. We never were. The One existence continues, unnoticed.

But how can a perfectly peaceful existence become disillusioned in the first place and why are we, characters in its nightmare, concerned about  finding an answer? Oh right, we are not, we are merely the manifestation of a Divine Nightmare.

Potter continued his lecture by introducing Dualism as propagated through Far Eastern religions such as Taoism and Confucianism along with the Christian Trinitarianism, as the remaining two approaches towards life. Dualism seeks to restore balance between observed harmony and disharmony. Trinitarianism concludes that creation is restored through acts of self-emptying in order to turn self-centredness to other-centredness, initiated by an initial self-emptying act of God as ‘other’ to creation. [a version of the full talk can be viewed here]




[1] Considering some of the reasons why countries prefer either the right or left, we realise it has something to do with a recognition of the other and at times an other-centredness.

[2] Can realisations ever be non-experiential?


About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
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