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Similarity, difference, and Plato's Timaeus
How to see the world rightly
Translated by Donald J. Zeyl
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In his late dialogue Timaeus, Plato describes our universe by imagining a sphere that contains invisible revolving circles of Similarity and Difference. These wheels become perceptible to us by studying the heavens—the sun, moon, and stars—which move in similarity and difference to each other.
The human soul, according to Plato, also contains revolving circles of Similarity and Difference, and when these wheels strike the Similarity and Difference in the world, there is a flash of recognition.
All this is invisible but sensed in the mind. And this is how we start to find our way through the world, by correctly identifying Similarity and Difference.
Similarity and difference in life
Although I admit I may not fully understand the scheme laid out by Plato here, his idea that the perception of similarity and difference in the world is fundamental to human rationality is something I’ve wondered about for some time.
The primary emotional and evaluative aspects of life often come down to a sense of similarity and difference, and our mind’s marshalling of evidence for either side.
On one hand, we often see similarity as good and difference as bad. People or things that feel similar to us or what we know can feel comfortable, like home. We immediately feel a bond with those who wear the same jersey as us, talk like us, think like us. People with similar personalities naturally get along. We often like “more of the same,” even when more is bad, simply because it is familiar.
Difference is often the opposite—it’s something to fear. It produces anxiety. It’s alien, foreign, confusing, or threatening. What we fear about the future is not that things will stay the same, but that they will be different.
On the other hand, there’s just as many feelings tied to the reverse. That which is similar can feel boring or bland. Too much similarity can feel uncanny and repulsive. Eating the same thing every day can lead to feelings of disgust. And often it’s the people who are most like us that make us the most angry. Your greatest rivals are those most similar to you, not the most different.
What’s more, there’s a great deal of pleasure in life associated with the mixture of similarity and difference. The art, music, literature, and movies that people like best have a mix of similarity and difference. They feel new, but they echo the old. A work of art can fail by being too similar to things done before or too different. Often the people we find most fascinating in life are like us and not like us at the same time. It’s that perfect balance between similarity and difference that we find endlessly fascinating.
Much of the emotional drama in our private lives can be understood as a dance of similarity and difference. Our spouse is so much like us, it drives us crazy. Or they are so different, they feel a million miles away. The mixture that attracted us in the beginning can leave us baffled later on. Over time, similarities may draw us together or the differences force us apart. Or we find someway to dance between them.
Children are a prime example of this tension because they are half your own genes and half someone else’s. You may notice how similar they are to you—and this might make you pleased or afraid for them. Or you may notice how different they are. They are you and not you, in an endless swirl. And being a good parent is somehow knowing how to support their similarities and differences equally.
Similarity and difference in society
The moral and political aspects of this interplay are obvious, and almost all of ethics and politics can be reduced to arguments for similarity or difference. “Treat people as if they were like you” is the moral ideal that most people agree on. And yet the comebacks are simply variations on “They are not like me at all! They are very different!”
“We shouldn’t eat animals. How would you like it if I ate you?”
“But humans are totally different than animals!”
“Actually, here’s how humans are very similar to animals…”
And now we are off to the races. If animals are similar to us, we ought to treat them like us. If animals are different than us, we ought to treat them differently. And wherever you fall in between is the moral line you draw.
You can pick any social issue out of the hat, and the question on the table is one of similarity or difference. Pro-life arguments depend on the similarities of a fetus to an adult; abortion rights arguments focus on the differences. Racism is a conflict between “we are the same” and “we are different.” Some say refugees are very different than citizens, while others point to common humanity. Cultural persuasion over issues of sexuality and gender seem to be effective not by pointing out differences but by pointing out similarities: These people are just like you, who want the things you want, and care about the things you care about. “Love is love” is an appeal to similarity.
As mentioned earlier, of course, it’s not entirely so cut and dry. Sometimes nations elect people who are very different because they want change. Sometimes people celebrate diversity and differences. Sometimes we want to repeat the past (the good old days), sometimes we try to avoid it (never again!). But the rhetoric regularly falls along lines of similarity and difference. Do you want more of the same or something different? You want to do the 1950s over again or do something that’s never been done?
These debates seem to go on endlessly and never quite resolve, mainly because (a) everything that exists is similar and different to everything else in countless ways, and (b) we are both attracted and repulsed by similarity and difference at different times and in different ways.
There are two ways to bring an end to these debates, and both of them are wrong, as I see it.
The first is to see everything as One. (Maximum similarity) At the most extreme, this view says that all differences are an illusion. Differences between individuals, creatures, consciousness, and the physical world. All divides are imaginary. The logic of mystics and saints is clear: Love everything in the world as if it were your very self because it is your very self.
But there’s also a darker version of this unitive vision—in which the Joker and Batman are not really different, for example. What we call Evil is just the other side of Good—the “We’re, not so different, you and I” supercut:
The unitive vision must ultimately forego such judgements. This works when one’s only responsibility is one’s self, but turns monstrous in the face of the suffering of others. Grave injustice? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What would we call the opposite position (Maximum difference)? I think of it as the “everyone dies alone” perspective in life. Everyone is so radically unique, so radically different from one another, that it’s simply impossible to truly ever know anything about anyone else. Similarities are illusory, and we only appear to connect with each other. Empathy never truly exists. You can never share your inner life, your experiences, with anyone. We are like stars in an expanding universe, moving farther and faster away, our light never touching.
This, too, is problematic because our very selves are formed through the act of imitation. The way we pronounce words, our gestures, our dress, our likes and dislikes, are mirrors of our experience. As anyone who’s ever been a rebellious teen knows, our own alienation expresses itself by imitating our peers. How can I be so different from the others when what I call “me” is a ball of string, collected from everyone around me?
Now it may turn out in the end that everything is One. Psychedelic experiences suggest this might be the case. But, as a practical matter, this view won’t get you past breakfast most days. In the same way, believing that everything is alienated from everything else is hard to maintain for long.
Both sides contain a deep insight about the nature of the universe, and both surely serve as a corrective against the other. But both seem unsatisfactory as methods to make sense of or resolve our moral, political, or interpersonal conflicts. This leaves us with two options:
There’s no way to resolve these things either way. And all these debates we have about “important” things are just a food fight of rhetoric, bits of human psychology flung willy-nilly in any direction to rationalize non-rational desires of attraction or revulsion.
Plato is right, and there is a way to see Similarity and Difference correctly—even though it is often a challenge and these distinctions are ever in motion, like spinning circles in a sphere.
Option 2 is what we call wisdom. Yes, everything in the universe is similar in some way. And that has epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic implications. And, yes, everything in the universe is different from everything else—and that too has implications.
What dimensions matter in a specific case is a question of judgement, a kind of perception, earned through experience. And keeping similarity and difference in mind, as a kind of heuristic, can be helpful in that process.
In our personal lives, we have to treat people as similar and different—as like us and not like us. Discovering both these dimensions of someone is important to knowing them and treating them right. In addition, we have to be open to being surprised. As children, we may think we are very similar to our parents, then, as adolescents, very different from our parents, only to find ourselves, in old age, increasingly like our parents—and then things start to make sense in ways they didn’t before. The child was somewhat right, but mostly wrong. The adolescent was somewhat right, but mostly wrong. The adult reaches wisdom, seeing the similarity and difference at the same time.
In public matters, we should be aware of similarity and difference in rhetoric. “So-and-so is like Hitler” is a crude example. But “Inflation today is like inflation in the 1970s” is a question to explore. How is it different? How is it the same? When people are pressing hard on similarities or differences, what are they missing? What’s the emotional valence they are giving to things or people being similar or different? When people describe the differences between, say, Baby Boomers and Gen Z, are they ignoring all the similarities?
One rule of thumb is this: The fiercer the insistence on difference, the greater similarity. And the more uniformity is enforced, the more likely we will be blindsided by differences.
I repeat my caveat again, that I may be getting Plato wrong here, but I think he still might agree that the goal of a just life, a good life, depends on matching the revolutions of our soul with the revolutions of the universe, and in this seeing similarity and difference in the right way. This is not easy or simple to do, because we are constantly being thrown off course and our perceptions are clouded. But grasping this insight may provide a map to better thinking and better living.
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