Opposition, 8 – “Opposition”
Posted by joespencer on November 5, 2012
With my last post out of the way, we can turn finally to questions of actual interpretation. And I’d like to begin just with the word “opposition.” This will allow us, in the next post, to begin to tackle the whole of the first sentence of 2 Nephi 2:11. (To begin, I say. I’m not convinced we’ll be tackling much more than “all things” in that post, but even that would be a beginning.)
To address the meaning of “opposition,” we’ll need to do two different things. First, we’ll want to look at the word “opposition” and related words within scripture, and especially within the immediate context. Second, we’ll want to look at what light can be shed on the word, as it’s positioned in its immediate context, by looking at a couple of historical dictionaries.
Let’s get started.
Opposition in Scripture
All in all, forms of the word “opposition” appear in scripture twenty times: once in the Old Testament (in Job), four times in the New Testament (Acts, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy), nine times in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2; Alma 41-42; 51; 57; Helaman 1), three times in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 125 and the official declarations), and three times in the Pearl of Great Price (all in Joseph Smith’s history). What light do all these instances shed on 2 Nephi 2:11, if any?
First, it might be noted that many of these instances are instances of the verb, “to oppose.” Thus Job says to the Lord: “Thou art become cruel to me: with thy strong hand thou opposest thyself against me” (Job 30:21). Or, at the opposite end of things, Paul speaks of the “son of perdition” who “opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). Other instances in the Bible are similarly reflexive in construction: “when they opposed themselves” (Acts 18:6) and “those that oppose themselves” (2 Timothy 2:25). In the Book of Mormon, where the verb appears only in the context of war, the verb is never reflexive: the kingmen “durst not oppose but were obliged to maintain the cause of freedom” (Alma 51:7), the stripling warriors “did administer death unto all those who opposed them” (Alma 57:19), and an army of the Lamanites “did slay every one who did oppose them” (Helaman 1:20).
Both the reflexive and the non-reflexive constructions of this verb are instructive. The reflexive construction suggests that the word be taken to refer to a kind of positioning of oneself (there is, of course, a “pose” in “oppose”) with respect to something—whether “against” or “above,” etc. There is something defiant about opposition in this sense, a kind of self-determination that is meant to stand against something. For its part, the non-reflexive construction suggests something more humble. The verb then seems to indicate a kind of resistance to an obviously dominant power, one not to be trifled with. The verb thus seems to hover between defiant self-determination and desperate resistance.
But the verb is only the first of several forms the word takes in scripture. Closely related is the participial form. Interestingly, this appears only in Joseph Smith’s history, always in connection with Emma Smith’s family (“my wife’s father’s family were very much opposed to our being married” in JS-H 1:58 and “my wife’s father’s family . . . had become very friendly to me, and who were opposed to mobs” in JS-H 1:75), and in Official Declaration 2 (“any opposed by the same sign”). The word universally refers to a group of people, interestingly, and a group that, more specifically, have a certain feeling or inclination against something. In each case, moreover, the opposition in question is always set against something else that proposes itself first; there’s no hint of proposal and counter-proposal arising together, but of opposition being a kind of response to something with content (a marriage proposal, mob activity, an official motion in a meeting). The participle thus indicates a kind of belated reaction to a proposal of a sort.
And then there is the adjective, “opposite,” which come closer to the word we’re considering, “opposition.” The adjective appears twice in the Book of Mormon, both times in Alma’s discussion with Corianton, in a text where Alma is unmistakably drawing on Lehi’s teachings in 2 Nephi 2:11. In the first of these, Alma explains that “restoration” can’t have reference to placing something “in a state opposite to its nature” (Alma 41:12). In the second, with a clear nod to 2 Nephi 2:10, Alma speaks of “a punishment . . . affixed opposite to the plan of happiness” (Alma 42:16). The only other instance of the word is in D&C 125:3, where the term is geographical: “the land opposite the city of Nauvoo.” This last reference is easily dealt with: “the land opposite the city of Nauvoo” is the land on the other side of the river, so that “opposite” just means “facing X across a designated space.” This spatial or geographical use is perhaps not terribly distinct from the uses of the word in Alma 41-42. To couple “opposite” with “affixed” is to confirm the spatiality of the metaphor: punishment and happiness are positioned at extremes, facing one another across a certain separating distance. Perhaps the other use in Alma is less obviously spatial, though. There Alma has reference to opposed states, to ways of being, perhaps, that are incommensurable. But perhaps there’s something spatial about this talk as well, with distinct states being pictured in a kind of hierarchical taxonomy (I’m picturing an Aristotelian diaeresis, for instance). At any rate, the use of “opposite” in Mormon scripture is somewhat different from the use of “to oppose,” “to oppose itself,” and “opposed.” While the verb and its participle refer to self-determining resistance, a certain response to what already exists, the adjective “opposite” seems to indicate spatiality and co-existence. The land of Nauvoo and the land opposite Nauvoo both exist in a certain spatial field from the beginning; opposition doesn’t need to be created or produced or brought into existence, but is always there (though it may need to be seen or brought out). Punishment might need to be affixed opposite happiness in God’s plan, but the space of happiness’s opposite, whether or not punishment is actually affixed there, would seem to exist. The same can be said of opposed states, etc. With the spatiality of the adjective comes a kind of ready opposedness, an opposedness existent from the time that the space itself existed. It may be necessary to fill the space, to establish something in the opposition that has a bearing on human beings, but the opposition itself would seem, in a sense, always to have been there.
Finally, let’s come to the noun, “opposition” itself. Unlike the participle and the adjective, this word actually does appear in the Bible, but only once, and only in a plural form. We find this in 1 Timothy 6:20: “avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions [anthiseseis, literally 'antitheses'] of science falsely so called.” The meaning of the phrase might be clarified by referring to another translation: “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (NRSV). In the Book of Mormon, the word appears only in 2 Nephi 2, which we’ll be coming to in a moment. Elsewhere in uniquely Mormon scripture, it appears in Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants—”with the laws of the nation against [the practice of polygamy] and the opposition of sixty millions of people”—and Joseph Smith’s history (1:20) in the Pearl of Great Price—”Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?” This word is, I think it’s clear, a little harder to pin down. In the biblical reference, the word seems to have references to inconsistency, even contradiction—and that in the plural. In the official declaration, it seems to have reference, like the verb and the participle, to a kind of resistant response. In Joseph’s history, it seems to have reference, thanks to its coupling with “persecution,” to something more actively vicious. How might these instances clear up 2 Nephi 2?
Well, it’s probably worth looking closely at the use of “opposition” in 2 Nephi 2:10-11, 15, at last, then.
The word appears first in verse 10: “Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement . . . .” There are some major difficulties in interpreting this passage, chief among them the lack of a verb, or at least the interruption of a sentence before a verb appears. But ignoring those difficulties for the moment, what can be said about the word “opposition” here? At least this: here, as in Alma 42, opposition is a question of things being affixed, and so we seem to be dealing again with a spatial metaphor. So it seems, but then we should notice the strangeness of the locution. In Alma 42, it’s a matter of something being affixed “opposite to” something else; here, however, it’s a matter of something that is affixed being “in opposition to” something else. The difference between 2 Nephi 2 and Alma 42 here is significant. The apparent spatiality of “opposition” falls away here: there is an affixing, but it’s not an affixing opposite to; instead, what is affixed is, perhaps regards of its being affixed, in opposition to. What does all that mean?
In opposition. That’s what has to be thought uniquely here. What does it mean for something to be “in opposition to” something else? And what light is shed on this by the fact that we’re dealing with things like “punishment” and “happiness”? Or at least with “the inflicting of the punishment” (and “the inflicting of the happiness,” perhaps)?
And then we look at verse 15, which gives us the word “opposition” twice: “And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.” Notice that we get the locution “in opposition to” here again. We also get a construction not unlike the one that appears in verse 11: here “it must needs be that there was an opposition,” and in verse 11 “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things.” With talk of the opposition between “the forbidden fruit” and “the tree of life,” it might seem that we’ve returned to a kind of spatiality, a kind of basic geographical orientation for the whole of Eden. But I think that’s misleading. It must be of significant that we don’t get an opposition here between two trees, or between two kinds of fruit, but between fruit on the one hand and a tree on the other. Why that asymmetry? Why should the fruit of the one tree be in opposition to the other tree as such (and not to its fruit)? Of course, the passage goes on to talk about “the one being sweet and the other bitter,” but it isn’t clear how to think about that. Is the claim that the tree of life is itself sweet? Or is its fruit sweet? All of these difficulties have to be thought about.
And then we’ve got to consider the “an opposition” business. What significance is there in the indefinite singular article that precedes “opposition”? Elsewhere in 2 Nephi 2, as we’ve seen, opposition is a generalized state of sorts that something is in. Here, though, we’re dealing with an opposition, and one that can “be” or, apparently, “not be.” How should we think about the relationship between opposition as a generalized state that something can be in, and opposition as a singularizable or perhaps localizable thing that can be or not be? (The philosopher in me can’t help but think of Plato here: opposition as a “form” in which things can participate, and which can nonetheless instantiate itself in singular instances.) Is opposition a certain way of being, for Lehi? And how do things assume that way of being? That “the forbidden fruit” is in opposition to “the tree of life” is curious in this regard. Is the opposition created simply in that the fruit is forbidden? There doesn’t seem to be any offering of the tree of life, etc., that parallels the sanction on the fruit of the other tree. Does the tree of life become the tree of life simply in that the other tree’s fruit is forbidden? Questions continue to proliferate.
And so we don’t seem to be a whole lot closer to the meaning of “opposition” in 2 Nephi 2:11. All we’ve ended up with is a series of complications. So let’s see where we might get by turning to a few historical dictionaries.
Opposition in the Dictionaries
To begin with, I turn to Webster’s 1828 dictionary. For those unacquainted with this resource, you might consider its usefulness: the first edition of Webster’s dictionary was issued in 1828, right at the time Joseph Smith was working on the translation of the Book of Mormon; the result is that we have a nice snapshot of how language was being used in America—more among the learned than among the unlearned, granted, but not unhelpful for that reason. So what do we find there?
Here’s the entry, in its entirety, for “opposition”:
OPPOSI’TION, n. [L. oppositio.]
1. Situation so as to front something else; a standing over against; as the opposition of two mountains or buildings.
2. The act of opposing; attempt to check, restrain or defeat. he makes opposition to the measure; the bill passed without opposition. Will any opposition be made to the suit, to the claim or demand?
3. Obstacle. the river meets with no opposition in its course to the ocean.
4. Resistance; as the opposition of enemies. Virtue will break through all opposition.
5. Contrariety; repugnance in principle; as the opposition of the heart to the laws of God.
6. Contrariety of interests, measures or designs. The two parties are in opposition to each other.
7. Contrariety or diversity of meaning; as one term used in opposition to another.
8. Contradiction; inconsistency.
9. The collective body of opposers; in England, the party in Parliament which opposed the ministry; in America, the party that opposed the existing administration.
10. In astronomy, the situation of two heavenly bodies, when distant from each other 180 degrees.
There are a few things here we’ve seen already. Definition 1 links up with the use of “opposite” in scripture; definition 2 matches the use of “to oppose” in the Book of Mormon; definition 3 is connected with the use of “to oppose itself” in the Bible; definition 4 echoes the use of “opposed” in scripture generally; and definition 8 has something to do with the use of “oppositions” in the plural in the Bible. If it’s clear that definitions 9 and 10 will be a little help in interpreting 2 Nephi 2, then what we have here that we haven’t seen are the several references to contrariety: “contrariety” generally, or “repugnance in principle” (definition 5); contrariety specifically of “interests, measures, or designs” (definition 6); and contrariety (or diversity) specifically of meaning (definition 7).
How does contrariety differ from contradiction? Technically, contradiction between two things implies that one of them must be true and the other false, while contrariety between two things implies only that at least one of them must be false (they can’t both be true, but they could both be false). To illustrate the difference: (1) We’re dealing with contradiction when we deal with the opposition between “I smoke” and “I don’t smoke.” One of the two must be true, and the other must be false. (2) We’re dealing with contrariety when we deal with the opposition between “I’ve quit smoking” and “I haven’t quite smoking.” It can’t be that both are true (it can’t be that I both have and haven’t quite smoking), but it could be that both are false (if, for instance, I never began to smoke in the first place). Both contradiction and contrariety indicate an essential sense of opposition, since to hold contradictories or contraries true is to yield an inconsistency; but they differ in that they have different relationships to the false.
We’ve already dismissed definitions 9 and 10 out of hand. Are there any others that we can dismiss so as to decide which might shed real light on the text? We’ve already said that questions of spatiality seem to drop out in 2 Nephi 2, so it seems we can dispense with definition 1. Given the sorts of things we’re dealing with in 2 Nephi 2, it also seems wrong to speak of opposition here as an “act of opposing,” no? So I think we’re safe to set aside definition 2 as well. The rest of the definitions, though, seem like they might be helpful.
Generally speaking, as we’ve seen, Latter-day Saints hear in Lehi’s words a use of either definition 3 or definition 4—”there must needs be obstacles in all things” or “there must needs be resistance in all things.” (We’ve even seen, you’ll remember, that one translation of this passage into another language rendered “opposition” as “resistance.”) On this common or popular interpretation, Lehi’s talk of opposition is a kind of warning that nothing easy is worth much, that everything of value will cost us a bit of work, that we should expect, even in a good life, to face difficulty and trial. Now, it is possible to read Lehi’s words in this way—there is, as I say, a long history of doing so—but it must be recognized that it cuts against the grain of Lehi’s words themselves. Lehi’s does not say that “there must needs be opposition in all things” but “there must needs be an opposition in all things.” That indefinite article is perhaps a bit strange, but we’ve got to deal with it, and it seems to make problematic any reading of “opposition” as resistance or the presence of obstacles.
Of course, one might object that Lehi’s talk of opposition comes in the course of a sermon directed to Jacob, whose life has been troubled from the very beginning by the rudeness of his brothers, and whose afflictions Lehi says will be consecrated for his gain. That’s right, but it isn’t clear that there’s a direct link between Jacob’s troubles, mentioned in the first verses of the sermon, and the theme of opposition, which comes in the context of discussing the opposition between punishment and happiness. True, Lehi suddenly addresses Jacob anew as his “first born in the wilderness” at the beginning of verse 11, but there’s no other hint at all here that “opposition” as Lehi wants to think about it has anything to do with affliction, trial, or difficulty. And there’s every evidence that he’s interested in something else. I think it’s best if we dismiss definitions 3 and 4 as well.
That leaves us with either contrariety or contradiction, which we’ve already distinguished. Of the several definitions that mention contrariety, it is definition 7 that would seem to be most relevant. Definition 5 refers to a person being contrary, to someone feeling repugnance, and that doesn’t seem to be what Lehi has in mind. And definition 6 refers to interests, measures, or designs, which doesn’t seem to be what Lehi’s after either, since it seems that God’s intentions (this is especially clear in verse 15), His “interests, measures, or designs,” require opposition but are themselves opposite to someone else’s intentions. Opposition seems not to be something staged by someone so much as something simply at work in things, something ontological, real, just there. The consequence seems to be that “opposition” would mean, if the definitions on offer in Webster’s 1828 dictionary are exhaustive enough, either contrariety pure and simple or contradiction pure and simple. Which of these makes more sense of Lehi’s words?
There’s a part of me that leans toward contrariety because it’s a bit more “open,” by which I mean just that contradiction seems to require that one of any two paired opposites must be true, while contrariety allows for the possibility that both opposites are false together. Contrariety leaves open the possibility that something might be neither good nor bad, for instance, while contradiction would seem to imply that something has to be either good or bad. But perhaps contradiction is just as accommodating in this regard, given that “opposition” is qualified by the indefinite “an.” We’re not told that every possible thing has to be characterized by one or the other of every possible set of opposite qualities; rather, that there is an opposition in all things, which may only imply that nothing is without some qualifying term. And anyway, in the remainder of 2 Nephi 2:11, the neither/nor construction is always applied only to a world in which, hypothetically, there are no opposites.
And further, it may be important that contrariety from definition 7 can only be used to speak of opposed terms, while contradiction from definition 8 can simply refer to a kind of inconsistency. In speaking of contradiction, we can talk about contradictory terms, but we don’t have to. We might speak simply of inconsistency, of a kind of fundamental instability. This is an attractive possibility. We’ve already seen how some interpreters note that the opposition of this first sentence seems to be a kind of indeterminate, fundamental, global opposition that allows for the possibility of other determinate, contingent, local oppositions (like the ethical and existential oppositions that have to be “brought to pass,” etc.). Might it be that this one opposition spoken of in the first sentence of 2 Nephi 2:11 is a termless, indeterminate opposition, a kind of basic ontological inconsistency that allows for the possibility of the oppositions that structure the world (or worlds) we experience? Perhaps, in other words, what we have in the one opposition that must needs be in all things is an indeterminate contradiction or basic inconsistency that allows for or gives rise to determinate contrarieties that give shape to things as we experience them.
Such is the interpretation I’d like to play with as I work through the posts that remain in this series. It seems best to me, given the fact that all the actually-listed oppositions have to be “brought to pass,” to take this first, indeterminate opposition to be something still more fundamental, and something that doesn’t necessarily have a way of being translated into familiar terms.
This is strengthened, I think, if we take the phrase “a compound in one” to be a further description, as we’ve seen it might be, of there being “an opposition in all things.” But I think it’ll be necessary to come back to this point later. For the moment, we’ve at least settled on an interpretation of “opposition” in the first sentence of 2 Nephi 2:11. What’s next?
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