Category Archives: Paradox

Making Us Think: Paradox and the Teacher


As Bob’s most recent posting suggests, Frye’s use of paradox is often Socratic in spirit, dialectical. I am reminded of one of my favorite passages in Frye concerning his teaching method, which appears in the introduction to The Great Code:

The teacher, as has been recognized at least since Plato’s Meno [80d-86c], is not primarily someone who knows instructing someone who does not know. He is rather someone who attempts to re-create the subject in the student’s mind, and his strategy in doing this is first of all to get the student to recognize what he already potentially knows, which includes breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows. That is why it is the teacher, rather than the student, who asks most of the questions. The teaching element in my own books has caused some resentment among my readers, a resentment often motivated by loyalty to different teachers. This is connected with a feeling of deliberate elusiveness on my part, prompted mainly by the fact that I am not dispensing with the quality of irony that all teachers from Socrates on have found essential. Not all elusiveness, however, is merely that. Even the parables of Jesus were ainoi, fables with a riddling quality. In other areas, such as Zen Buddhism, the teacher is often a man who shows his qualifications to teach by refusing to answer questions, or by brushing them off with a paradox. To answer a question . . . is to consolidate the mental level on which the question is raised. Unless something is kept in reserve, suggesting the possibility of better and further questions, the student’s mental advance is blocked. (Great Code, CW, 9)

I notice, incidentally, that one of the Notebook entries Bob has included makes reference to the dialectic of the two revelations, the human and the biblical, “the essence of the book” Frye is writing, that is, Words with Power: “the dialectic of Word and Spirit: the particular revelation in the Bible expanded and supplemented by the universal revelation of literature.”



“In the myth-metaphor world,” Frye writes, “all truth is paradox: a Hegelian thesis where thesis contains and implies antithesis, but lives with it and doesn’t transcend it. A is/isn’t B. This did/didn’t happen. Maritain derives the person or individual from the Incarnation, which releases the Self from the idolatry of things; but the individual doesn’t come from there: he comes from society. In insisting on this Marxism had the real principle. But it’s only in the individual that paradox can exist, as only Self can enter the interpenetrating world. I was always shocked by the Marxist use of ‘the masses’” [Late Notebooks 1:245].

“Whatever one thinks of the Tertullian paradox,” Frye also writes in The Late Notebooks (1:313), “the opposite of it is that trying to reduce belief to the credible is a waste of time and desolation of spirit.” The Tertullian paradox is a version of “I believe because it is impossible.” In De Carne Christi Tertullian set down the principle, “Credibile est, quia ineptum est; certum est, quia impossible” [“It is believable because it is absurd; it is certain because it is impossible”]. See Myth and Metaphor, 97–8. Frye probably encountered the epigram in Sir Thomas Browne, who quotes the last half of it in Religio Medici. See Sir Thomas Browne: The Major Works, ed. C.A. Patrides (London: Penguin, 1977), 70 (pt. 1, sec. 9). “One doesn’t bother,” Frye continues, “to believe the credible: the credible is believed already, by definition. There’s no adventure of the mind there. (Didn’t Coleridge say that Donne was a Christian because it would have been so much easier to be an atheist?) Belief is the Wright brothers getting a heavier-than-air-machine off the ground after the most distinguished scientists had ‘proved’ that it was impossible. In short, belief is the creation that turns the illusory into the real. Being kerygmatic, it emerges on the further side of the imaginative.” For this notebook entry, see Words with Power, 129. The Coleridge reference: “Themes that rule, while they create, the moral will––this is Donne! He was an orthrodox Christian, only because he could have been an Infidel more easily, & therefore willed to be a Christian: & he was a Protestant, because it enabled him to lash about to the Right & the Left–and without a motive to say better things for the Papists than they could say for themselves” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Marginalia, ed. George Whalley, 3 vols. [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984], 2:220)

And toward the end of the first volume of his Late Notebooks, Frye writes, “Man lives in two real worlds, one spiritual, the other natural, physical, or psychic. In the spiritual world God exists in us and we in him: a paradox that only metaphorical language can begin to express. In this world nature exists in us and we in it, but here the centralizing principle, or ego, is constantly trying to isolate itself. The spirit interpenetrates with its world but never violates: our interpenetration makes war, as Heraclitus said, the centre of all activity, [ ‘It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife’ (Heraclitus, fragment 26).] because it’s always withdrawing to objectify.”

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