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The forked sword of reality

The forked sword of reality

Life is all about meaning. And the meaning changes with perspective. How can we feel the prison experience of a prisoner hero or a robber is the same? The cell alone can be said to be the same: everything else is different.

To talk about this difference, between prison and prison experience, Paul Watzlawick introduced the distinction between first-order reality and second-order reality. This distinction, which is a simplification of an older wisdom, can have great operational value not only for those who, like the writer, are involved in psychotherapy and strategy.

The second-order reality refers to the meaning that we attribute to the first-order reality and that never detaches from it (contrary to what may appear, it is precisely the second-order aspects of reality that are the most “real” the facts of first-order reality are supposed).

A first way to appreciate the distinction or confusion between first and second order reality is offered by the ancient literal interpretations of the celestial vault, which are structured on the exquisitely Jewish idea that the sky is talking to you, using your alphabet . An example of this idea is the Hemisphaerium Australe Characterum Coelestium (which can be found in: Jacobi Gaffarelli, les Curiositèz Inovyes).

Another interesting way to understand the difference, or the confusion, between first-order and second-order reality (I prefer to say: between first-order aspects and second-order aspects of an idea) can be offered by the history of one of the most famous swords of humanity, the one that – so it is handed down – Muhammad gave to his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib (fourth caliph of Islam and first Shiite Imam).

Dhu l-fiqar is the name of this famous two-pointed sword.

A beautiful illustration in which Dhu l-fiqar is in Ali’s hands (‘Ali Holding His Sword, Dhu’l-Fiqar, Accompanied by His Sons, Hasan and Husayn – Harvard Art Museums / Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Francis H. Burr Memorial Fund).

The sword ended from hand to hand, until it was of the Caliph al-Mahdi (third caliph of the Abbasid dynasty). After him, the sword therefore ended up in the hands of his son al-Hadi (Mūsā b. Muḥammad).

As I said, this sword excellently describes the difference between first and second order realities. All those who had the honor of handling it knew, and believed intimately and sincerely, that it was “the best sword” and that there was no other better sword than that. At the same time and simultaneously, they knew equally well how to distinguish between first and second order realities.

Instead al-Hadi, who had a fighting spirit but not very wise, confused the differences between these two realities and decided to test the sword, considering it truly indestructible. The sword (first-order reality), despite being the best in the world (second-order reality), broke.

After al-Hadi’s death (i.e. after his probable killing), he was succeeded by the wiser brother Hārūn al-Rashīd, founder of the first Bayt al-Ḥikma (house of wisdom), and whom we remember with pleasure for his numerous appearances in “the thousand and one nights”, but this is another story and we will have to tell it another time.           

So we see that, from the beginning of time to today, few manage to understand and master the forked sword of reality.