2 Nephi 2:11 – Opposition

Well, I’ve written another ridiculously long post. My apologies in advance.

We come, at last, to what’s arguably the most philosophical passage in the whole Book of Mormon: Lehi’s claims about opposition. Here’s the text:

For it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness—neither happiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one. Wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life, neither death, nor corruption, nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Even to get started on discussion, it seems to me, there are any number of preliminary considerations to be addressed. Feel free, of course, to skip past these, but be warned that I’ll be assuming what I “establish” in this first part of the post.


Right from the start, we need to note that there’s one textual issue here. The text as we have it—as we’ve always had it—reads “neither holiness nor misery” (just after the em-dash in the second sentence), but Royal Skousen has argued that it was originally (that is, in the no longer extant original manuscript) “neither happiness nor misery.” I’ll let you consult his argument yourself (see his Analysis of Textual Variants, vol. 1, pp. 494-495), but I’ll just state in advance that I’m convinced, and so I’ll be using the “restored” text for this discussion.

With that concern out of the way, let me turn immediately to another—this time a basic interpretive issue. The third sentence of the passage—“all things must needs be a compound in one”—can be and has been interpreted in two drastically distinct ways. The basic question is whether this “compound in one” business is meant to describe a fortunate (and actual) or an unfortunate (and only theoretical) state of affairs. That is, is “all things must needs be a compound in one” more or less equivalent to “there is an opposition in all things” or to “[all things are] one body”? The difficulty comes from the ambiguity of connecting the word “compound,” which seems to indicate the presence of opposition, with the word “one,” which seems to indicate the absence of opposition. A glance through the literature on this passage reveals that the phrase has been interpreted both ways, each about as much as the other, and almost never with any actual discussion of the difficulty.

The solution I propose, and I’ll assume the consequent interpretation in this discussion, is as follows. It’s necessary to see the four sentences of the passage as carefully structured, and in a way that sets up clear parallels between the first and third sentences, as well as between the second and fourth sentences. Thus, “for it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” is directly parallel to and (at least roughly) semantically equivalent to “wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one.” We might note how close in construction these two sentences are: the “for” of the one is echoed by the “wherefore” of the other, and both sentences uniquely use the phrases “all things” and “must needs be.” Much more obviously parallel and thus clearly confirming what I’ve just argued are the second and fourth sentences—each with a hypothetical conditional (“if not so . . . [something] could not be brought to pass,” “if it should be . . . [something] must needs remain”) and a series of oppositions (righteousness/wickedness, happiness/misery, and good/bad; life/death, corruption/incorruption, happiness/misery, and sense/insensibility). All this suggest to me, quite straightforwardly, that the whole “compound in one” business should be interpreted as referring to the “positive” actuality of opposition obtaining in all things.

If all that’s clear, what might be said about the relationship between the two series of oppositions (in sentences two and four)? It’s important to note that, apart from the curious and largely out-of-place repetition of the happiness/misery couple in the second series, there seems to be a difference between the kinds of things listed in the two series. The first series—righteousness/wickedness, happiness/misery, good/bad—seems to be largely ethical in nature, while the second series—life/death, corruption/incorruption, sense/insensibility—seems to be, basically, existential. And there’s good reason to think that each of these series has to be distinguished from the singular opposition (“an opposition”) that, according to Lehi, inhabits or haunts “all things.” If we call that fundamental opposition ontological, then we can say that we’ve got three distinct sorts of oppositions to deal with in this passage: the ontological (apparently singular and universal), the ethical (an open-ended series of oppositions that have to be “brought to pass”), and the existential (another open-ended series of oppositions, but ones that are “had”). I’ll use these basic distinctions regularly in this discussion.

One final consideration to get out of the way from the beginning. There is a very long-standing devotional interpretation—better: appropriation—of 2 Nephi 2:11 that, frankly, doesn’t make much sense of the text, namely, that Lehi is telling us something about facing adversity or hardship. The idea is, basically, that when Lehi says that there is opposition in all things, he’s pointing out that none of us will escape passing through “trials in our everyday lives,” and he provides an apparently profound philosophical justification for all that suffering (opposition is absolutely necessary to meaningful existence as such). This interpretation/appropriation isn’t entirely unjustified exegetically, since the whole of Lehi’s discourse here opens with him saying a bit about “afflictions,” etc., but it’s still exegetically naïve in certain ways. As the verses immediately before and immediately after verse 11 make clear, Lehi’s primary focus is on the kind of “opposition” that is introduced into “all things” by law, and the “repetition” of this discussion of opposition in the second half of the sermon (in its narrative form) will emphasize the necessity of knowing “misery” in order to have joy, of knowing “sin” in order to do good—experiences that seem to have a great deal more to do with moral corruption and rebellion against the divine than with temporal struggles and mental anguish. Whatever the merits, then, of using Lehi’s words to make sense of suffering, I’ll keep my focus on what Lehi seems to be saying about the role played by the law.

So much for preliminary considerations. I might note that I’ve dealt at the Feast blog with some other preliminaries on this passage. You might, for instance, take a look at my three-part summary of the history of interpretation of this passage (in the twentieth century): here, here, and here. I’ve also dealt with some of the major translations of this passage into non-English languages, translations that reveal a bit more of a history of interpretation, as well as, more radically, the profound instability of this text: see here, here, here, and here. (I might note that I’m currently in the process of transforming these four posts on translation into a much more concise article that’ll hopefully appear in print.)

Now, on to some actual discussion!

All Things

In an attempt to curb my obsessive (and, of course, impossible) desire to be comprehensive when I tackle scripture, I’ll limit myself to assessing just two questions. The first concerns what Lehi calls “all things,” which I take to be the semi-subtle focus of the entire passage: the first and third sentences make “all things” the direct object of their focus, and the second and fourth sentences tell us something about what holds among “all things.” The second question I’ll address concerns the verbal constructions of each of the four sentences (“must needs be that there is,” “could not be brought to pass,” “must needs be,” and “must needs remain as”) that form the backbone of Lehi’s several claims about “all things.” Between these two issues, I’ll really only have attempted to get a basic sense of what Lehi’s philosophical gesture is.

To begin with, then: all things. I’m going to offer a markedly theological interpretation of this phrase as it’s used throughout the canon, throwing the supposed rigor of historically-grounded exegesis to the winds. I’ll take the guiding principles of strict theological concern as my sole guide.

Well, let me begin with one exegetically responsible point: The phrase “all things” (which appears almost six hundred times in scripture!) seems most often to be a simple phrase referring to the whole of what God created. Even where “all things” doesn’t have an explicit link to creation, it generally makes good sense of the text to provide such a link. I won’t list instances more generally (I’ve done so in another one of these 2 Nephi 2:11 posts at the Feast blog), but I will note that a few such explicit connections between “all things” and creation are to be found right in 2 Nephi 2: verse 14 says of God that “he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon”; verse 15 refers to “our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created”; and verse 22 refers again to “all things which were created.” The general pattern connecting “all things” to creation, and these references in particular, make it relatively clear that “all things” in 2 Nephi 2:11 refers to the creation. (Verses 15 and 22 of 2 Nephi 2 are perhaps particularly important in this regard. The former not only speaks of “all things which are created” but states in a direct echo of verse 11 that “it must needs be that there was an opposition.” The latter, similarly, not only speaks of “all things which were created” but states in a direct echo of verse 11 that all those things “must have remained in the same state” had certain conditions not obtained.)

So I think we’re pretty safe in assuming from the get-go that the phrase “all things” in 2 Nephi 2:11 refers to what God has created. But that’s just to get started. Now I’ll leave my exegetical caution behind and put on my speculative theologian’s hat. Two “places” in the Bible are littered with references to “all things”: the Book of Ecclesiastes and Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. The Preacher and Paul seem to be doing quite drastically different things with “all things,” and I want to take the “debate” of sorts between them as a kind of backdrop for thinking about what Lehi’s doing with “all things” in 2 Nephi 2:11.

Ecclesiastes opens with talk of the circular nature of, well, nature. This circularity is meant to justify the Preacher’s despairing “vanity of vanities!” Here’s what he says:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turned about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. . . . The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7, 9.)

The sun, the wind, the waters—all these work in unending cycles, always working and never getting anywhere. Hence verse 8: “All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it.” (There’s actually an interesting play in the Hebrew here: kol hadebarim can be translated either as “all things” or “all words,” and the latter is obviously related to “man cannot utter it.” This is even clearer in the Hebrew. The verb for “utter” is dabar, from the same root as debarim.) Our introduction to “all things” in Ecclesiastes follows usage elsewhere—“all things” has reference to the creation: sun, wind, water, etc.—but it adds a note of striking melancholy: “all things” are in a certain sense pointless, going nowhere but nonetheless going, and working hard at it!

After this introduction of sorts, the Preacher begins to introduce his search for wisdom:

I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14.)

Uniquely positioned to seek for wisdom, he undertook the quest. And what did he find? Only that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” This is what he found when he went out looking for wisdom “concerning all things.” He can only describe that search itself as a “sore travail” (“an unhappy business,” the NRSV translates). By verse 18, he’s stating that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

This is a pretty bleak vision of “all things,” but it continues right through the Book of Ecclesiastes. In chapter 7, the Preacher applies his pessimistic accusation of vanity to the ethical realm: “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). What’s the point here? That supposed wisdom and supposed virtue aren’t worth as much as everyone seems to believe. He goes on (I’ll quote the clearer NRSV on this one): “Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise . . . . Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool . . . . It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18). And this follows immediately after the Preacher explains that “God also hath set the one [prosperity] over against the other [adversity]” (Ecclesiastes 7:14)—pointing out the role that opposition seems to play in “all things,” which the Preacher has seen to be pure vanity.

At this point it seems that the Preacher might be slightly—and significantly—expanding the meaning of “all things.” In chapter 1, it seems straightforwardly clear that “all things” just refers to “all things which have been created.” Here in chapter 7, though, it seems as if the “all” of “all things” is meant to bring opposites together. If the Preacher has seen “all things” in his vain days, it’s because he’s seen both that the just can perish in their righteousness and that the wicked can be prolonged in their wickedness. And the secret of life, for him, is to find a place between opposed extremes—neither too righteous nor too wicked, neither too wise nor too foolish; only thus can one find one’s way among the extreme opposites of prosperity and adversity. But even this, it seems, is vain: “all things,” despite the basic oppositions that structure them, end up in the same place. “God also hath set the one over against the other,” yes, but only “to the end that man should find nothing after him” (Ecclesiastes 7:14; in the NRSV: “so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them”).

If this last point isn’t as clear as it could be in chapter 7, it is in chapter 9. “All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath” (Ecclesiastes 9:2). Righteousness versus wickedness? Nah. Clean versus unclean? So what! Piety versus impiety? Grow up. Goodness versus sin? All the same. Honesty versus deception? Meh. Here again “all things” is made up of oppositions that divide and differentiate, and yet those differences are in a sense pointless: “This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). “All things”—not only vain, now, but evil, because there’s “one event” that indifferentiates all differentiation. (It isn’t hard to guess that the “one event” would be death, no?) Opposition, yes, but, according to the Preacher, pointlessly so.

There’s much to be thought about with this formulation: an event (miqreh, literally, a chance happening—the NRSV’s “fate” is overdetermined) that indifferentiates oppositional differentiation, calling into question every supposed “point” that might give “all things” an essential orientation. I could go on for some length on the theological possibilities bound up with this formula, but I want to follow the Preacher’s attitude toward it—which is depression, frustration, and an evil regard. And what does the Preacher propose to do in the face of this “event,” in the face of the apparent pointlessness of “all things”? His answer comes in chapter 10, and it is the most depressing moment in all of Ecclesiastes: “Money answereth all things” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). There’s the miserable “wisdom” of the Preacher. If “one event” indifferentiates all differentiation, stripping everything of its supposed purposefulness, one might as well counter that indifferentiation with one’s own—money, the indifferentiator. I could quote either Shakespeare or Marx on this one, no? When Timon digs up gold:

This much of this will make / Black white, foul fair, wrong right, / Base noble, old young, coward valiant . . . . / This yellow slave / Will knit and break religions, bless th’ accurs’d, / Make the hoar leprosy ador’d, place thieves, / And give them title, knee, and approbation / With senators on the bench. This is it / That makes the wappen’d widow wed again; / She, whom the spittle-house and ulcerous sores / Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices / To th’ April day again. (See Timon of Athens, act IV, scene iii, lines 28-30, 34-42.)

Or, from the infamous manifesto of 1848:

[Money] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has . . . left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. . . . [It] has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers. [It] has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation. (See Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, section 1.)

The point isn’t, here, to introduce politics. It’s only to point up the miserable “answer” the Preacher offers to “all things.” If opposition doesn’t serve the Preacher’s interests—and that because of the “one event” that keeps opposition’s differences from granting him his desires—his best response is to war against opposition by securing himself in the stronghold of liquid cash, the only thing that “answereth all things.”

Well, so much for the Preacher. What about Paul?

One of the several motivations that drove Paul to write his first letter to the Corinthians was a letter written to him by the saints in Corinth, and one of the claims they made in their letter—apparently in defiance of some of what Paul was teaching—was “all things are lawful.” Paul’s letter can be read as an attempt not exactly to refute but more nuancedly to complicate that claim. Thus for Paul, while it is indeed true that “all things are lawful,” it is truer that “all things are not expedient” (1 Corinthians 6:12); or again, while it is indeed true that “all things are lawful,” it is truer that “all things edify not” (1 Corinthians 10:23). The basic point of contention, it seems, was that where the Corinthians understood the basic differentiating oppositions held in place by the law to have been canceled or deactivated by the “one event” of Christ’s resurrection, Paul contended that the Christ event deactivated one set of oppositions and differences by introducing another, the more fundamental opposition between love and arrogance. For Paul, it was less that, after Christ, “all things are lawful” (even if that’s true in a way) than that “all things are new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

In a certain way, the Corinthians saints Paul sought to correct were the descendants of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher suggested that the indifferentiating force of the “one event,” coupled with a great deal of observational evidence, indicated an essential arbitrariness about God’s dealing with humankind: there is a lack of any consistent link between human behavior and divine reward. The Corinthians believed something similar, though they seem to have identified the “one event” less as (human) death than as (divine) resurrection. That event, for the Corinthians, uncoupled human behavior and divine reward in grace, allowing for a kind of radical freedom to pursue all of one’s perverse desires (oh, the sorts of things that were going on in Corinth!). The Corinthians saints reached a happier conclusion, in some ways, that their royal ancestor—resurrection in a happier prospect than death—but they nonetheless seem to end up quite as miserable as the Preacher, pursuing pleasure, status, money, etc. These “answer all things” as much for them as for their predecessor.

What is Paul’s “answer” to “all things,” however? The resurrection. It’s that event through which the Father “hath put all things under [Christ’s] feet,” though the process of conquest is only underway (1 Corinthians 15:27-28). And how is one to deal with “all things” in the meanwhile? Well, Paul explains, “the Spirit searcheth all things” (1 Corinthians 2:10), and “he that is spiritual [thereby] judges all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15). And the key to negotiating one’s way is love, since it’s love that “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). If this means that “all things” in some sense belong to those called (1 Corinthians 3:21), it must nonetheless be recognized that they were before alienated from all things: Paul says they were “the offscouring of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13) and even now that they “suffer all things” (1 Corinthians 9:12). But where they were nothing before, they’re now to become all things. How? Through a kind of accommodation that allows all to hear the message. Paul thus speaks of being “made all things to all men” (1 Corinthians (9:22) and of his care to “please all men in all things” (1 Corinthians 10:33), this in order to help cancel the false oppositions that structure the world—Greeks/Jews, wisdom/foolishness, honor/shame, bondage/freedom, male/female, etc.—and to allow for the real opposition grounded in the law of love to have its full, reorienting sway.

I could go on like this at much more length. I’ve not even mentioned all the references to “all things” in First Corinthians, nor have I mentioned more than one such reference in Second Corinthians, and I’m leaving off all of the other Pauline references that can be dug out as well. The point, I hope, is clear enough already. Yes, a certain indifferentiation is called for, but it’s rooted in the resurrection rather than in death. But more importantly, that indifferentiation is accomplished through a redifferentiation, rooted in a new fundamental opposition.

So much for both Paul and the Preacher. What, now, of Lehi? Well, in order to get at this, we have to sort out the basic logic of 2 Nephi 2:11, and that requires a turn to the meaning of the several verbal structures employed in the passage. I turn, then, to the next part of this post, at the conclusion of which I’ll have something, finally, to say about Lehi’s position in this “debate” of sorts. In the meanwhile, I’ll reassume the rigorous exegete’s posture.

Must Needs Be That There Is, Could Not Be Brought To Pass, Must Needs Be, Having

What’s the logic of 2 Nephi 2:11? Whatever it is, it would seem to be bound up with the several verbal constructions to be found in the passage. As I read the passage—I’ve already spelled out the details above—we have (1) two statements (sentences one and three) about what I’m calling “ontological opposition,” some kind of fundamental or base opposition that seems to ground other sorts of opposition, (2) one statement (sentence two) about ethical opposition, a set of oppositions that distinguish the good from the evil, and (3) one statement (sentence four) about existential opposition, a set of oppositions that distinguish forms of life. Each of these has its own verbal construction: (1) ontological opposition is something that “must needs be” (though in two different constructions, the difference between which may prove important), (2) ethical oppositions are things that must “be brought to pass,” and (3) existential oppositions are things that are “had” (this last in a rather complicated verbal structure that we’ll have to sort out). What needs to be said about all this?

In sentences one and three, we get statements of necessity. There’s apparently no way around ontological or fundamental opposition—whether we want to talk about this in terms of “an opposition in all things” or whether we want to talk about this in terms of “all things” being “a compound in one.” Although the next verses, along with the narrative of the sermon’s second half, will seem to suggest that the contingent imposition of law (“Don’t!”) is what allows for or even produces opposition, these two sentences seem to indicate a sort of opposition more fundamental that whatever opposition or oppositions law brings into existence, seem to indicate a sort of opposition the necessity of which is irrecusable, a basic ontological fact of the universe as such. Why do I say so? Sentence one suggests this through the employment of the indicative rather than the subjunctive mood: “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things,” not “it must needs be that there be an opposition in all things.” What we have here is, in logical terms, a statement about a statement: the statement “there is an opposition in all things” is, Lehi claims, necessarily true (“it must needs be that”). Sentence three suggests an unproducible opposition more fundamental than any producible opposition in its own way. It’s no statement about a statement, sure, and it uses only the subjective in its “must needs be,” but it’s hard to understand how any kind of intervention—even a divine one—could take what isn’t “a compound in one” and make it “a compound in one.” Further and finally, the fact that each of these sentences provides the contours of the antecedent of the conditional stated in the sentence that follows it (sentence two’s “if not so”; sentence four’s “if it should be one body”) makes clear that what each describes (“an opposition in all things”; “all things [being] a compound in one”) serves as something like a condition of possibility for those other sorts of oppositions—ethical and existential—that are indeed brought to pass.

Okay, my apologies for the remarkable exegetical and philosophical complexity of that last paragraph, but I think it’s necessary work—even if, as I suspect, I’ll have to explain what on earth I was saying. The point, in a sentence, is that sentences one and three seem to indicate that “ontological opposition” is simply the way things are, is simply there, and that it’s something that allows for the possibility of other sorts of oppositions—less ontological than logical, less a matter of being than a matter of appearing—being produced. We’re being told, it seems to me, that there’s a kind of basic inconsistency at work in what is, an inconsistency that possibilizes (but, it seems, doesn’t actually necessitate) the differential structure of actual experience. That’s still too philosophically laden, but I’m not sure how to make it less so yet.

We’re already on our way to a basic interpretation of what’s said in sentences two and four. In sentence two, the ethical oppositions (righteousness/wickedness, happiness/misery, good/bad) are things that have to “be brought to pass.” But, we’re told, they can’t “be brought to pass” if the basic, ontological opposition of sentence one isn’t in place. That much we’ve already glimpsed. What’s particularly striking about the “be brought to pass” phrasing, however, is the suggestion that among the necessary conditions one finds, not only ontological opposition, but also some kind of intervention. The claim here isn’t that, if it weren’t for “an opposition in all things,” the ethical oppositions wouldn’t come to be; it’s rather that, if it weren’t for that basic opposition, the ethical oppositions couldn’t be brought to pass. There’s some other condition in addition to the basic, possibilizing opposition that lies at the inconsistent kernel of things, apparently an active force—since the ethical oppositions are brought to pass (again, instead of come to pass). When we take sentences one and two together, we recognize that ethical opposition—the basic differences between good and bad, between happiness and misery, between righteousness and wickedness, etc.—(1) are impossible without a still more basic opposition obtaining at the core of things and (2) are brought to pass through some kind of intervention or imposition or creation. Presumably, we’re here treading on the ground of the opposition-introducing law that’ll be discussed in the next verses.

Sentence two, I should think, is clear enough at this point. What of the much more complicated verbal construction of sentence four? Here we don’t have a straightforward “could not be brought to pass,” but rather a “must needs remain as dead, having no” (I’ve somewhat deceptively described this above merely as a “having”). What’s going on here? The straightforward “if not so” of sentence two is here replaced with a more-fully-fleshed-out “if it should be one body.” This “should be one body” is, I think, a straightforward denial of what sentence three calls “be[ing] a compound in one” (I’ve provided my argument for this above, in my “preliminaries” section)—but whatever straightforwardness there is about it, it’s still a curious way of denying the necessary condition described in sentence three. (I suspect it’s the repetition of “one” in these two sentences that leads so many to interpret sentence three the way I’m not interpreting it here.)

All things must needs be a compound in one: a kind of inconsistent fusion, a weaving together of so many elements in a way that refuses to congeal into a complete totality. If it weren’t so, Lehi tells us, we’d have “one body,” an uncompounded homogeneity that couldn’t ground any other oppositions? What sorts of oppositions do we now have in mind? Existential oppositions: life versus death, corruption versus incorruption, sense versus insensibility—all oppositions that allow what lives to have an inside and an outside, a permeable border across which activity and passivity play out their drama. Well, it isn’t hard to see how these would be rendered impossible if there weren’t some kind of compoundedness about “all things.” If there really were some kind of fleshly homogeneity (not that it makes any sense to speak of flesh when dealing with the homogeneous), that flesh would have to be “as dead,” without any actual form of life—since life is precisely the give and take across fleshly boundaries.

Again the basic conditionality in question is clear. The basic, ontological opposition (sentence three) serves as the condition of possibility for other oppositions, here existential (sentence four). And again we see that we’re dealing only with a condition of possibility, not a cause that drives necessity: we’re not told that the mere fact that there is a compound in one entails or ensures that there will be life/death, corruption/incorruption, happiness/misery—only that the former makes the latter possible. Again, it seems, we can only get from ontological opposition to other oppositions through the intervention of a Creator—and this may well again be a matter of law, as the especially the narrative second half of the sermon will suggest. We have, then, the same logic as before—as in sentences one and two, that is—and yet it’s phrased in terms of “must needs remain . . . , having no.” Not “could not be brought to pass” but “must needs remains as dead.” The point, it seems, is not just to mark impossibility where the condition of possibility doesn’t obtain; it’s also to mark the kind of incessant continuity that would follow from a consistent ontological base.

What, though, of this “having” business? I’m afraid that would take me too far afield, and I’ve been far too thorough (not long-winded! I promise!) in this post. So let me take what we’ve discovered and come back to what Lehi seems to be doing with his “all things.” How does what Lehi’s doing here connect (or not) with the Preacher and with Paul?

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes and the Paul of First Corinthians agreed on one crucial point: that “one event” problematizes the basic structuring oppositions of appearance and experience. For both Paul and the Preacher, differences are indifferentiated by an event that cuts across them. Of course, the event in question seems to have been death for the Preacher, but the resurrection (of Christ) for Paul. Moreover, while indifferentiation leads the Preacher to a kind of nihilism (“Nothing matters, so let’s get rich, answering indifferentiation with another indifferentiation!”), it leads Paul in a drastically distinct direction: one need be nihilistic only about the fading order over which death reigned, because the resurrection of Christ—the triumph of the Messiah—inaugurates an era in which a new and fundamental difference takes hold, the difference between fidelity and unbelief, between hope and despair, between love and selfishness. For both Paul and the Preacher, the opposition-creating law is in a certain sense insufficient, but each sees quite differently what that insufficiency calls for.

Is Lehi even in the same ballpark? At the very least, it’s possible to see that the kinds of oppositions and differences to which the Preacher and Paul give their attention would have to fall within Lehi’s categories of ethical oppositions—surely not within his (singular) category of ontological opposition, and just as surely (though perhaps less obviously) not within his (multiple) category of existential oppositions. What the Preacher frets over is the indifference between good and evil, between wickedness and righteousness, between happiness and misery, in the face of death. And what Paul sees disappearing with the Messiah’s triumph is the set of supposedly ethical differences established by the law. (I should note that “ethical” is the right term for Paul, and not “moral”—though the latter might well fit what concerns the Preacher as well. I’ll leave an explanation of these distinctions, though, for another time.) That Lehi acknowledges the fact that ethical oppositions have to “be brought to pass,” apparently through the imposition of law (verses 12-13 again), marks a point of important continuity between him and his “interlocutors.” But what of the other categories of opposition Lehi introduces?

Well, it should strike us as interesting, I think, that the difference between the Preacher and Paul is ultimately the difference between their respective interests in death and life—that is, between the core existential opposition Lehi mentions. Indifferentiation is for the Preacher a function of the monolithic nature of death—as if there were no real opposition for him between life and death. It’s almost as if the Preacher says, against Lehi, that the supposed “compound in one” is, actually, “one body,” and so it ultimately has neither life nor death, etc. Everything remains, from beginning to end, “as dead.” Paul counters this, but in what might be called a kind of reactionary way. He privileges life—through the resurrection—but in such a way that death is swallowed up, done away with, deprived of any force. Paul as much as the Preacher indifferentiates the existential oppositions that must be had. Paul is as given to the logic of “one body” as the Preacher, it seems, though from the side of life-without-death rather than from the side of death-without-life. Better: Paul distributes these two sides into two historical eras, a before and an after of the Messiah’s triumph; there is the Preacher’s era, in which the one holds because death indifferentiates, and there is Paul’s era, in which the one holds because life indifferentiates.

Lehi differs from the Preacher and from Paul in that he affirms existential opposition as much as ethical opposition. Lehi, like all of his theological successors in the Book of Mormon, affirms a kind of atemporal or ahistorical atonement/resurrection. Although the event of the resurrection takes place in time, its force extends from the foundation of the world throughout history, and the before/after distinction is troubled, if not outright canceled. For Lehi, it’s as necessary to confront death as to confront life, as necessary to dwell in incorruption as it is to dwell in corruption. Every person is suspended, as it were, between the two, caught up in a real opposition that neither the Preacher nor Paul wants to deal with in its entirety.

And fascinatingly, it would seem that this set of oppositions—the existential—are quite as rooted in the law as the ethical set for Lehi. Perhaps this is why he distinguishes between the temporal and the spiritual law back in verse 5, why he’s so interested in the story of Adam and Eve in the second half of the sermon, etc. The temporal law establishes the one set of contingent (but crucial!) oppositions, and the spiritual law establishes the other set of contingent (but crucial!) oppositions.

And, of course, Lehi goes further, philosophically, than either Paul or the Preacher in terms of his interest in ontological opposition, that singular inconsistency at the heart of things. We might just say that Lehi draws all the consequences of his entanglement of the two sorts of contingent opposition. If the One doesn’t hold sway—if death and life are intertwined rather than radically separated—then it’s necessary to see that the without-One of being runs right to the core of things, to see that there is an opposition, a kind of basic inconsistency, at the very heart of things, in all things. What that opposition ultimately means is something we’ve only begun to think about, but it’s certainly of real significance. Perhaps philosophical readers have been right to think that Lehi is a particularly philosophical figure in the Book of Mormon, but we’ve not yet really even begun to assess his claim.

Maybe I’ve made a start.