Saturday, June 23, 2007

Some Words From Heraclitus

Some of you may remember my paper on Xenophanes' Critique of Religion. While I am not a huge fan of the ancient Greeks, I have studied them a bit, and have found some of them to be remarkable insightful - especially on the subject of religion. It seems that - despite the vast differences between the ancient world and our own, and the similarly vast differences between the many varied expressions of religion - not too much has changed in the last few thousand years, at least as far as the human search for meaning and the divine is concerned.

Recently my friend Aaron reminded me of Heraclitus. Not, of course, that I had forgotten that Heraclitus existed. But, it had been a long time since I had read anything on Heraclitus, and Aaron gave me the chance to crack open my ancient Greek philosophy texts and do a little reading.

Heraclitus is most famous for the comment that Aaron remembered,

It is not possible to step twice in the same river.

He was a contemporary of Pythagoras (roughly 571 - 497 BCE) and my beloved Xenophanes (roughly 570 - 478 BCE) about whom very little is known. He lived in Ephesus in the late sixth and/or early fifth century BCE, and was called by the ancients the "dark philosopher" as much for the mystery of his life as for any darkness in his thought.

In most college philosophy courses all of the pre-Socratic philosophers are lumped into a single group, and given a single problem: What is the underlying substance of the universe? They are then allowed a sentence or two, before they are swept under the primordial rug by Socrates and all that followed. In this paradigm, just as Thales (early sixth century BCE) is seen as the guy who said that everything is water and Anaximenes (mid sixth century BCE) is seen as the guy who said that everything is air, Heraclitus - along with being the "you can't step in the same river twice" dude - is seen as the guy who said that everything is fire.

If these kinds of metaphysical statements are taken literally, they appear quite absurd, even a little bit stupid. But they are not offered as scientific descriptions of the natural world. Rather, they are metaphors used to come to terms with the metaphysical make-up of the world. So, for Heraclitus to say that everything is fire, he is saying something much more subtle. He is pointing to the ever-changing nature of reality. His concept of fire, as such, is almost mystical, a metaphoric way to speak of some quasi-divine power in the universe, at work in all things, behind all activity and all matter.

But aside from saying that everything is fire, and that you can't step into the same river twice (two related claims, by the way, as they both point to a universe characterized by ceaseless change) he also had some good one-liners that survive to this day. He spoke brutally of both Homer and Hesiod, the twin giants of Greek mythology, saying things like:

Homer deserves to be thrown out of the contests and whipped...


The most popular teacher is Hesoid. Of him people think he knew most - he who did not even know day and night...

What is more interesting than these insults, however, is why he offers them. He said that Hesiod "did not even know day and night," but Hesiod, in Heraclitus' view, is by no means alone in that. Anyone who distinguishes between day and night, in Heraclitus' view, does not know them, for "they are one."

What is in opposition is in concert, and from what differs comes the most beautiful harmony.

Like the Taoists, then, he looks for what bridges dichotomies:

Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living each other's death, dying each other's life.

He also finds dichotomies where others might see a unity:

Sea is most pure and polluted water: for fishes, it is drinkable and salutary, but for [humans] undrinkable and deleterious.

He also shares in common with the Taoists a desire to redeem the "dark" things, that which has been identified as immoral, or scandalous:

To god all things are beautiful and good and just, but [humans] have supposed some things to be unjust, others just.

Similarly, he heaps scorn on what is revered:

The consecrations of the mysteries, as practiced among [humans], are unholy.

He can be seen as inverting the values of Greek culture and religion, seeing the value in that which has been stigmatized, while calling into question the value of that which has been revered. At the heart of this, perhaps, is a healthy appreciation of divine mystery and human foolishness:

[Humanity] is called childish compared with divinity, just as a [child] compared with a[n adult].

There is a great deal not to like in what remains of Heraclitus' thought. He despised commoners, and strove for (like many Greeks) a kind of excellence characterized by self-exalting fame. His thought not only justifies but even glorifies violence. But in both his inversion of conventional wisdom and in his appreciation for divine mystery - a mystery that transcends the conventional religion of his and any other day - there is much here that edifies.


crystal said...

I took a Greek philosophy class, and one just on Socrates, but don't remember much of the pre-Socratics, aside from the one-liners you mentioned.

Brian said...

I like the promo for Heraclitus, but I have to wonder: Why can't Heraclitus say all of the neat stuff you analyze here AND be committed to the notion that everything is literally made of fire? Aside from the fact that it's false and based on seriously outdated assumptions about chemistry, why does that have to be explained away?

One problem with the Presocratics is, I think, that their literary remains are so fragmentary and so filtered through the people who are quoting them for their own agendas that you can get them to say just about anything you want. Heidegger was the acknowledged master of this, but he hasn't been the only one by any means (I've been guilty of this sometimes myself!).

Sandalstraps said...


There's no reason, I guess to say that he didn't think that everything was really made from fire, save for the old mythos/logos distinction. I read him as using fire more in line with mythos than with logos, but I must confess that I'm basically doing it on my own.

That said, by the time of Heraclitus we've already had Anaximander (roughly 610-546 BCE) introduced apeiron, an abstraction that as far as I can tell can't be translated well, but means something like "the boundless," "the infinite," and "the indefinite," as the fundamental substance of the universe.

So, by Heraclitus' time there has already been a move away from a literal physical substance and toward something more abstract as the fundamental substance. So, I read Heraclitus in light of that.

I also want to focus on the metaphorical nature of theories of a fundamental underlying substance because, even if Heraclitus really did mean that everything was comprised of fire, he arrived at that conclusion in a very different way that modern science. It connects to a different sort of experience than, say, looking through a microscope. It communicates, as I said in the post, the belief that everything is in a constant state of change; that, to me, is more important than the fact that, as a matter of fact, fire is decidedly not the underlying substance.