Herakleitos, 1

κόσμον τόνδε, τὸν αὐτὸν ἁπάντων, οὔτε τις θεῶν οὐτε ἀνθρώπων ἐποίησεν, ἀλλ’ ἦν ἀεὶ καὶ ἔστιν καὶ ἔσται πῦρ ἀείζωον, ἁπτόμενον μέτρα καὶ ἀποσβεννύμενον μέτρα.The ordered world, common to all, was not made by a god or a man; rather, it always was — and it is and will be an ever-living fire, lighting by measures and going out by measures.

Herakleitos of Ephesos

This is the first in a series of posts about the philosophy of Herakleitos the Ephesian — and later about other ancient Greek philosophers as well. I write them in order to work out certain ideas for myself. Usually when I write a series, I have most of it mapped out and several posts already written before I publish the first one. This time is different. Although I know the general shape of many ideas I want to discuss here, I’m as much in the dark as the readers are about most of it and I plan to be surprised as I read it. So, these posts are a journal of thoughts, rather than a worked-out series of essays.

I’m starting with Herakleitos (or “Heraclitus,” in the more common, latinised spelling — the Greeks wrote it as “Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος.”) because, aside from Plato, he’s the Greek philosopher to whom I feel closest, for whom I feel an intuitive bond. This is funny, because — as the Wikipedia article explains at length — the later Greeks and the Romans referred to Herakleitos as “obscure,” “riddling,” and “unclear.” However, especially lately, I don’t find him obscure at all: he seems to make a lot of sense and to tell me things I very much want to find out about. My comprehension, though, is more pictorial than verbal — so one of the things to be found out in this series of posts is whether I can put my clear images into clear words. My so-called “plan” right now is just to wander in, start writing, and see what happens. It will be a voyage of discovery for me and perhaps you may enjoy it too.

A convenient place to enter would be at the beginning of Wikipedia’s discussion of his philosphy — their section Panta rhei, “all things flow”. It turns out that, just as Bette Davis never said “What a dump,” Herakleitos too never said the thing he’s famous for: Πάντα ῥεῖ (“everything flows”) — or at least nobody now can prove he did.

He did however say

πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει,
everything changes and nothing stays the same

I am forever indebted to Wikipedia for pointing out that the word he uses for “change” here is etymologically related to “choros,” the dance floor on which the chorus in Greek plays sang and danced — a lovely and precise image for what he thinks things do when they change.

Wikipedia worries that this saying might be “a non-remarkable observation for such a famous philosophy.” This seems a bit obtuse. First, to someone close to nature, it’s not obvious that everything changes. Rocks don’t, nor does much of the larger landscape — or, at least, not fast enough to be a worry. Perhaps more important, Herakleitos may not be trying to surprise us with the news that the world goes on, but rather with the observation that it’s more fruitful to build a philosophy in which the primary elements are the processes of change, rather than the persisting objects that undergo those changes.

As they mention, the question becomes more interesting when considered in light of another of his famous epigrams, about “stepping into the same river twice.”

Ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.
For the same rivers, we step in and we do not step in. We are and we are not.

Wikipedia describes this saying as “enigmatic.” And, indeed, it does seem that way if viewed in the light of the post-Aristotle logical machinery that they bring to bear on it. (Even Aristotle himself may have been to early to be acquainted with some of the philosophy he’s supposed to have invented.) They mention the Law of the Excluded Middle and wonder how the river can be the same and not the same. All I can say is that they show too much historical hindsight and too little foresight.

Let’s imagine that Herakleitos makes sense — and that he hasn’t read Aristotle, especially not in one of our contemporary universities. What would he be saying? Don’t start out with abstract enunciations. Start with simple things a human might notice. Suppose, for example, I were to get in my car and drive to Beaver Island State Park, where I used to swim as a boy, and then stepped into the Niagara River there. If I said to you conversationally, “It’s the same river,” you’d understand me perfectly. Or, if instead I said, “It’s a different river,” you wouldn’t question that. You’d know what I meant in either case — and you wouldn’t be conscious of the apparently contradictory alternative until it was pointed out. It would only be then that it would be a problem — and only if we were interested in natural philosophy.

Well, then, suppose we are natural philosophers. How would we deal with this natural language paradox? Three different methodologies suggest themselves.

First is the methodology of which Herakleitos has always been accused: tell riddles until the person either stops annoying you about it or else, in frustration, figures out a set of answers by himself.

Second is the methodology that Plato seems to have used: tell stories and anecdotes embedded in drifting, seemingly aimless conversations until the reader, by the accumulating montage of a sufficiently rich set of diverse fragments, comes to recognize where all the important turning points are and therefore is able to negotiate such pathways by himself.

Third is the methodology of which Aristotle is commonly accused and of which many of his followers are certainly guilty: design a system of abstract concepts to explain the phenomena. Build an “ontology,” a model system so fashioned that its workings model the answer to any potential question.

My working hypothesis as I begin this series is that Herakleitos certainly was not using the third of these methods — and not even the first, the one he is historically associated with. I think his method is the one I’ve taken it upon myself to call, “Plato’s.” One piece of evidence for this would be way the the last part of the comment about the river enriches and opens out the meaning of the first part. When you go into the river the second time, it’s not only the river that’s different, but you too. Everything changes including people. So we have to account for that as well. If the difference in the perceiver is important, then the act of stepping into the river is both objective (the river side) and subjective (my side) and the two of us — person and river — must mutually be actors in the event. Our starting point would be streams of perception in which the perceiver and the perceived both stay the same and also change.

Or, at least, that’s what I get from the two fragments we’ve discussed here. As a shopping list of things that we need to make sure we understand — in some sense — this is sophisticated and complex. Herakleitos has also given us a sense of the framework in which to discuss it. All this is pretty decent for a guy who’s so far only been able to say two sentences in his behalf.

I’ll look at more in future installments of this journal.

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