Saturday, August 3, 2013

Remembering Heraclitus

Book Review: Remembering Heraclitus by Richarde Geldard (Lindisfarne Books 2000)

This is a decent book examining the fragments of Heraclitus, their meaning, his impact in ancient times, and implications for today. The title reflects the double meaning of re-membering the de-membered scattered fragments. The extant fragments are cryptic and at times harsh. The author sees them as having a dual-function of “blows” and “riddles.”

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus, in Greek Asia Minor (Anatolia) around 500 B.C. The statements of Heraclitus concerning the elements are sometimes seen as a forerunner to Alchemy. Aristotle depicted Heraclitus as backward but many do not agree. Along with the surviving fragments there are various other words attributed to Heraclitus, some suspect. There are also a few blurbs about his life, a biography of sorts, which is also at least partly dubious. The author notes that there are about 60 fragments that should be considered essential and another 70 that should be considered dubious. Fragments attributed to him come from Plato and others up through Roman times. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Sextus Empiricus had much to say about Heraclitus. Heraclitus’ book is thought to have been entitled On Nature. It was likely placed in the famed Temple of Artemis in Ephesus as was the custom. Remembering was also associated with truth in the Greek term aletheia, a term which was the first associated with philosophers (first called “truth-tellers), those “lovers of wisdom.” Heraclitus was reputed to have left a destined life as part of a ruling family in order to search for wisdom, leaving the city to become a hermit.

Geldard paints Heraclitus as an instigator: one who “prods sleeping mind to the waking state” rather than just one who seeks beyond the traditional mythological religion of the time, as he is often depicted. As an instigator, he would have been much like Socrates, who came later. Ephesus was a center of Artemis as Goddess of the Moon and in contrast to post-Attic Greek notions of the soul being feminine but lesser than the male “spirit”, here the feminine was exalted, says Geldard. For nearly a thousand years, well into Roman times, Ephesus was a center of learning, culture, and freedom of thought. Heraclitus appeared at a time some call the “Great Leap of Being” around 500 BC which theoretically includes Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Zoroaster, as well as the advent of Vedanta in India. Sri Aurobindo gave a comparison in 1916 of Heraclitus and Vedanta. Ephesus was a melting pot cosmopolitan city where many languages and cultures mixed, East and West. Heraclitus was early among the Greek philosophers to address the problem of the One and the Many. Many another would follow. This issue is also addressed among the early Vedantists. The “Supreme Self” or paramatman of the Vedantists may have been the origin of the Logos of Heraclitus and his predecessors and the One of Plato, although there may be Mesopotamian and possibly Egyptian ideas previous to that. The Logos exalted by Heraclitus would later become the Logos of Gnostic Christianity.

Heraclitus is thought to have taught esoteric ideas to an elite esoteric body of students – thus the cryptic nature of the fragments. The fragments may be aphorisms to be remembered by students but there is some evidence (from the writings of Sextus Empiricus in the 3rd century C.E.) that there was a specific sequence as if in book form. The teachings of Heraclitus have been depicted as a sort of spiritual alchemy – with fragments about the elements, about dry souls and wet souls, etc. There is also a story where students peer into his house and see him at his stove whereby he says. “Do not fear, the gods are here also.” Some have interpreted him at the stove as a depiction of alchemy. Apparently, there are a few direct references to Heraclitus in the works of early Arabian alchemy (Khalid 660-704 CE).

According to some accounts, Heraclitus was quite critical of some of the preceding early Greek philosophers and poets including Homer, Archilochus, Pythagoras, Hesiod, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus. Heraclitus was bitter that a worthy and wise man, Hermodorus, was banished from Ephesus. Heraclitus is not known to have had a strict- practice school like Pythagoras or even a more intellectual one like Plato’s Academy but many think that he strongly influenced Plato. According to Aristotle, though, Plato gradually turned away from the influence of Heraclitus and embraced the ethics of Socrates. The famed Neoplatonist Plotinus revived the Heraclitean Logos in his hierarchy emanating from the One (Plato’s the Good). Marcilio Ficino would revive Plato and the Neoplatonists in the Renaissance and such Heraclitean ideas would live on in Renaissance Alchemy but eventually were superceded by the Aristotelian doctrines adopted by Thomas Aquinas and the official Church. Heraclitus confirmed his spiritual questing by noting “I searched my nature.” His monistic leanings can be seen in the statement: “Listening to the Logos, and not to me, it is wise to agree that all things are One.”

So-called Negative Theology, which works through apophasis, or denial/negation, has been traced back to Plato and Parmenides but reached its prime much later with Plotinus and Proclus. Heraclitus also embodies the apophatic method. The author sort of suggests that Heraclitus’s fragments resemble the utterances of the Sybll – as Heraclitus himself described those utterances: “… raving …. somber, unembellished, unperfumed sayings ….”

Heraclitus can be seen as negating the creation scenario of Hesiod’s Theogony and maybe too that of Genesis which was around in his day:

“This cosmos was not made by immortal or mortal beings, but always was, is, and will be an eternal fire, arising and subsiding in measure.”

The eternal fire is equated to the Logos, and also the One, the Good, the All. Though later Judeo-Christians would say that God created the Cosmic Order out of Chaos and “in the beginning was the Word (Logos)” – this is not at all implied in the statement of Heraclitus. That it ‘arises and subsides in measure’ can be compared to the Hindu Theogony of Brahma opening and closing his eye. A century after Heraclitus, Anaxagoras subsumed the Logos into his idea of Mind (Nous). Heraclitus indicates that the Logos is normally hidden and incomprehensible but possibly accessible to those who search their own nature. Some commentators have lumped Heraclitus’s Logos as a part of the Delphic oracular tradition but this is speculative. Much later, the Gospel of John would describe Logos as Christ, as the Word of God that “creates and sustains the universe.” However, at the time of Heraclitus, Apollo would have been the oracle of the father Zeus, the one speaking his Word. Thus Apollo is the Logos of Zeus.

The ideas of flux/change/impermanence can appear in the fragments of Heraclitus:

“Everything taken together is whole but also not whole, what is being brought together and taken apart, what is in tune and out of tune; out of diversity there comes unity, and out of unity diversity.”

A more famous quote is that “we cannot step twice in the same river.”

Another famous quote of Heraclitus is that “Nature prefers to hide” which suggests that the true nature of things is often hidden from us. Nature (as physis) may also be interpreted as “essence” or “truth.”

Heraclitus notes the “eternal fire” as the Logos and notes also its presence within all things:

“All things equally exchange for fire as does fire for all things, as goods are exchanged for gold and gold for goods.”

The above quote also seems to allude to an alchemical model of reality based on exchange and transformation.

His ode to Zeus as “Bright Consciousness” and bearer of the thunderbolt is as follows:

“The lightning directs everything.” … “To be wise is one thing: to know the thought that directs all things through all things.”

The author makes the inference that since Zeus is equated to the fire of the mind, or consciousness, that what he means is that “consciousness directs all things.”

Geldard considers the Pythagorean tetractys, a pyramid of ten points (set up like bowling pins) and considers The One at the top to be the Logos. He suggests that our longing for immortality is a longing to return to the Logos, our source.

The pre-Heraclitean philosophers of the city of Miletus (south of Ephesus) – Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes – are credited as originators of scientific thought, encouraging the systematic study of Physis, or Nature. It is thought likely that Heraclitus built on their knowledge and ideas of physis as well as that of Xenophanes of Kolophon (north of Ephesus). Heraclitus seemed to understand that fire, particularly the hidden fire within, is the spark of life, and its heat drives the elemental cycles of nature. Some of his cryptic fragments about fire and the sea may allude to natural cycles. An esoteric alchemical cosmological model appears again in the following statements:

“It is death for souls to become water” and “A dry soul is wisest and best.”

So we see that a dry soul can be seen as more rarified, more developed, less deluded, than a moist soul.

The author notes that Heraclitus saw breathing as “drawing in the Logos,” that which fuels the fire within and sustains us. Geldard also does some comparison of Heraclitus with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, considered a founding document in the Alchemical tradition.

Next we come to the idea of Logos manifesting as nomos, or Law. According to Heraclitus, Logos is the divine Law that informs (or should inform) human-made laws.

“For all man-made laws are nourished by one divine law;” In this sense, the Logos nourishes culture, morality, and the laws of the city. The author notes the plays and poetry of Sophocles as comparing the laws of nature to the laws of humans and seeking their harmony as a noble undertaking. The Logos is considered the “universal” principle from which other principles derive. There is a sense of justice implied in the divinity of the Logos as seen in the quote below:

“To God all things are beautiful, good, and just, but human beings have supposed some things to be unjust, others just.”

The next idea is ethos. Geldard mentions several different translations of a challenging fragment: ethos anthropoi daimon. Most translate it as “Character is fate.” It has also been translated as, “A man’s character is his guardian divinity.” Geldard suggests the meaning (not the translation) as – “An evolved human nature is our destiny.”

Heraclitus has several statements about wet and dry souls, wet ones being less developed and closer to death and dry ones being more developed and refined. The confused state of drunkenness is also equated to having a moist soul:

“When he is drunk, thus having his soul moist, a man is led about by an immature boy, stumbling and not knowing where he is going.”

The author recalls the story of the goddess Demeter, when searching for Persephone, she was in disguise as a nurse. She took the child nightly and placed him on the coals of the fire in order to make him immortal – so in this sense the moist souls are mortal and the dry souls immortal. Heraclitus says just this in one fragment.

Heraclitus also denounces superstition, possibly even that of the Orphic mystics who purified themselves in a ritual by covering themselves with mud. He also criticizes those who pray to statues, saying they do not recognize the true nature of gods and spirits. The author sees Heraclitus favoring a more abstract conception of divinity over the anthropomorphized mythological varieties. In considering the harshness and enigmatic nature of the teachings of Heraclitus, the author sees his methods as blows and riddles, each fulfilling a need of the human ethos. The following cryptic quote, says the author, represents the nature of the human ethos as Being and Becoming:

“Immortal mortals, mortal immortals, living their death and dying their life.”

Next is a foray into telos, the goal or aim of human life. The author sees the fragments as a whole offering some sort of aim. Heraclitus has been accused of elitism – from some of his statements about the superiority of the aristoi, the few good, noble, and learned ones, compared to the many. Heraclitus can also quite readily be seen as a non-conformist in his views and approach.

The author compares the fragments of Heraclitus to the Hebrew statements of the prophet Jeremiah, to the teachings of the Buddha, and to the teachings of the Tao Te Ching – all ideas in different parts of the world more or less contemporary to Heraclitus, all part of Voegilin’s “Leap of Being” idea. Geldard speaks of the metaxy, an “in-between” state amenable to transformation, a state capable of bridging the living and the dead, man and god. This, he suggests is the state where the aware human can experience the influence of the divine, the Logos. He also notes that Heraclitus was the first to describe the qualities of the mind, the nous. Later, it would be Anaxagoras who most elaborated on these qualities. The Nous, said Anaxagoras, was not, like other things, composed of parts, but was unlimited (apeiron). The author, as well as Voegelin, suggests that Anaxagoras altered the concept of mind of Heraclitus, and the concept of Being of Parminedes to be the interface of the human with the divine – to alter things enough so that the study of nature became more human-centric. To exemplify this Geldard goes through some of the statements of Aristotle that reduce the ideas of Heraclitus to the child-like ignorance of an earlier primitive age. Later, Plotinus, would revive some Hericlitean ideas in his hierarchy of Being – from immature matter to vegetative mind to sensation to animal perception to human image-making to concepts and opinions, to the logical faculty to creative reason to soul to World soul to Nous (mind) and finally to the Absolute, Unity, or One. Long before Plotinus, Plato saw the mind as the means of distinguishing truth and opinion. Plotinus’s hierarchy would make it into the Renaissance as a key idea. The author criticizes the divinization of the intellect as the arrogant beginning of the downfall of Athenian high culture where cleverness was exalted higher than truth. Plotinus, he says, tempered this a bit. An example he gives is Sophocles’ story of Oedipus where the clever Oedipus has eyes but cannot see while the blind sage Tieresias cannot see but is able to discern truth.

In the epilogue the author examines the idea of a Heraclitean Theory of Consciousness. He suggests that the fragments denote a “continuum of mental conditions” from sleep to wakefulness, perception, self-consciousness, and on to more spiritual consciousness. As a summary of the key terms, Geldard offers the following:

The Logos is the eternal, conscious basis of the world order, the true home of the human soul, embodied and otherwise. Physis is change and flux, the ever-living fire bursting forth and going out in measure. Ethos expresses the essence of human nature: existing in space/time using the flux of existence to establish an order of the mind and of the soul. Its nature is such that is has the potential to partake of Being in its Becoming. Telos is the natural but rare movement into the metaxy, the in-between where ethos and Logos intersect in transition and transformation. It is a noetic state based on intuition and the objective presence of the eternally emanating Logos.”

Geldard also presents a sort of history of consciousness theory from Descartes and Hume through Emerson’s notion of Universal Mind up to what he suggests is the extremist reductionism of psychologists such as B.F. Skinner. Emerson seems to have similarities to Hericlitean thought. A more modern consciousness researcher is Roger Penrose, who sees consciousness as possibly underpinned at the quantum level with probabilities. As Geldard suggests – “we are conscious because consciousness exists, and we can study the greater consciousness [presumably the Logos] by knowing human consciousness.”

Interestingly, he also makes a suggestion that we can study or present the fragments of Heraclitus in a sort of “cut-up” fashion without order or syntax – sounds kinda like a fun art project.

The first appendix is about the problem of the text – how the various fragments should be ordered – which fragments are considered essential and authentic and which are considered dubious. The three most notable commentators on Heraclitus were Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. The fragments from Sextus Empiricus suggests a text with a definite sequence. Only a limited number of Heraclitean fragments are considered to be direct quotations. Others are either reworked through the lenses of others or are considered not reliable. For further reading on Heraclitus the author recommends The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk, G. M. Raven, and M. Schofield as well as volume four of Hippocrates translated by W.H.S. Jones, Harvard University Press.

The final appendix is what the author considers the Essential Fragments of Heraclitus.

In summary, this was a decent book, a good overview of the thought of Heraclitus, those he influenced and how, and ideas about pre-Socratic thought of Ancient Greece and vicinity.




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