Wednesday, 12 July 2017
I admire Heraclitus because he was an archetypal outsider. (Yeah, yeah - there goes that tired cliché again.) He was a misanthropic loner who nonetheless defeated cruel time. When human civilisation comes to an end, history books will still have entries on Heraclitus.
Yes, it is ironic that he did indeed defeat 'cruel time.' Heraclitus thought that everything was subject to constant change. 'You can never step in the same river twice,' he claimed. He also thought that everything that we saw was a clash of opposites. Everything was 'strife.' That would make him a dualist. To add to the confusion, he also claimed that everything came from fire. That would make him a monist!
In many ways, Heraclitus was right about the nature of time. There are many Heraclituses. Our understanding of Heraclitus is different from the medieval understanding. For instance, our understanding of his thought is coloured by Einstein's theory of relativity. All history is indeed subject to constant regeneration.
And yet all we have left are tiny little fragments. I bought his book Fragments and found it infuriating. All it had was tiny little aphorisms containing really general statements. The secondary criticism I have read was a lot more detailed. It always emphasises how it's often conjectural. Still, these books of criticism just consist of a few pages. I really would like to read a whole book about him. These books exist, but they are inordinately expensive! The secondary criticism also adds that his thought is very obscure. Hegel - the archetypal obscurantist - considered Heraclitus his favourite philosopher. Plato and Aristotle read his full texts and found them puzzling. This is part of this appeal - he is so obscure that, even if you read the original text, you might not be able to make it out. However, even his original text was aphoristic in nature, so I might not be missing out on much. If I had a time travel machine, I would want to salvage a copy of his magnum opus from an ancient library.
And Heraclitus was a misanthrope. He lashes out against people and their ignorance in many of his aphorisms. One of his aphorisms was later rewritten - perhaps unknowingly - by John Stuart Mill: 'One man with an idea is worth much more than a thousand others.' He was a loner and detested democracy. The former endears him to me, the latter doesn't.
Despite his elitism, he was also sceptical of education. He claimed that it was a barrier to original thought. He did not like scholars who studied Homer, their equivalent of The Bible. Curiously, many people have written about this later on. The more books you read, your original insights are reduced more and more. 'Knowledge doesn't teach insight,' he claimed. In these times of hyper-specialisation, PHD students have to sift through a mountain of research to arrive at an original contribution to knowledge.
Yet there was no real knowledge in Heraclitus' time - apart from Homer and a handful of cranky pre-Socratic philosophers like Pythagoras. Heraclitus found underlying phenomena fascinating - and was determined to understand it without any empirical or analytic framework.
Heraclitus also found dreams fascinating - and claimed that they are the real world and that waking life is a mirage. Heraclitus is the archetypal loner. Alone with his thoughts, bitter, speculating and dreaming, he created a myth and consecrated his place in history.