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Topic #A4 –
Heraclitus: poet and sage


17 September, 2001
Scribes: Jeremy McMillan and Ayca Hekimgil

these minutes were spoken on 19 September

We began last class lecture with a review of Xenophanes. It was noted that he had many of the same intellectual ambitions as the Milesians. He, too, was deeply interested in studying astronomy and cosmogony in order to explain and understand the system of the world and universe in which we live. According to Xenophanes, who uses his theory of elements to account for the following point, the universe is layered, and these layers admit of a rational explanation.
Turning to Heraclitus, Professor Hutchinson remarked that he, too, was interested in many of the central questions- of, for example, astronomy and cosmogony- that occupied the Milesians and Xenophanes. Essentially, Heraclitus also wanted to give a general and rational account of the natural system we live in. It was noted that these previous philosophers believed that such a system was an orderly and rational process, where the universe starts in a state of chaos but progresses to order.
There are, of course, differences between Heraclitus and the Milesians and Xenophanes. For one, Heraclitus maintained that fire was the primordial element. Heraclitus also chose to express his thoughts in a different manner. By examining the many fragments that remain of Heraclitus- many more than remain of the Milesians and Xenophanes- we can see that his writings are an odd collection of quasi-poetical prose pieces. But why did he write this way? Professor Hutchinson asserted that while this method of writing was new to philosophy, it had traditional roots. That is, Heraclitus method of writing mirrored the way in which gods revealed their utterances through oracles. For example, oracles often used puns when speaking, as did Heraclitus. (F12)
Furthermore, Professor Hutchinson noted that he believes that the work of Heraclitus was essentially fragmentary in nature. It is not known whether Heraclitus himself ever put these fragments into a book or whether some later thinker did so. At any rate, the fragments that remain are often dislocated and obscure.
We then proceeded to discuss the ways in which the thought of Heraclitus was traditional. In T8 we have a narrative reconstruction of the basic cosmology of Heraclitus, which Professor Hutchinson believes to be an accurate reconstruction of Heraclitus views on the subject. This testimonial is traditional in the sense that it shows Heraclitus was similar to prior thinkers in his ambitions and, at least in this instance, his structure. Moreover, in F12 we have a meditation on the idea that laws (all kinds of laws, e.g., political, natural) govern things. Those who speak with intelligence must stand firm by that which is common to all, as a state stands by the law, and even more firmly. (F12) This idea is similar to that attributed to Anaximander in T15. Anaximander states that the original sources of existing things are also what existing things die back into according to necessity; for they give justice and reparation to one another for their injustice in accordance with the ordinance of Time. That is, the cycle of being and non-being is a cycle which satisfies a demand of justice. This justice is to be associated with the stability we find in the universe.
Indeed, Heraclitus is similar to Xenophanes in that he, too, believes in a cosmic equilibrium or cosmic justice. Heraclitus, however, has a completely different conception of how this justice operates. Heraclitus turns this idea of Xenophanes on its head, insofar as that in Xenophanes we see that this cycle of being and non-being is essentially peaceful, whereas this is not the case with Heraclitus. For Heraclitus, Zeus works in classically destructive way. The justice of Zeus is a frightening thing. The stability of the world, though such stability exists, is due to the constant flux of the world. The stability is based on conflict, strife; violence. Heraclitus was probably the first Ancient thinker to figure out this banal truth. To elucidate this point- that stability is due to flux- Professor Hutchinson used the example of the human body. He noted that the fact that he was the same person while giving the lecture as he was when he woke up that morning is due to flux and conflict (i.e., various internal bio-chemical reactions, etc...). This is also true at the cosmic level, where, paradoxically, everything is the same because nothing is the same.
We can further see the importance that Heraclitus places on strife and conflict in causing stability in the world by examining F22 and F23, which deal with war. As he notes in F22, It is necessary to realize that war is common, and strife is justice, and that everything happens in accordance with strife and necessity. And in F23 he asserts that War [or Zeus] is the father of all. And as we can see in T10, souls slain in war are more pure than those which die through illness. Clearly, Heraclitus thought that war is to be embraced as the central condition of reality, for it is only through difference that sameness is possible.
Professor Hutchinson next discussed related points in the thought of Heraclitus, in which the philosopher endeavors to show that the world is in constant flux. In F33 Heraclitus asserts, On those who step into the same rivers ever different waters are flowing. And in F34, It is impossible to step twice into the same river... It scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs.
The professor then proceeded to give a bio-sketch of Heraclitus, as well as provide a brief summary of Heraclitus thought. Heraclitus engaged in many of the same projects as the Milesians; his writings were modeled on the way that oracles revealed divine truths; and he had a religious bent to his thinking. Moreover, his theory works on many different levels, e.g., political and ethical. He also saw himself as being above, or superior to, the masses, as though he were a prophet of the gods. But it is important to note that while he saw himself as above the masses, he nonetheless believed that there is just the one reality.
Next, it was stressed by Professor Hutchinson that his interpretation of Heraclitus is just that: an interpretation. He noted that the philosophy of Heraclitus is open to many different interpretations. Indeed, every scholar has their own interpretation of him. Prof. Hutchinson noted that there are so many books on Heraclitus relative to the amount of fragments of his thought remaining. But it is precisely by virtue of the fact that there are so few extant fragments that attract the attention of so many scholars. For, after all, it is the empty jam jar that attracts the wasp.
A student then raised an interesting question. Is change something cyclical or is it unprecedented? Prof. Hutchinson remarked that most change is, in fact, cyclical or oscillating in nature. He gave as an example the cycle of sleeping and waking up and going back to sleep, and so on and so forth. Often times a theory of eternal recurrence, a total cycle of nature, sometimes called The Great Cycle, is attributed to Heraclitus. The Stoics especially attributed this idea to him. But Prof. Hutchinson argued that the fact that change is cyclical doesn t necessarily mean that it follows that there is a cycle at the highest level. That is, the world could be full of flux and conflict, but the world itself may be constant. Ultimately, there isn t enough information to determine whether or not Heraclitus believed in a cycle at the highest level.
Another question was then asked: What were- to the Greeks- the sources of dreams? That is, what are dreams attributed to? In many cases, responded the Professor, the origins of dreams were said to be divine. It was widely held, and based on Homeric myth, that dreams came out of one of two gates. If they came from one gate, they were reliable; if they came from another, they weren t. But it is unlikely that the Greeks attributed all dreams to the gods. They were probably able to realize that many times dreams were merely the product of fragmented memory. It was also noted that there were many medical theories on the origins of dreams.
Professor Hutchinson then proceeded to conduct an experiment. He had a hat filled with ten different Heraclitus fragments. He wanted to see what would happen when we examine random fragments from the philosopher. The first fragment drawn referred to Pythagoras, and it stated that although Pythagoras practiced inquiry more than all others, he was wrongfully studying the works of others and making them his own, whereas Heraclitus saw himself as unique, for he studied himself and looked inside himself for answers.
The next fragment examined concerned the idea of logos and its relation to the thought of Heraclitus. And while it is clear that this notion of the logos is central to the philosophy of Heraclitus, the word is frustratingly wide in its meaning. It could be taken, for example, to mean general account, or it could be interpreted as principle. At any rate, Heraclitus believed that there is one logos which everything happens in accordance with, and, though theoretically accessible to all, is not grasped by many. The reason that logos often eludes people is due to various human limitations.