Paradoxes of the Obscure

I recently re-read quite a comprehensive summary of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy by English scholar Jonathan Barnes, appropriately titled Early Greek Philosophy. It’s a book I’d highly recommend for anyone just beginning in their interest of philosophical antiquity. Although the translations can be quite tedious and crudely articulated (contrasted with the vernacular genius of Plato and Aristotle), it’s definitely required contextual reading if you want properly understand Socrates and his successors.

One such pre-Socratic philosopher that interested me particularly was Heraclitus, a 6th century BC philosopher whose work was notoriously difficult to understand. Hence he was nicknamed by his contemporaries “The Obscure.” His influence was extensive, from Plato to the Stoics as well as the early Church fathers. Unfortunately, as with other pre-Socratics, his writings survive now only in fragments quoted by other authors ranging from the collections of Sextus Empiricus, to Hippolytus of Rome as well as Diogenes Laertius and Clement of Alexandria.

In his writings On Nature, he establishes a notion of all-encompassing divine influence:

Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending, both before hearing it and when first they have heard it. For although things came about in accordance with this account, they are like tiros* as they try words and deeds of sort which I expound as I divide each thing according to nature and say how it is. Other men fail to notice what they do when they are awake, just as they forget what they do when they sleep.

Heraclitus is known for many famous sayings, one being that “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” as well as his pioneering of “logos,” a term which would remain integral to dialectic philosophy for centuries:

This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep.

Although the exact definition of logos is sketchy, it can largely be narrowed down to “word”, “account” in the sense they these are measured postulations.

Heraclitus revelled in dichotomies and paradoxical hypotheses, positing that “the universe is both divisible and indivisible, generated and ungenerated, mortal and immortal, Word and Eternity, Father and Son, God and Justice.” (According to Hippolytus who considered Heraclitus a source of heretical views to the early Church.) He adhered to the notion that there was a unity of opposites; that an object is necessarily defined by its opposite. Hence, in his philosophy, nothing is defined in a self-sufficient or independent sense. This leads to an interesting set of philosophical meanderings.

Eternity is a child at play, playing draughts: this kingdom is a child’s.

War is father of all, king of all: some it has shown as gods, some as men; some it has made slaves, some free. That … harmony, like that a bow and a lyre … unapparent harmony is better than apparent.

He implies that God is invisible and unknown to men. And in doing so he suggests that the visible and invisible are both equally perceivable, as if they are by all intents and purposes identical. It must be noted that many Greek philosophers were not traditionally polytheist in the Classical Greek sense. Many would later be considered Christians by the early Church for their extensive monotheistic theology.

Extract from Hippolytus’ Refutation of all Heresies IX:

Hence Heraclitus says that darkness and light, evil and good, are not different but one in the same … and so are good and bad. For example, doctors, Heraclitus says, “who cut and cauterize and wretchedly torment the sick in every way are praised — they deserve no fee from the sick, for they have the same effect as diseases.” And straight and twisted, he says, are the same: “The path of the carding-comb” he says, “is straight and crooked.” The turning of the instrument called the screw-press in a fuller’s shop is straight and crooked, for it goes upwards and in a circle at the same time.

Another of his interesting paradoxical dichotomies is his suggestion that immortal and mortal are fundamentally the same:

Immortals are mortals, mortals immortals: living their death, dying their life.

This hypothesis fascinates me, because it underlines the fundamental paradoxes of human life in that it personifies both the inherent disconnect between the primordial human condition and that of the transcendent, but also that of the inability of humanity to perceive longitudinal purpose without being in touch with the immortal transcendent. In a sense, the paradoxes of humanity are what define us. (This is beyond the comprehension of the tiresome antinatalists, who are almost always utopian nihilists in essence.)

In the compilations of Johannes Stobaeus, Heraclitus makes more claims:

It is not good for men to get what they want.

Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest.

In a sense, he posits that pleasure and discomfort are both reliant on one another, and that a society which seeks to eliminate discomfort seeks to eliminate humanity.

But how much suffering and how much pleasure should a society have? Does a pursuit of absolute truth eliminate the need for truth in the first place?

These questions cannot be answered, because fundamentally humans are not machines and only a utopian would govern a society with such interests in mind.

The rationalisation of paradoxes is an inherently human trait. We seek uniformity, logical conclusions. However, humans are fundamentally imperfect beings and as man is a fallen being in Christian Theology, the notion of paradox within human natures it what drives our belief in the transcendent as Heraclitus says “Bad witness for men are eyes and ears of those who have foreign souls.” It could be said that this is Newton’s Third Law of Motion applied on a spiritual level. In that sense, we must recognise that humanity is not whole encompassed by this world, by the material. Thereby, it is in our interest (or disadvantage, as interest and non-interest rely on each-other equally) to attempt to act upon this realisation accordingly.

*Tiros/tyro: A beginner in learning something.


2 thoughts on “Paradoxes of the Obscure

  1. Good stuff. I’m out of my depth here but it is interesting how many of the Presocratics attempted to explain ontological plurality by positing an underlying principle, often a substance. For Thales it was water, for Anaximenes, air but Heraclitus it was fire which symbolized change yet harmony and order in the world are only manifest through the tension of opposites therefore order is only possible through change and vice versa as things are defined by what they are not?

    The mystery of the Trinity seems to be somewhat Heraclitean as the three persons are distinct yet exist as one entity simultaneously. I have a difficult time understanding Heraclitus as I am a very dry, literal thinker but thank you for the daily dose of bewilderment (I’m definitely not in tune with the Logos at this time!).

    1. ‘The Riddler’ is a fascinating one. The pre-Socratics had a far greater influence on medieval theology than people realise.

      Empedocles postulated the possibility of ‘Love and Strife’ being the key causal agents of the universe along with the eternal ‘roots’ (elements).

      ‘In general, fire separates and divides, water is adhesive and retentive, conserving and fixing things by it’s moisture. Empedocles alluded to this every time he referred to fire as cursed Strife and to water as tenacious Love.” The Primary Cold – Plutarch.

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