Sunday, December 21, 2008

Heraclitean Spirituality

“That it cannot break time and time’s greed—that is the will’s loneliest misery.” Thus spoke Zarathustra. To try to escape this misery, according to him and his ventriloquist, Nietzsche, the will can travel one of two roads: it can fashion an eternity, with the promise of a redemption there, outside of time; or it can reconcile itself to this greed, somehow working through it, seeking a redemption here, in the midst of time. The first road is that of transcendence; the second, of immanence. When we decide for ourselves which road to travel—not only in grand moments of crisis and conversion, but also in humble moments every day of our lives—we implicitly answer the paramount question of our losing battle with time: how shall we overcome this, the will’s loneliest misery?

In my previous post, and in the lively debate that followed it, I argued that the transcendent road is a dead end: meaningful life outside of time proves to be impossible, and the longing for such a life appears immature. Now is the time, therefore, to travel the immanent road. None more than Nietzsche has shown us how to travel this road through the thickets of European intellectual history, and none more than Freud has helped individual travelers navigate its many twists and turns in their own lives. After having discussed these two recent engineers of the immanent road, we should now consider the one who first laid its foundation: Heraclitus.

He is often neglected nowadays, even though the great German philosophers of the nineteenth century recognized their debt to him. Hegel wrote that “there is no proposition of Heraclitus that I have not adopted in my logic,” and Nietzsche claimed that “the world forever needs the truth, hence the world forever needs Heraclitus.” These pioneers of immanence and others who followed them along this road would extend Heraclitean spirituality, adapting it to a secular world, where the transcendent routes have appeared to many more prohibitive than expeditious. To extend their immanent road creatively for our own age, then, we too should return to Heraclitus’s aphorisms, reconstructing above all his innovative response to time’s greed: immersion rather than escape.


The enigmatic book of Heraclitus survives only in tantalizing fragments, but it seems to have begun by invoking the logos: “Although this logos holds forever, men ever fail to comprehend, both before hearing it and once they have heard.” What is this logos? Already a puzzle arises: if it is something to be heard, it would seem to be speech; but since it is something we do not comprehend even before hearing it, although we should, it would seem to be something outside of speech, something in the world. This first of many puzzles is solved by the polysemy of logos, a Greek word ambiguous among dozens of English terms, including the following: “word,” “statement,” “speech,” “language,” “explanation,” “account,” “ratio,” “reason,” and “thought.” Deliberately exploiting such ambiguities whenever he invokes the logos, Heraclitus is able to mean both his own statements and the account of the world—the reason—that these statements aim to convey. Consistent with this complex meaning, the best Heraclitean aphorisms exhibit in their form the very account their content attributes to the world. This is more than literary finesse; it is the essence of his approach, without which his philosophy degenerates quickly into dogmatism and cliché. With this unity of form and content, however, he can demonstrate the identity that exists between an individual logos and the logos at work in the wider world.

As an example of this unity take the most famous of his aphorisms, the so-called river fragment. “As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.” Even if you do not read Greek, sound out the original, which is artful in several significant ways: Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei. First of all, as you may have noticed, before the comma it is as sibilant as an uninterrupted stream, whereas afterwards its harsher assonances signal the step’s noisy interruption of its flow. Secondly, the Greek word for “the same” could be associated with either “rivers” or “they” or both. In this particular English translation, Charles Kahn’s, it is associated with “rivers,” agreeing with the popular version of this thought: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” According to this version, you, the stepper, are assumed to be a stable thing, but the river’s waters flow so quickly that they pass by the moment you step into them. Yet the form of Heraclitus’s own aphorism encodes a far richer content. The subjects of the stepping are plural, as are the rivers into which they step, so that the subject of the interaction need be no more unified than the object. In other words, this changes the popular version to voice this alternate meaning, “the same you cannot step into the river twice.”

Whenever there is ambiguity in Heraclitus’s prose, as Kahn argues, he intends simultaneously multiple meanings. In the case of the river fragment, then, Heraclitus seems to intend instability in both subject and object together, and he does so with an aphorism that exhibits the same instability. As you step into a river, in short, both you and the waters of the river flow on, for you and the river are what you are—in a word, the same—only by this flowing. So too this aphorism, like so many others of Heraclitus, steps into our thoughts and disrupts their flow, creating new currents and eddies, new appearances of stability, even new selves. Since new selves bring fresh perspectives to old texts, furthermore, this aphorism also catalyzes new interpretations of itself. If this is right, the logos of self, aphorism, and river—or, more abstractly: thinker, thought, and world—reveals itself as identical. Here is one way of summarizing this logos, and, as we shall see later, distorting it: “By changing, it rests.”

Another way of revealing this logos, avoiding distortion by eschewing summary, follows the aphorisms on fire, which Heraclitus gives the same cosmic role as the logos itself. “The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made,” he wrote, “but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out.” The Stoics and many Heracliteans since them have taken this doctrine for a physics, believing that fire was for Heraclitus the prime substance of the cosmos, just as water and air were proposed by his immediate predecessors. But whether or not Heraclitus had a physics, he is certainly using fire as a prime example, a paradigm of the paradoxical pattern he sees everywhere. “Fire is need and satiety,” he seems to have written, and this aphorism among others has given him a reputation for flouting the hallowed principle of non-contradiction. “It is impossible,” declared Aristotle, “for the same thing both to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.” Indeed, Aristotle goes so far as to call this “the firmest principle of all things,” claiming that if one fails to heed it—as many even in antiquity thought Heraclitus, nicknamed the Obscure, failed to do—then one cannot have any knowledge at all.

Sympathetic philosophers have thus tried to resolve the paradoxes of Heraclitus, including this one about fire. For if fire were needy and satisfied at the same time (now), with respect to the same thing (its fuel), satisfaction would both belong and not belong to it, as would neediness, and it would flout the principle of non-contradiction. The Stoics were obviously sympathetic to Heraclitus, and saved him from contradiction by making his fire—which became their prime substance, and thus their whole cosmos itself—oscillate between conflagration and extinction. At one time, according to them, the cosmic fire is satisfied and there is a holocaust; at another time, it becomes needy and is extinguished. Imagining a perpetual cosmic cycle between these extreme stages, the Stoics anticipated the doctrine of the Eternal Return some readers find in the writings of another Heraclitean, Nietzsche. But no such elaborate cosmology is necessary to save Heraclitus from contradiction; in fact, as with Nietzsche, cosmologies of any kind distract attention from the deep lessons available upon careful contemplation of something more common.

Consider the humble candle flame: even it is need and satiety (now) with respect to the same thing (its fuel). After all, if it were not satisfied–having insufficient fuel to continue burning—it would be extinguished; likewise, if it were not needy—not consuming the fuel necessary to continue burning—it would also be extinguished. Its burning thus requires it to be needy and satisfied with respect to the same thing, a contradiction, at each moment. The point is difficult to grasp, but only because it demands that we do something impossible: freeze the flame in a moment. Fire cannot be frozen in a moment, since it is, above all, a process. For fire, there is no now. More than anything else, except perhaps a river, fire draws our attention to the fact that time is not composed of moments. Ironically, Aristotle acknowledged this odd truth: time is infinitely divisible, so there are no atomic nows from which it is built, anymore than infinitely divisible space is built from atomic points. Instead, time is more like a river, into which you can step, so to speak, delimiting a now if you like , but thereby generating contradictions such as the simultaneous need and satiety of fire or the stasis of a river.

More than any other philosopher, before or since, Heraclitus affirms this nature of time, not just in his aphorisms on the world, but also in his aphorisms on the self. For the same paradox that arose for fire arises also for the self, most clearly when he declares: “I went in search of myself.” If Heraclitus is searching for himself, at a moment, he must both be himself and not be himself, since he is both the searcher and the sought. As searcher, he must be present to himself; as sought, he must be absent, lest there be no need for a search. As with fire, however, the paradox can be resolved by refusing to freeze self-inquiry in a moment. The search for self-knowledge, like the burning of fire, is a process. But this process of search discloses something amazing about the self itself: it too is a process. Indeed, if Heraclitus be believed, the self is a never-ending process, an unfinished project, an infinite identity: “You will not find out the limits of the self by going, even if you travel over every way, so deep is its logos.”


But why should Heraclitus be believed? Why is the logos of the self infinitely deep? Like a fire that grows with the addition of fuel, the Heraclitean self grows with the addition of knowledge. The Stoic Marcus Aurelius would later make this same analogy, twice comparing the strong self—the self that is open to the world and its obstacles, with the consequent opportunities for growth and learning—to “a bright fire that appropriates whatever you throw into it and from it produces flame and light.” By contrast, the weak self, like the weak flame, is overwhelmed by almost anything the world throws upon it. Lest it be extinguished by contact with risk, this fearful self erects barriers against the world, against even itself, thereby suffocating itself. The strong self, however, expands by this same contact, drawing additional strength that enables it to expand still farther, always exceeding itself. “To the self,” Heraclitus therefore adds, “belongs a logos that increases itself.” A human self is thus like a fire, but still more self-excessive, still more unlimited, still more infinite, because it can go in search of itself. Whereas a fire must burn fuel from without, the self finds fuel within. Seeking itself, as we have seen, it finds inside the same logos—the inexorable flow of greedy time—that it discovers outside, whether in a river, a fire, or the structure of the Heraclitean aphorisms themselves. But how shall it come to terms with this greed? In a word, by self-inquiry itself.

In self-inquiry, according to Heraclitus, there is no distinction between inside and outside; the same logos is everywhere. Wherever it finds this logos, then, the self gains self-knowledge, thereby augmenting itself by its search for itself. For there is no distinction, in the end, between finding oneself and searching for oneself: what the self finds in its search is that it is nothing more than this activity of searching. Thus spoke Heraclitus.

To make this obscure speech somewhat clearer, consider again the analogy between a self and a fire, particularly the flashing fire of lightning. “Lightning flashes”: in the reality described by this simple sentence there is not the lightning on the one hand and its flash on the other, despite the illusion created by the grammatical distinction between subject and predicate. “Grammar,” wrote Nietzsche, “is the metaphysics of the people.” In reality, the lightning just is the flash. So likewise with the self. “The self inquires”: in the reality described by this sentence there is not the self on the one hand and its self-inquiry on the other; the self just is the self-inquiry. This is a difficult activity to grasp, more difficult even than the activity of fire, and for the same reason: grasping it seems to demand that we freeze the self in a moment. Were we to do so, as it inquires into itself, we would generate the contradiction introduced above: because the self (as subject of the inquiry) investigates the self (as object of the inquiry), these two selves must be different for there to be a genuine inquiry, but they must also be identical for the self truly to inquire into itself.

Yet this beguiling contradiction disappears, as it did with fire, once we acknowledge that the self, like fire, is an activity. But what kind of activity is it? When we inquire which activity the self is, we inquire into ourselves; if the inquiry be a genuine self-inquiry, though, we find it to be this very activity of self-inquiry itself.

No wonder, then, that Heraclitus speaks also in the plural of those who step into rivers. There is no nugget of self within, no nugget that persists unchanged through time as though outside of it. Consequently, eschatologies that place selves outside of time are incoherent. Instead, the self is as impermanent as a river, as active as a fire, as embedded in greedy time as both. Unlike fires and rivers, however, the self comes to know this impermanence and activity—in the impermanent activity of self-inquiry, the inquiry that is indistinguishable from itself. In this inquiry, it encounters its own self-exceeding logos, which turns out to be the same self-exceeding logos of the world. A vibrant self—a virtuous self, if you will—is therefore one that inquires well, remaining open both to itself and the world, with minimal defenses obstructing its inquiry, ever exceeding itself in wisdom about self and world.

... Patrick Lee Miller, taken off The Immanent Frame

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