Friday, September 30, 2011

Heraclitus: according to the Logos 'all things are one'

To: Vincent L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus: according to the Logos 'all things are one'
Date: 23 March 2005 12:03

Dear Vincent,

Thank you for your email of 14 March, with your essay in response to the University of London examination question, 'Listening not to me, but to the LOGOS, it is wise to agree that all things are one' (Heraclitus). Discuss. 2003 Question 1 (a).

This is a well argued and well researched piece of work, which would certainly gain a high mark in an examination. I would mark it borderline for a 'first'.

You correctly identify the three issues raised in the question:

The significance of 'listening to the logos'
The significance of the term 'wise'
What Heraclitus meant by 'all things are one'

I have a minor disagreement with your interpretation of what it means to 'listen to the logos'. An contemporary interpreter of Heraclitus might well advance the (Wittgensteinian) notion of a 'form of life in which this discourse belongs' as casting light on the notion of 'logos'. But Heraclitus surely did not intend to say, 'listen to the way the language works'.

The soul is constituted by the logos or rationality and this is what gives each person - or at least those with sufficiently 'dry souls' - the capacity to tune in to the universal logos. ('The dry soul is wisest and best.') The human soul exemplifies the universal order of the cosmos. We can understand the essence of the real - that 'all things are one' - because we are rational and reality is rational.

When you come to discuss the three elements of the 'all things are one' doctrine' the essay loses focus just a little. You are absolutely right to raise the question, what more the doctrine of unity is meant to accomplish than 'bind horses, spoons and stars into one system of matter'. However, what you go on to write looks more like an answer to the question, 'Heraclitus' doctrine of the unity of opposites denies the law of non-contradiction. Discuss.'

A good way to approach the significance of the unity of opposites is to contrast Heraclitus with Anaximenes, who proposed a not dissimilar view. According to Anaximenes, what we perceive as 'opposites', e.g. wet, dry, hot cold etc are merely positions on a continuum defined in terms of 'condensation-rarefaction'. It was a novel idea that 'the hot' and 'the cold' merely signal differences in degree. So what did Heraclitus add to this view? How did Heraclitus succeed in going beyond Anaximenes?

According to Anaximenes, underlying all change is an unchangeable stuff, air, whose transformations produce all the changes, all the 'opposites' that we see. By contrast, Heraclitus rejects the idea of an unchanging stuff. The only thing that is unchanging is the logos itself, the law of change.

Interpreting the 'river' example in this light, one might question the more modest interpretation according to which 'not everything is changing, but the fact that some things change makes possible the continued existence of other things'. On that view, rivers change but 'diamonds are forever'. All sorts of things are changing all the time, but some things, like diamonds, remain constant.

In that case, how could Heraclitus be saying anything more than what Anaximenes claimed, that horses, spoons, stars - and diamonds - are all made of air, or, in Heraclitus' case, fire?

An alternative interpretation is that a diamond is like a river. Both are stable images produced by an underlying process. Law is all you need - stuff is dispensable. The idea that every object is 'flowing' like a river was Plato's interpretation of Heraclitus, which has lost favour amongst some modern interpreters. Personally, I think Plato understood Heraclitus better.

In an examination, you don't have to express a preference for one view over another. You will gain credit for showing an awareness that there is an issue of interpretation here which remains unresolved.

I agree that 'Heraclitus should not be taken literally when he says, 'the World is fire'.' He is not saying what Anaximenes said, only with fire substituted for air. Fire is a 'symbol'. So, as we have seen, is the river. Both fires and rivers are images or shapes constituted by a constant process of change. So whatever 'fire' is symbolic of, must include more than just the change aspect. The difference is that fire destroys, transforms, creates. It does not merely embody or represent change but is the primary agent of change. That is the logos.

The notion that 'there is one supreme God which is neither personal nor transcended but wholly eminent in the world' is one scholar's interpretation. Personally, I am not convinced. The 'gods', as Xenophanes observed, are not 'God'. However much we may 'desire union' with them, ultimately they are finite, limited beings, like us.

All the best,

Geoffrey