When I first shook hands with Heraclitus, I was bewildered at his ability to ponder and to obscure. I was a wee lad of nineteen tender years, indeed, twenty-two years ago, delighting in my first summer away from home on a small college campus in Chicago, taking an introductory course in the Classical Era, when my doddering old professor introduced me to Heraclitus, a towering figure who winked his eye at you, inviting you into the sweet talk of impermanence from beneath affected furrowed brow. I didn’t get it.
One matriculates to small colleges, I suppose, to reinforce hardcore fundamentalistic objectivism. I just wanted the truth, not the journey. Why should I go to all that trouble when someone can just serve the truth to me in one of those expensive textbooks? Yes, yes, we get it, “One can never step into the same river twice.” Now can we get away from this aging hippie and on to the real philosophers?
Indeed, he is no aging hippie nor is he a philosopher. He belongs to that class of ancient professional thinker known as the Wise Man. Fragment I from his work On Nature indicates as much, saying, “It is wise for those who hear, not me, but the Logos, to confess all things are one.” I think he fits right in here at Sweet Talk, and–who knows?–if he hadn’t tried to treat his dropsy with a liniment of cow manure and baking himself in the sun, he might have been able to join our crew this day.
After twenty-two years I was embarrassed that I hadn’t stopped in to say hello to the old codger, and when I did, I learned that I had learned a few things, and that his invitation into the sweet talk of impermanence is actually something I get, after a few years of my trying to step into that ever-moving river. Well, I may not understand it all as well as he does, but I get it. Take a second look at Fragment I.
The fragment reads a bit more obscurely than we’re given, more like,
Not of me but of the Logos ones-having-heard to confess one-all-things-to-be is wise.
A speaker of Classical Greek, you see, has the opportunity to group words together for rhetorical effect. Heraclitus invites you to consider: when he speaks, what are you hearing? Are you hearing Heraclitus? No, no. He’s far too humble a man for you to think that he is something, some sort of intellectual pillar. He has merely listened to himself, and he has found within himself the Logos, a term he chooses intentionally in order to invite you into observing the cosmos. What is The Logos? “I don’t know, my friend, but it’s there” (sweeps hand across the horizon while draping other arm over your shoulder) “somehow.” You, my friend, have been invited to put a name to The Logos, to make it abstractly corporeal.
The context of Fragment I is from Hippolytus, who is recapitulating Heraclitus’ collapsing of God and Justice into one abstraction which describes the forces which govern our lives. Well, Heraclitus, what about injustice? How is injustice resolved if all things are God and all things are Just?
He glowers at you and winks. “The River,” he says. “That ever-flowing River.” He continues:
Into a river twice into the same not may you actually step, for other, and still other waters are indeed flowing.
I remembered him saying it impersonally, but he didn’t; he said, “you,” making it personal, like a Wise Man would make the cosmos personal and take it personal. Nevertheless, since you have been collapsed into God and Justice, Fragment XLI isn’t about you, personally; it’s about that River. Certainly, there exists injustice, but it serves, at last, Justice, and so do you (I’ll be writing more about that in another post).
What we have here is an early prohibition against telescoping your morality. Don’t feel like he’s singling you out, however. In the very next fragment, he invites everyone into the River at the same time.
Into the river into the same, to the ones who think to enter, other and still other waters are indeed flowing.
No one, not as an individual, nor en masse, has the power to affect or effect Justice. Heraclitus is careful, however, to avoid fatalism. That topic will be treated in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, I have to say, “Heraclitus, my old friend, you haven’t changed a bit.”