Monday, February 21, 2011

Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher

To discover the pre Socratic philosophers of the ancient Mediterranean region is both exciting and frustrating. Here are people who begin to step back from 'bios', from life as they had received it with every phenomena attributed to the gods or to magic. They think for themselves, questioning and looking for patterns and a natural explanation. They are like Thales, able to predict, measure and reason out solutions and they look within as they question what it might mean to be human. They practice silence and solitude, sharpening their senses and practicing an internal dialogue. One common metaphor that in one form or another runs from Pythagoras to the Roman Stoics is that of the philosopher being an observer at the market or gymnasium and therefore being able to draw conclusions rather than  be caught up in the emotional thrill of the herd. There is a frustration to a study of the pre Socratics as so much we would love to read has gone probably for ever. We have fragments and anecdote to draw upon.

Heraclitus is one such enigmatic figure living from around 544 BCE to 484 BCE in the city of Ephesus, the city of the goddess Artemis. His writings on paradox, the flow of never ending change, the cycling of the universe between fires, the necessity of strife and tension to reveal the Logos or word, and the unity of opposites have been profounding influential for many philosophers and challenge us today.

Heraclitus is called the weeping philosopher or the obscure or dark philosopher encase his aphorisms and perhaps because of his character. Here was a man who chose not to value status or reputation. If indeed we live in a world of flux where a sense and belief that everything is permanent is the greatest illusion of them all it follows that either we will live fearfully grasping and grieving, or resigned to our fate or with a sense of joyful transience. Reason becomes the still centre of insight.

The Penguin Classics, 'Early Greek Philosophy' Edited by Jonathan Barnes is excellent but I also have also discovered 'Fragments' translated by the poet Brooks Haxton and published by Viking with a supurb and thought provoking foreward by James Hillman. This has the Greek and the English on opposite pages.

There is a single word aphorism 'ake' which means silence, lulling and healing. Amid the flux we can choose to be mindful and still. Like the moment after the exhalation we can rest knowing that our body is still active before the wave of the inhalation enters our body.

Practicing silence and solitude, creating a reputation as a misanthopic person, choosing the dryness of thought in a city awash, we may guess with emotion and centred around the goddess of love, may have been Heraclitus choosing to let his life be a witness.  By difficult and dark aphoristic languaging he was perhaps choosing a prophetic stance stepping away from herd thinking and behaving. Is that such a bad thing we may wonder? I like to think that he was not just a misanthropic person but chose that identity as a deliberate philosopher's cloak.

'ake' may be a watchword, a motto, the stone of silence we carry with us, as we choose not to speak, or be people of few words in our own obsessive, chatty, facebook world.

Ake may bring us to an inner centre of intense stillness, healing and peacefulness, a still calm cool in which the light of the stars of truth are reflected. Everything is in tension, constant movement but a mind that flows with transience wisely is able to see more clearly and with precision. As Heraclitus observes.

"The harmony past knowing sounds more deeply than the known" ( p 31 Haxton )

No comments:

Post a Comment