Monday, January 30, 2023

Heraclitus and Empedocles - Everything flows - eyes roamed alone

My rummage through the early Greek philosophers has been rewarding, but it is a strange exercise.  “Readers of this book will, I suspect, be frequently perplexed and sometimes annoyed” write Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, a collection with commentary of the most useful and interesting Presocratic fragments, which Barnes says he finds “objects of inexhaustible and intriguing delight” (p. xxxv).  Even more than in my ordinary reading, I am forced to assemble an author from scraps.

Part of the frustration is that so often there is so little to read.  As interesting a figure as Pythagoras, perhaps more a religious figure than a philosopher, left not a single line of writing, even in the works of his followers.  I construct Pythagoras from commentaries on Pythagoras written hundreds of years after his life.  The result, for me, is rather vaporish.

So I thought I would look today at two figures, Heraclitus and Empedocles, with strong personalities, not coincidentally because they both give me more to read.

Heraclitus was an aphorist by nature.  “Character is fate,” for example, although the compression of ideas here belongs as much to Novalis as to Heraclitus. 

Everything flows; nothing remains.

One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.  (160 of Seven Greeks by Guy Davenport, who prefers “Herakleitos”)

I’m just picking out the most famous sayings, the “wise man” stuff, although these do seem unusually wise to me, the kind of simple but deep thing I associate with the idea of a sage.  It helps – the rewards of immersion – to know that Heraclitus is responding to Parmenides and Zeno and their idea that there is, really, no change at all, but just the illusion of change.  Heraclitus argues for the reverse. 

The “river” aphorisms (“The river we stepped in is not the river in which we stand,” 169) are also linguistic arguments.  Do we agree about what “river” means, exactly?  Heraclitus prefigures Wittgenstein.  Are we arguing about something real, or just about what words means?

The principle of all things is fire.  The world operates by means of opposites.  Knowledge is of the greatest value, but “[k]nowledge is not intelligence” (6), since the other philosophers are all idiots.  Like I said, strong personality.

We’ll return to Seven Greeks when we get to Diogenes the Cynic.

Empedocles, like Pythagoras, was a mystic, in fact a god by his own testimony:

I, in your eyes a deathless god, no longer mortal,

go among all, honoured, just as I seem… (203, tr. Brad Inwood in The Poem of Empedocles, 1992)

now wandering the earth in many forms to expurgate some unspecified sins:

I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer,

trusting in mad strife. (209)

He died by leaping into the volcano on Mount Etna, perhaps to move on to his next stage of godhood, or more hilariously to convince people that he had vanished into heaven, a trick foiled when the volcano spit out one of his distinctive bronze boots.

Empedocles gets credit for claiming all things are a combination of four elements (fire, water, etc.), a long-lasting idea.  He combines it with two forces, Love and Strife, that constantly, cyclically cause all motion.  How is this so different than a world made of 118 elements moved by four fundamental forces?  Empedocles accepts the Parmenidean idea of existence as a motionless sphere, but only in the most extreme, perfect stage of Love, before Strife causes the cycle to start again.

More original than the cosmogony of Empedocles is his theory of evolution.  Creatures begin to emerge from the muck, but they are only partial:

As many heads without necks sprouted up

and arms wandered naked, bereft of shoulders,

and eyes roamed alone, impoverished of foreheads (235)

As these semi-creatures randomly bump into each other they are either repelled or combine to form more complex animals:

Many with two faces and two chests grew

oxlike with men’s faces, and again there came up

androids with ox-heads, mixed in one way from men

and in another way in female form, outfitted with shadowy limbs.  (237)

The poems of Empedocles is really a poem, full of metaphor and imagination.  In terms of pure imagination, I doubt any of the later philosophers are going to top “eyes roamed alone.”

Next month I am going to explore the Sophists and read some of Plato’s dialogues that focus on either the Sophists or the Presocratics.  A month from now, I hope to write about Theaetetus (Presocratics) and Euthydemus (Sophists).  Also likely along the way: Parmenides, Sophist, and Charmides.  These are mostly quite short.  Theaetetus is 120 pages.  The Sophistic Movement by G. B. Kerferd (1981) will be a good supplement.


  1. A bit sideways, perhaps, but one of my favorite novels, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Disturbances in the Field, follows its protagonists partly through the lens of their readings in philosophy, beginning with the ancient Greeks - this is where I learned whatever I know (or think I know) about Heraclitus, for instance. The line about the ever-changing river has always resonated with me too; I think you are right about the "sage" quality of these insights, sounding simple but actually being deep. Why is it that contemporary writers who aspire to the role of sage sound so thin by comparison?

  2. (That wasn't meant to be anonymous, sorry. It's me, Rohan!)

  3. How interesting. I think I will take a look at the Schwartz novel, thanks.

    You are used to George Eliot, among the greatest of novelist-aphorists. Not many writers will meet that standard. But that is my impression as well, that few writers who reach for wisdom are actually wise.

  4. "Why is it that contemporary writers who aspire to the role of sage sound so thin by comparison?" I am tempted to say it's because many contemporary authors get their philosophy from internet memes, and not from thinking, but that would be unkind. I'm also not sure it's a greater problem with contemporary novels than it was in the past. After all, time has winnowed away most of the shallow novels that presumed to be wise, yes? Look at the dreck that Miriam Burstein trolls through in her research, for example.

    I will say that an awful lot of current novelists sort of name-check ideas rather than give those ideas a good looking over. Franzen, for example, is a major offender.

    Aphorisms, though. Everyone loves aphorisms. Pascal owes a clear debt to Heraclitus.

  5. Aphorisms, good ones, are so hard to write. It was instructive to learn that Rochefoucauld actually workshopped his, word by word (the workshop was the most exclusive Paris salon).

  6. That makes me imagine a standup comic in a powdered wig, trying out new jokes at a bar with his colleagues.

  7. Disturbances in the Field is one of my favorites as well. If you read it, I hope you will write about it.

  8. i will write about it (the book is apparently in the library delivery van at this moment). I do not write about many books I read anymore, but I am happy to take requests.

  9. > One cannot step twice into the same river ...
    Heraclitus evidently loved ambiguity and multiple meanings. In the original Greek the word 'same' applies either to the river or to those crossing it, which adds a twist which cannot be easily expressed in translation.

  10. How interesting. He was routinely described as "obscure."