Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Pre-Socratics II: Heraclitus and Anaximander

No. 373: Saturday, May 2, 2009

Les présocratiques dans le désordre.

One point most strongly made in Scott Austin’s Parmenides (mentioned in the preceding Chronicle) is his subject’s insistence on controlling predication. Austin points out that after telling us that we can only know what-is and not what-is-not, Parmenides proceeds to qualify what-is with a series of negatives, but never by negating the copula with ouk estin (is not). Instead, he uses privative terms such as akineton, anarchon, apauston: immovable, without beginning, without end. If metaphysics be defined by its assertion of the primacy and autonomy of the proposition or declarative sentence, Parmenides may be called the first metaphysician. That he nevertheless does not make the distinction, central to Aristotelian formal logic and implicit in Plato’s Ideas, between the conceptual content of a sign (Saussure’s signifié) and its potentially worldly referent reflects his pioneering status as the first philosopher to establish rules for a mode of discourse that must demonstrate its own truth (Kant’s "a priori"). Parmenides acclimates the sacred in philosophical discourse by transforming its absolute, ostensive nature into a quality, the absolute quality of being what-is that justifies the use of the copula to designate its predicates/attributes. The what-is embodies the transcendence that is the ground of predication, although, given Parmenides’ conflation of being-as-ground and being-as-referent, the only conceivable predicates are privative. For before we can distinguish between the be-ing of something that is and the predicative relation expressed by the copula in "all men are mortal," we must establish that what we make true predications about is; we must be sure that the originary ground of being that could only be pointed to has carried over into the realm of the proposition. Austin explains convincingly why Parmenides avoids negating the copula from within his own conception of being, but it is also useful to note that the privative nature of predicates such as immortal, unchanging, unborn, undying, establishes the act of predication itself as taking place in an "absolute" sign-world beyond mortality: what one says of something is said of it forever.

By rights before taking up Parmenides I should have dealt with Heraclitus, the other leading pre-Socratic, who lived about a generation earlier(born around 540 BC, against 515 or so for Parmenides), and to begin with, Anaximander (born about 610 BC), who can be called the first real philosopher, since his mentor, Thales, the first of the Ionian physikoi, does not seem to have applied his speculations to human affairs. But it is not without value, after having sketched the origin of metaphysics in the passage from Parmenides through Socrates to Plato (and on to Aristotle, who completes the establishment by formalizing it in logic), to consider what is added to philosophy by these more "primitive" thinkers, in whose writing the fundamentally ethical purpose of the new thinking is made clear for the first time.

Heraclitus shares with the other pre-Socratics their distrust for worldly mentation. "What even the most respected man knows and defends are imaginings/opinions" (Diels 28A). The last word, dokeonta, is a cognate of doxa, "opinion," which gives its name to the inferior Parmenidean "way." Yet Heraclitus suggests that the paucity of the wise is due not to a cognitive but a moral failing. To his Delphic statement that he went "in search of himself" (101), he adds that "it is for all men to know themselves and be of good sense (sophronein)" (116).

Heraclitus is the first thinker to use the term logos in a restrictive sense to refer to a specifically philosophical mode of language. When he says that each human soul has a logos that augments itself (115), this logos, if we interpret it as the voice of truth that grows in each soul, links the originary language of the sacred to that of philosophy; it is the far-off ancestor of Kant’s Vernunft via the logos of the fourth Gospel. The logos that Heraclitus opposes to what Parmenides calls Opinion (doxa) refers ambivalently to his own discourse and discourse in general, corresponding to the order of things. The longest fragment (1), which begins "although this logos is [true] forever men fail to comprehend it"—"forever" can be taken either with what precedes or what follows—appears to refer explicitly to his own text, sometimes considered the first prose book, to which it may have been an introduction. But the superiority of Heraclitus’ logos comes not from any Parmenidean restriction on its subject matter but from the "commonness" that makes it inaccessible to ordinary mortals: "although the logos is [shared in] common, most live as though they possessed their understanding in private (idian) (2)." This Durkheimian opposition between community and individual interests is reiterated in "of all those whose discourses (logous) I have heard, none has reached the point of knowing that wisdom/what is wise is set apart from all [things or men] (108)," and, most succinctly, in "thinking (phroneein) is common to all" (113).

Like the other pre-Socratics, Heraclitus reduces the universe to a single "element," that of fire: "All things are in exchange/requital (antamoibe) for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods" (90). But as opposed both to a material constituent such as Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ air and to the abstraction of Anaximander’s apeiron (unlimited), fire is a process, a release of energy. Indeed, Heraclitus could be said to anticipate Einstein’s discovery that the universe is best understood as composed of energy rather than matter. But the comparison with gold and goods makes clear that the primary source of Heraclitus’ intuition of dynamic unity is the human institution of the market, which is the new element that permits him to conceive even the most destructive phenomena as generative of new natural and human order. This new form of exchange supersedes that of ritual sacrifice, whose efficacy Heraclitus denies: "They are purified in vain with blood, those polluted with blood" (5).

In Heraclitus’ integrated view of the cosmos, any apparent stability results from the deferred violence of an equilibrium between conflicting forces. This principle is neither simple anthropomorphism nor an example of "physical" speculation; the emphasis of the fragments makes clear that Heraclitus’ principal concern is ethical. The difference between the human and natural orders is revealed by his dictum that human violence (hubris) must be quenched in preference to a fire (43); we may interpret this as a warning that human violence risks destroying the human itself, as opposed to the eternity of natural destruction and creation. This does not contradict Heraclitus’ better known assertion that war is the "father and lord of all [things/persons]" (53), where externally directed human violence provides a model for nature.

Heraclitus’ conception of order is that of an equilibrium under tension, a complex ontology that he declares beyond ordinary understanding; presumably because "private" thinking can grasp only one vector of force at a time, "[men] do not understand how a thing agrees in differing with itself; it is a harmonization turning back on itself, like the bow or the lyre (51)." This tension, which Parmenides would expel from his sphere of the what-is, expresses the originary ethical basis of the figure of totality as deferred conflict. We may understand in similar fashion Heraclitus’ criticism of Homer’s prayer that "conflict might vanish from among gods and men: for there would be no harmony without high and low notes, nor animals without male or female" (A22). Heraclitus’s most famous line, that one never steps twice into the same river (91), is the iconic statement of this dynamic conception of order. The river as a symbol of Being is the opposite of the Parmenidean sphere; it is a dynamic system whose stability derives from an equilibrium of forces, like that of the bow or the lyre, but which adds the temporal element of flow.

As befits his conception of being as constituted by conflicting forces rather than emerging from a transcendent source, Heraclitus seems to have believed in a cyclical "eternal return" of destruction and rebirth that effaces any consideration of originary symmetry. One source tells of a 10,800-year Great Year in which the world alternates between flame and water (A13). Crucially, like Heraclitus’ own society, the society that emerges from violence is specifically hierarchical: "war/conflict" (polemos) . . . makes some slaves, others free (53)." Violence produces a differential order rather than the originary symmetrical configuration of the human periphery around the sacred center, a configuration that will return in abstract form in the eternal, symmetrical equilibrium of Parmenides.

The additional complexity introduced by hierarchical society complicates the fundamental ontology of transcendence, the understanding of which is necessary to permit the birth of philosophy proper. Heraclitus’s philosophy is both archaic and modern in its recognition of the dynamic, conflictive nature of both natural and human order. Fascinating to our age "in the margins of philosophy," his cyclical version of originary eventfulness is incompatible with the Parmenidean rigor that permitted the emergence of metaphysics. Until a definitive opposition has been established between the transcendent and the worldly, the world of signs and the world of things, thought cannot begin to reflect on itself as an autonomous process. The royal road of philosophy leads from Parmenides through Socrates to Plato, whose highly respectful Parmenides contrasts with his fanciful representation of Heraclitus’ thought in the person of his eccentric disciple, Cratylus.

Going back another two generations before Heraclitus, we encounter "the first sentence of philosophy," the Anaximanderspruch, the subject of a well-known essay by Heidegger.

And the place of the genesis of existing things is the same into which their destruction proceeds "by necessity, for they pay each other penalty/justice (diken) and retribution/fine (tisin) for their injustice (adikias) according to the measure of Time," as [Anaximander] describes it in these rather poetical terms. (Simplicius)

Simplicius’ comment on the style of the passage allows us to consider it as an actual quotation, the only one we have for this early Milesian. The "injustice" of things, like Heraclitus’ figure of fire as genesis, conveys a vision of an asymmetrical social order in conflict with the symmetry of the underlying moral order, whence the binary language of injustice (adikia) and penalty/justice (dike); at the same time, the term fine (tisis) already suggests monetary compensation. This complication of the originary sacred-profane distinction perturbs the symmetry of Durkheimian "primitive classification." Mauss’ system of gift-exchange, which reflects this originary symmetry, understands its endless series of disequilibria as generating obligations whose non-fulfillment carries a potential curse, but not as embodying injustice and penalty. Anaximander’s is a philosophical model of the original sin of hierarchical society whose wage is the mortality of the things of this world. The apeiron or "unlimited" from which all things are born and into which they return is a figure of symmetrical emptiness, which alone preserves the originary equilibrium between center and periphery.

Anaximander’s original insight into the conflictive nature of human order may well have given birth to philosophy, but like that of Heraclitus, it must be put aside for the child to prosper. Parmenides’ compact sphere of being knows nothing of the language of injustice; it is infinitely substantial and symmetrical, leaving behind the incertitude of the profane world and transmuting the absolute truth of the sacred into that of conceptual logic. As Parmenides no doubt already intuited, and as Plato and the future course of philosophy would bear out, this abandonment of the originary symmetry of the "moral model" was not a turning away from ethical reflection but on the contrary, its only conceivable path of development.

In the preceding Chronicle, I "defined" philosophy as an operation motivated by the conviction that all human conflict can be expressed and settled in language. The impetus for this development was given by the need to mediate the tension between individual and communal ethics, a role no longer effectively performed by sacred ritual in trading societies whose hierarchical organization lacked a stable ritual center. For the first philosophers, this meant little more than the sense that the world, indifferently human and natural, was a terrain open to the power of the human mind newly liberated from the constraints of ritual dogma. But as the new thinking explored its possibilities and encountered its limitations, it evolved inexorably toward metaphysics, which cuts language off from its ostensive origin so that it can furnish "context-free" models of reality.

Anaximander’s cosmic figure of justice and retribution reflects the scandal of ethical asymmetry. Heraclitus’ figure/concept of fire reestablishes a central source of creation and destruction. His ontology generates being from suspended conflict in the harmony (armonian) of the lyre and the bow, incorporating punishment and even disease: "It is not favorable for men to get whatever they want; disease makes health sweet and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest" (110-111); "if it were not for [crime and punishment], they would not have known the name of justice" (105). Thus where Anaximander explained the hierarchical world in neo-Maussian terms as a guilt-laden gift exchange, Heraclitus’ universe obeys a transcendental ethic beyond our individual sense of justice: "For the god, all things are beautiful and good and just, but men have taken some this as unjust, others as just (102)." Heraclitus puts "unjust" first, emphasizing our originary resentment, but makes no ontological claim within his own logos as to the beauty and goodness of things; he merely observes that the values of the sacred orderer of the cosmos transcend those of men.

Yet when he turns to the specifically human order, Heraclitus insists on the rule of law (nomos); a city should fight for its law as for its walls (44)." These laws participate, in a way not specified, in the transcendent order; they are "nourished" (trefontai) "by the one, divine law" (114). Heraclitus cannot define more specifically the mediation expressed by "nourishment" any more than he can define what distinguishes the "best" who is worth ten thousand others (84B) or the "few" good men (104). Because he cannot define the place of his own logos with respect to transcendence, Heraclitus belongs to wisdom literature as much as to philosophy. What makes him nevertheless the most important thinker before Parmenides is his originary intuition that the stability of "being," that of human institutions as well as of cosmic structures, is in reality the tension of forces in equilibrium—of deferred conflict. This allows him the first clear insight into the Durkheimian problem of distinguishing and mediating between communal and individual values that is at the heart of philosophy.

But Heraclitus’ conflictive characterization of being applies as well to his own logos. Like the ever-self-differing river, his propositions embody the tension between an apparently stable subject and a predicate that reveals its inherent instability. Metaphysics will have to banish this kind of poetry before it can invent a poetry of its own.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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