The War Machine

Of the translations I have read, I fancy Jaeger’s might capture the gnomic, terseness of Heraclitus’s Greek. 'Character-man's demon' (B 119), 'Dry flash--wisest and best soul' (B 118), 'Way up and way down--one and the same' (B 60), 'Invisible harmony--better than visible' (B 54), 'One man--to me ten thousand, if he be the best' (B 49). Jaeger links this terseness of expression to Hesiod’s Works and Days and to the collection of Theognis of Megara – ‘Here again we meet long rows of apophthegms strung loosely together’. But they are strung together by one who loved wisdom (there was as yet no word for philosophy …); like Pythagoras, Xenophanes and Parmenides, Heraclitus brings a tone to philosophy different to the Ionians who were content to dispassionately report their observations and research.

Heraclitus, separate and proud, having removed himself from the common run, presents himself as a man who has awoken. He addresses us, the sleepers. Do not heed what he says, heed what resounds through what he says. Heed the logos and wake up! His discourse is a war machine. It must be; it is in harmony with what he teaches.

War, he says - the clash of forces, with its associations of carnage and horror - is ‘father of all and king of all’. This is shocking, but Heraclitus is insistent: the division of the world into gods and mortals, slaves and the free is premised upon war, which is to say, the struggle of opposing forces and their interchange. Contra Homer, who laments the strife in the world of men and gods, and against Hesiod, who does not understand why the day is also the night, Heraclitus presents strife as the hidden principle behind everything. This is what one should hear in the logos.

This is illustrated through examples, each of which has to be grasped intuitively. Tension – the lyre – a joining together or harmony that allows opposing forces to work in unison. Thus the lyre can make music through a redoubled tension and the bow, whose name is life (a pun on bios, which means life and a bow), can accomplish its work of death. Take this fragment: 'They do not understand how that which draws apart agrees with itself: a fitting-together with counter-tension, as of the bow and the lyre' (B 51). Harmonia, Jaeger argues, is the third term which arises out of ‘the dynamics of two opposing forces stretched together so that they work in unison’.

Harmony? This word, which suggests peace and reconciliation, cannot translate harmonia. In another fragment we find 'Invisible harmony--better than visible' (B 54); hidden, all we have are symbols which can point us towards making the right intuition. But the logos is common even if it calls each of us to separate ourselves from the others. Heed the play of the logos in the war-like language of Heraclitus. Heed the common-uncommon logos which attends to the countertension to what appears peaceful and calm in the visible world.

Two Thoughts at Once

A few lines written in the margins of Jill Marsden’s remarkable After Nietzsche and Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation. This is really only a reading note, an attempt to open up something new for myself.

After Nietzsche, 24:

There are certain philosophical ideas that can be accessed only through self-abandon. For Nietzsche, the insight of Heraclitus into the ‘eternal wavebeat and rhythm of things’ is the product of a raw and restive meditation that has come to ebb and flow with this dark, inhuman pulse (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, 5). It is one thing to declare: ‘it is the fault of your myopia, not of the nature of things, if you believe you see firm land somewhere in the ocean of becoming and passing away’: quite another, as Heraclitus attests, to actually ‘see nothing other than becoming’ (ibid.)

What does Heraclitus see beyond the particular forms of things? Impermanence and unloosening. But how can he write about this if language cannot help but suggest permanency, if it always binds things – particular perturbations of chaos – to themselves, carving up the multiplicity of the world up into subjects and objects, and subordinating the multiple under the concept? By refusing to disambiguate his pronouncements, casting them in fragmentary and paradoxical form. Heraclitus suspends the thetic function of language allowing the ocean to rise up through this suspension. But how is this possible? Neither being (thesis) nor nothingness (antithesis) - nor the synthesis of the two -, Heraclitus, in the aphorism, affirms a thought that hovers between these contraries. Suspension, hovering between – are these the right words? It is equipoise, but a strife, a tension, a redoubled irreciprocity.

At some point, according to Blanchot, Bacchylides writes that because human beings are finite they must harbour two thoughts at once. Is this true? Yes, if thought is linked to an experience of the unconditioned, which no longer answers to the ‘I’ that would represent the world to itself through reflection. Two thoughts at once? The thought of the unconditioned and of the conditioned; the thought, that is, which answers to the world of determinate subjects and objects as they appear and disappear from the general economy of the indeterminable and chaotic. No longer does the known condition the unknown; it is the unknown and the unknowable that generates and dissolves the plane upon which subject and objects can appear. But this means the thinker, too, is caught in the flux of becoming; to think is also to endure an experience in which nothing exists in my place. What am I? Who am I? An open ecstasis, an ocean, in which the ‘I’ is only a wavebeat, a rhythm, which is done and undone, which appears and disappears.

Heraclitus is able to think two thoughts at once: he endures the experience of his own dissolution – some ‘one’, no one in particular, is wakeful and vigilant in thinking; a trace is left and marked in his writing. Two thoughts at once? Perhaps one could say he thinks thinking by sustaining a difference which will not close up into a unity – a vacillating movement which does not come to rest in one or other term. Neither one nor the other – why does Bacchylides claim that it is because we are finite that are thought is redoubled? I remember the famous lines from Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’, roughly paraphrased: we are so finite we cannot bring ourselves into the nothing through an act of will. It reaches us; it touches us, disclosing a difference between being and beings (two thoughts?) And so too must Heraclitus have been claimed by an experience to which he was able to bear witness. But how was this possible? It is as if, before it began – before it even found its name – philosophy, in the West (Heraclitus gave us the word philosopher, I think – or have I got it the wrong way round?) – was turned from itself.