BCC Intro Philosophy
Lecture on Heraclitus and the Beginnings of Greek Thought
We must start with the Greeks the way that we started with Egypt: with modern understandings of race and identity. This is because just like Egypt, the identity of the Greeks is a political problem that must be discussed. The Egyptians were an African people, and although they did not call themselves “black”. Likewise, the Greeks and Romans did not call themselves “white”. The terms “white” and “black” have a complicated history, as both were used by the Chinese and Muslims before Europe rose to power. Indian, Chinese, Persian and then European writers have used the term “white” to describe themselves favorably and have used the term “black” to describe other people unfavorably, but the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans did not use these terms. It is likely that the terms originated in Asia, amongst the Indians and the Chinese, where they are sometimes still used today. In fact, the Chinese portray the Buddha, who was Indian, to be Chinese and sometimes call Indian people “black”. The use of the terms passed through the middle east and the Islamic empires into Europe. Today, Europeans use the term “white” to describe themselves and “black” to describe Africans, though at times the Irish and Russians have been “blacks”. The British also used the term to describe Indians and other peoples.
As Europe rose in the wake of Islamic empire, Renaissance artists presented the Israelites, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to look like themselves. This is very much like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people presenting the Buddha and other Indian figures to look like themselves and not Indian. The Europeans began to refer to themselves, as well as the Greeks and Romans, as “white”. We can see from this complicated history that it is more accurate to describe the Greeks, Romans, and Germanic Europeans as interrelated but distinct ethnicities. The word “white” does not cover the differences. The Greeks and the Romans presented themselves as a bronzed and olive-skinned Mediterranean people, and neither the Greeks nor the Romans identified with the Germanic tribes to the North and West.
During the Renaissance, the Italians in each warring city state (Florence, Venice, and Rome) were convinced that they were each the original Roman Catholic Christian people though they often did not identify with each other. They also read Greek to read the Christian New Testament of the Bible (written in Greek and often translated into and read in Latin). Thus, the Greeks and Romans have been portrayed by Western Germanic Europeans (like myself) as European “white” people from the Renaissance up until the present time.
However, the Greeks were not always considered to be the birth of reason, politics, or science as they often are today, even by the Germanic peoples themselves. Renaissance thinkers, like Ficino and Pico, believed that Greek thinking originated in Egypt and Persia, speaking proudly of standing in the same tradition of philosophy with Zarathustra and Hermes (known to be the Greek version of Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge and scribes).
In Germany during the protestant Reformation there was a rejection of Rome and the Catholic Church and intellectuals of the time turned to Greek sources such as the original Greek New Testament. The Protestant scholars took Greek texts and made leaps in Biblical studies, philosophy, history, science and mathematics. This was not a rediscovery of their own people, as it was often misrepresented, but a rediscovery of the wider Christian tradition that included people of many different ethnicities such as the Greeks and the Romans. This situation rose along with Europe’s wealth and power, such that in the late 1700s, in the time of Hegel and the rise of German thought (archeology, philosophy and theory of history) the Greeks were called the birthplace of civilization. Many scholars even theorized that the Greeks were descended from the North (the Germanic slave peoples who the Greeks called uncivilized and stupid). While many of these scholars’ theories have been debunked, the impact of this theorizing remains with us today. This is the theory that we can disprove but we still believe and enshrine in museums, textbooks and most importantly, fictional and nonfictional cinema.
In this process, the Greeks ceased to be part of Christian heritage and became the birth of secular society, philosophy and science. They became the origin of the modern European nation state as these states ceased to be officially part of Christian empires. After WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust, the ‘’European Race’’ that was spoken of by scholars openly became an eyesore. In academic speak, ancient Greece, ancient Rome and modern Europe ceased to be “the European Race” and became “The West”. This is the story of our identity today. Notice that there is still the understanding of a European race underneath the new vocabulary, but today it is most often spoken of as “Western Culture” and also “the Western Mind”. These terms hide all of the differences between cultures and ethnicities. Notice also that Germanic people, like myself, are in fact the ancestors of the Celts and Germanic tribes, but these cultures are not celebrated as the origins of anything modern or European. The Germanic people, like the Arabs, came to inherit civilization from more ancient peoples and then wrote up the history books as if they themselves were civilization’s origins.
The Beginnings of Greek Philosophy: The Pre-Socratics
Now that we have talked about race, identity and “Western” history, it is time to talk about Heraclitus and the beginnings of Greek thinking which starts in modern day Turkey, the Eastern half of ancient Greece, the half that is not known as Greece today. Like Italy during the Renaissance, Greece was a set of city-states which did not often identify with each other, territories circling the Aegean sea in what is today Greece and Turkey. Athens, the birthplace of Socrates and home to Plato and Aristotle was one of these city-states, and Ephesus, the birthplace of Heraclitus and other thinkers active before Socrates, was another.
We only have fragments of the pre-Socratic (before Socrates) thinkers’ thought and writings. These thinkers were believed to have been active between 600 and 400 BCE. We have no writings of Socrates and only some of the writings of Plato and Aristotle. As best as we know, Greek thought began with Thales, the first thinker/philosopher/scientist of whom we have fragments from other ancient authors who write about him and his theories. Thales and several other early Greek thinkers lived in the ancient city-state of Miletus (in modern day Turkey). Thales believed that the cosmos and all things are made of water. Miletus is quite close to Ephesus, where Heraclitus, who was born just before 500 BCE and shortly after Thales, believed that all things are made of fire. Both cities had been provinces of the Persian empire, and so it was under the influence of Zoroastrianism (developed about 1000 BCE) and the cultures of the Persian empire.
The Skepticism of Heraclitus
Heraclitus’ most famous idea is a memorable image: you can never step in the same river twice. Just as a river is always flowing and changing, so is reality always flowing and changing, such that nothing stays exactly the same for any two moments. You step in a river, then step out, then step back in the same river, but it is no longer ‘the same river’. Heraclitus says this is also true of himself.
According to one source, Heraclitus was a king who abandoned the title to become a philosopher. This has been identified as a close resemblance to the story of the Buddha in India, and some scholars have argued that Heraclitus was in fact the Buddha from India while others have argued that the Buddha was in fact Heraclitus from Greece. Both thinkers were mythologized as a king who left powerful king position and became a sage, and both believe in the enlightening sun rising above the watery chaos of reality and human perception, but it is quite likely the two were not the same individual.
Heraclitus is a very skeptical thinker. This does not mean he saw all things as negative. He was convinced that wisdom and inquiring within show us that all is one big cosmic fire, and things that unify the community and the individual bring wholeness and true happiness. However, he believed that humans are often foolish and let their minds divide themselves from the whole and from each other such that their understandings are disjointed and ignorant.
This is very typical thinking of skeptics the world over. A positivist would say that there are specific truths that are certain and must be separated from the uncertain, specific goods that must be separated from the evil. A skeptic would say, like Heraclitus and the Daoists from China, that the truth and the good is the whole and the great One, and the tendency of the mind to divide the good and the true from the rest is the opposite of true understanding and wisdom.
Heraclitus was not a fan of experts and specialists, and he ridiculed the cultural leaders of his time. He says that the common people are completely asleep, but far more dangerous are the experts who have a small piece of the puzzle and say that they know the entire truth. He calls the poets (Hesiod and Homer) and the Pythagoreans frauds, and says that there are no permanent truths or laws other than the constant formation of watery chaos by the sun and cosmic fire. Notice that this does not question the set up of the cosmos as we have studied it everywhere (and what the Persians gave to the Eastern Greek city states). Many often ask, “Why, then, should I listen to Heraclitus, since he is simply an expert?”. Heraclitus replies as most skeptics do: don’t take my word for it, but look into the world and within yourself and you will find that it is true.
This is a psychological skepticism that is criticizing the human ability to know particular things as permanent that are able to be separated from the One and All (the cosmic fire). Only the All is permanent. All the other things are wandering temporal forms. The many beings arise from the energy of Being, and then they fall back into the fire and disappear. The cosmos resembles the chaos yet order of the human community centered on authority by spoken word. The LOGOS, the word/plan/order/command, is the formative force in the cosmos, the force of fire and light in the watery chaotic world. The cosmic fire speaks with its ever-present Logos (fire over air) and this brings about the firmament in the chaos (the earth rising out of the water). This process, however, does not bring about eternal or stable beings, but chains of beings that are in flux and interdependent.
This goes also for laws, which Heraclitus says have to be defended as if they were city walls. This is sometimes read that Heraclitus thought human law was important and had to be defended, which he did, but in fact he is also telling us that human laws are impermanent like walls made out of earth. They may seem eternal and permanent, but as any former citizen or city of the Persian empire knows, empires fall and impressive city states are overthrown and change hands. The eternal word of the fire forever forms the cosmos, but human speech and walls are temporary, and therefore take force and effort to maintain. As a skeptic, Heraclitus believes that the divisions made by the mind are mortal, not eternal, like the human body. Our knowledge and laws are impermanent like mounds of dirt.
Heraclitus was one of the most famous thinkers of the Greek and Roman world. He was a big influence on Plato, though Plato is very much opposed to his thinking as we will see next week. Both Heraclitus and Plato were big influences on Christianity which initially flourished not in Israel but in Greece and Syria. If a primal speaking of the Word or Logos sounds familiar, Heraclitus was a central influence on the Greek and Roman stoics, and the author of the Gospel of John was almost certainly a Greek stoic writing in Roman times. The opening of the Gospel of John famously reads: the Logos/Word/Order was with God (Fire/Cosmos), and God spoke (“let there be light”) and light was separated from darkness.
It was only in the late 1700s and 1800s that German scholars rediscovered the presocratics and gave them attention and study. Before this time, Greek Philosophy was considered to have originated with Socrates (hence, “presocratics”) and most scholars were only versed in the surviving writings of Plato and Aristotle. Schleiermacher, one of the most famous and central protestant theologians and an opponent of Hegel, was a major force in bringing popularity to Heraclitus and a major translator of Plato. The philosopher Hegel, who we will study later, saw Heraclitus as a skeptic who is put in balance with Plato and other positivists by the course of history itself. Nietzsche, the great skeptical philosopher who we will also study, wrote that he felt closer to Heraclitus than any other thinker. Nietzsche believed, like Heraclitus, that we are proud of our learning and achievement but we are in fact little better than apes.