The great thinkers of ancient Greece were all poets. So, why do philosophers today, most of whom are not, believe they can understand the thoughts and, therefore, truths of philosophers back then? I say they can’t. Only another poet-philosopher can do that.
Roughly twenty-five hundred years ago, something very interesting happened on the planet. A people not at all unlike ourselves today started to put their heads together in such a way that they began to unravel a bit of the mystery surrounding who they were, where it is they came from, and why on Earth it was they were here. Though what written record of history exists up until that point is replete with many previous attempts to answer these same general kinds of questions, this group was different.
For tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years, we human beings have persisted on this planet relatively unchanged in our physiology. With a neurology invariably subject to the same biological laws and just as stable, it is likely that the various gods and creation myths we divined to rest a sense of order from the apparent chaos of the cosmos all around reverberate a deep, rich heritage of creativity of mind and freedom of thought yet to be fully revealed. As far as we know, though, never in all that time had a people set about looking for answers in quite the same way. As Bertrand A. W. Russell (1872–1970 CE), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, mostly for his monolithic work, “A History of Western Philosophy,” would later write, “What they achieved in art and literature is familiar to everybody, but what they did in the purely intellectual realm is even more exceptional.”
The people about whom I am talking are, of course, the Greeks of the 6th through to about the 2nd century BCE. And the part of the world to which I am referring is that of the Mediterranean — or, more specifically, the various coastal city-states scattered around the Aegean, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas. The difference was reason. Though not entirely logical or systematic at first, what the ancient Greeks had begun to do was think very carefully about themselves and the things of this world, as well as the universe at large. What is more, they fell in love with the act of thinking and, more importantly, with what that act seemed to produce . . . knowledge and, at times, something along the lines of truth. And they called it “philosophy,” love of wisdom.
Unfortunately, just as they were about to take an astounding step forward in the evolution of both mind and thought, something else happened. They got confused. To see what I mean, let us have a look at what is certainly one of the most enduring sayings accredited to the Greeks of that period.
More of a platitude, it comes to us by way of the great Athenian philosopher Plato (429–347 BCE). Through his equally iconic body of works known simply as the Dialogues, Plato has his even greater mentor Socrates (469–399 BCE), also from Athens, confront an aging Thracian sophist by the name of Protagoras (490–420 BCE) about his rather odd notion that “man is the measure of all things.”
Assuming his use of the word “man” denotes the singular, what Protagoras is reported to have meant by this is that truth is entirely dependent upon the individual. In other words, all that matters is what one believes to be the case, regardless of what anyone else feels or thinks. This naturally entails a universe in which nothing can be true in an absolute sense — that is, true for all things everywhere, at all times for everyone. What must necessarily exist instead is a plurality of sorts in which an infinite number of claims can be true at the same time for the exact same things. Termed relativism, softer versions of this stance have since provided tenable footing for a variety of fields of study and professional disciplines: Sociology, Anthropology, (in an increasing number of exceptions) Law, and even Quantum Mechanics, to name a few. The problem with this line of thought, however, is that it is paradoxical. If truth is indeed up to the individual, then the universal fact entailed — that there is no one truth — must not itself be true. And so, it seems that almost as quickly as Western civilization had taken its first divinely-unadulterated steps into the intellectually absolving waters of reasonable, enlightened inquiry, we wound up landing on our heads. The thing is, rather than correct ourselves for another go, we simply turned the world upside down in order to remain right.
To understand how a simple paradox could lead to a reordering of reality, we best not begin with Protagoras. About a half-century earlier there lived another far more remarkable Greek by the name of Heraclitus (540–480 BCE). Hailing from the ancient city of Ephesus on the western coast of what is today modern Turkey, Heraclitus had inadvertently laid the foundation for such thought when he supposedly said that “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Though he uses a different subject (a river instead of man) than Protagoras, it is the same relativistic footing for sure. If a river is primarily defined by its water, and the water completely replenishes the river over however long, is it not then a different river into which we step upon stepping a second time? Of course not, but the logical conclusion is that it certainly should be, quite in spite of the fact that we intuit the river as remaining one and the same however many times we step. We are then told that for Heraclitus this meant that the world is always changing and that everything in the world is in a constant state of “flux,” as he puts it. Therefore, there can be no knowledge of anything (man or river), because, as with Protagoras’ ‘man is the measure . . .’ claim, there can be no truth. Put another way, one can never know the river if there are indeed many rivers in the one, because to know the river, one would have to know them all, and that is impossible. So, if I were to then say to you, ‘Hey! Look at that river over there.’ Viewing the world through Heraclitus’ mindful eyes, you might very well reply, which one? But as it turns out, Heraclitus may not have thought this at all.
According to Dr. Daniel W. Graham, a leading philosophical scholar, writer, and historian of early Greek culture, the oft-quoted line is merely a weak paraphrasing by Plato. For comparison, Graham provides us with three other ancient references to Heraclitus’ river line: one by Cleanthes of Assos (ca. 330–230 BCE), another by the obscure 1st century Homeric commentator of the same name, Heraclitus, and another by the Roman, Greek historian, Plutarch (ca. 45–120 CE). Of the three, Graham argues that the one by Cleanthes is likely the most faithful.
Based on a number of literary styling cues known to have been used by Heraclitus (particularly that of syntactical ambiguity), the line is as follows: “potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei”. Translated, it reads: “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” Focusing squarely on the word “rivers” as that which for Heraclitus is “staying the same,” Graham believes the line offers a “more subtle and profound” insight into what Heraclitus may have been trying to tell us. “On this reading,” Graham explains, “Heraclitus believes in flux,” as mentioned, “but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).” Though we might agree with Graham’s essentially monist interpretation, there may, in fact, be more here. Let us look at the line again:
“On those stepping into rivers, staying the same, . . .”
Note my inclusion of commas to offset “staying the same” from the rest of the line. Substituting for what would otherwise be a natural pause both before and after, we see that not only may Heraclitus have held Graham’s view of a singular, ever-changing world of things forever on the move, he may very well have understood the misstep of thinking too much about any one thing therein (a river, for example) and had devised a way to correct us in the event that we should become reasonably turned around or, rather, flipped upside down by our thinking as I had playfully put it earlier.
On this new, extended read, what Heraclitus could have meant was that in order to truly know what is in fact the case (that is, the constancy of which Heraclitean flux is a necessary condition in the Graham interpretation), something else is surely required of us. Otherwise, all we have is more understanding, and the shores of more understanding, however far along you find yourself argumentatively, are fraught with intellectual dangers. The paradoxes of Plato’s weak paraphrasing and, especially, that of Protagoras’ ‘man is the measure . . .’ claim are perfect examples of these dangers. A paradox is what happens when reasonable thought turns back upon itself and becomes corrupt. It is well known that paradoxes were of special interest to the Greeks, but what if their interest in them is indicative of something else? What if paradoxes were simply rampant? If we accept, as they did, the conclusion of multiple rivers in one by natural consequence of the one being made up of many waters, and believe that we now know something about that into which we are being asked to step, then everything before the offset may be identifying what at the time was a veritable epidemic of corrupted thought.
At the height of Heraclitus’ proto-philosophical prowess, much of what we now understand about logic and reason had not yet been formalized. But this is not to say that logic and reason did not already exist. Prior to Charles Darwin and his publication of his “Origin of Species,” in which he describes his groundbreaking theory of Evolution, there lived and thought a number of like-minded, equally important figures in what was then called Natural Philosophy, all of whom together constitute an intellectual capital and momentum without which Darwin might never have possessed the wherewithal to make the observations he did nor arrive at the conclusions he had. Regardless of the endeavor or innovation, it is always upon the shoulders of others that we climb to new heights.
The same thing had happened in Greece. Widely considered the father of philosophical inquiry, Socrates was but a boy when Heraclitus died. By the time Plato had begun to immortalize him as the heroic lover of truth and knowledge (i.e., wisdom) in most of his writings, Socrates was dead as well. True debate, however, had been around a long time — at least one hundred years or more, if we count the birth of democracy in Athens as evidence of some kind of rational give-and-take having existed prior. A democracy cannot exist without an assembly of individuals empowered with a vote of consequence. And a vote of consequence is nothing if it is not capable of being aligned to one side of an issue or another. To align, one must appeal to a voter’s sensibility; the vehicle of which, even to this day, is almost always dialogue. Though it took the form of select citizens standing up before their fellow Athenians in the Pnyx — a sort of House of Commons — and delivering the points of their represented interests in rhetoric, nevertheless, one had to engage the positions presented in a thoughtful, concerned way. And wherever such thought and concern are brought to bear, there must naturally exist a germ of logic, some sprout of reason. And where there is that, we are engendered with the potential to slip into paradox.
As our apprehension and use of logic and reason became more pronounced, this slipping probably happened more often than not. It is we (the “others”), then, along with our errant preconception (the “rivers”), that are “staying the same” upon “stepping,” according to Heraclitus. Grammatically speaking, all we have done here is identify the complete subject: those + stepping + into + rivers. Thus, the focus of the line is not “rivers,” as Graham contends, but “those;” and not just “those,” but “those” in particular “stepping into rivers.”
As early Greek thought enthusiast Anthony Gottlieb tells us, Heraclitus also believed that experience was crucial to such inquiry. And on this point, if on no other, Heraclitus was not alone. For the Greeks of early antiquity, to experience — or, rather, perceive through the senses — anything in the world was literally a form of touching. So, to allow one’s thoughts to wander into such an absurd conclusion as multiple rivers in the one would have meant that the reasonable (“enlightened” notwithstanding) inquirer had fallen out of touch with the thing in the world — or, worse, the world itself — about which he had had a thought. And once knocked senseless (if you will excuse the pun), knowledge as well as truth become impossible to obtain. Given Graham’s interpretation of the line by Cleanthes as our steppingstone, everything before the offset suggests that Heraclitus may have believed himself surrounded by those whose minds had become confused in this way. Dutifully noting the problem, he offers his solution.
“. . ., staying the same, other and other waters flow.”
The words “staying the same” are included here again because, as Graham, I think, rightly points out, syntactical ambiguity demands they do double duty. This is the poetry soul of the ancients shining through. As does light upon the water or a mind upon its object, they reflect back upon the problem (the reasonably-corrupted standing of the mindful inquirer that may have represented an epidemic of corrupted thought) and forth upon Heraclitus’ solution (that is, the actual, distinctly human experience to be had of what is). Ingeniously, Heraclitus then has the solution itself reflect back upon the problem as well, using the words “other” and then “other” again, followed by the word “waters,” which is at once a summation of the paradoxical premise that got us there and, again, a point of fact in the raw that is finally resolved only at the end of the line in the word “flow.” The word “flow” carries us back around to the word “on” at the beginning to encapsulate quite elegantly the message and usher us along the line again if we should have missed the point of the exercise and are in need of another go.
So, ‘step into your rivers,’ he says (my own paraphrasing, here, as if he were standing in the sparkling, babbling wet before me — myself, again, after having fallen, steady upon the rocks of the rivers’ bank). ‘And do so exactly as you are . . . turned around or flipped upside down by having reasoned your way into many rivers from many waters despite there really only ever having been just the one, and experience upon your stepping these “other and other waters” of which you think and speak. Come (. . . a splash, followed by some waves, followed by some ripples, all reflecting). Stay . . . aware now in their “flow” (our proverbial saving grace). As my eyes skip across the surface of the waters roiling about my ankles, wet and cold, they expose the mind inside struggling to hold on to some singular instant that could justify at least one of the many rivers so many waters ago I had wrongly reasoned to define. Failing to do so, my thoughts twits upon the paradox and quietly fall still. I am then left with only silence and the scene.
In this way, Heraclitus seems to be anticipating something of the later, far Eastern traditions. Through poetic interplay, he is literally guiding us toward a knowledge of what is actual. To follow, we need only let go and become one with the observed — that is, be the river as the great masters of the Orient would later come to say — an ever-changing, forever-moving, ever-flowing one.
Strangely, the significance of the observer in Heraclitus’ river line appears to have gone unnoticed by both his contemporaries and everyone else throughout history inclined to examine him. Other than the word “you,” the observer is hardly even mentioned in Plato’s account. And as for the remaining references, Heraclitus’ inclusion of the observer is taken to be the author’s way of providing yet another example of something in the world for which certain knowledge cannot be obtained.
Here is the line by Plutarch: “It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state.” Here is the one preserved by Heraclitus Homericus: “Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.” And here is Graham’s interpretation: “One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter . . . a human body could be understood in precisely the same way.”
Ensconced in the luciferous language of our time, Graham has uncovered a path through Cleanthes’ river quote that allows us to escape the age-old, decidedly relativistic reading of Heraclitus, but as he seems to have missed the all-important role of the observer in our quest for truth, we find ourselves back in the water no better off than we were before. This puts an interesting spin on the ‘man is the measure claim . . .’ offered up by Protagoras. If correct about the observer, no matter how disparate our individual views may be about some thing or another in the world, or even the universe itself, if we simply step into the waters of our own private experience, what we are likely to find is truth and nothing else besides.
Of course, as with Heraclitus, we would have to read Protagoras a little bit differently than we ever have in order to derive such an interpretation from his claim. His use of the word “man” would have to be accepted as denoting the plural or all-inclusive sense as opposed to the singular. But allowing this, even though human beings would certainly be experiencing that truth independently of one another, the thing perceived (i.e., its being sensed) should remain relatively identical. What this means is that whatever truth is, it is indeed relative to the individual observer, yet all observers can access it in the same way, to the same effect. So, regardless of the extremes to which our minds might wander once having experienced or perceived something in the world, even where into paradox, knowing is merely a matter of taking the plunge — that is, of course, once we have picked ourselves up from that first false step. From a metaphysical standpoint, all we need now is a means to sure up Heraclitus’ picture of the ever-changing phenomenological world.
Given the importance of the Homeric oral tradition to the ancient Greeks, I assume poetry ruled their minds and, thus, their writings. Here is a poem of my own. In it, you’ll see the same literal ambiguities matched by an equally powerful point in tow.
Note the word “by” in the last line. Is it’s use causal or beside the point?
To read the decoder for this poem, click here. The link takes you to my poetry collection, a collection I promise to add to for the rest of my life. Thus, with just one purchase, you get a lifetime of reading.
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David Allen Farrell