Teach yourself with Heraclitus

I am currently reading the works of Heraclitus from quite an old book – Heracliti Ephesii Reliquiae by I. BYWATER printed in 1877. The book is falling apart but I hope to reach the end before it finally disintegrates.

I want to generate a few posts from this book but my first post is on reading Heraclitus and  what I say applies to the classical Greek authors in general and in fact may things in life.

The first thing to say about Heraclitus is that he is obscure and had a reputation for obscurity even as far back as Aristotle and he had the whole of Heraclitus’ book to look at whereas we only have fragments found in other authors. And at top of that we have the long reach of time which makes interpreting the thought patterns of those so distant from us so difficult.

Now I could say that it is lucky for us that so many great minds have already applied themselves to the the interpretation of his words and we can go to them for explanations. But I would say it is far more satisfying and rewarding to read Heraclitus without knowing or caring how other people have understood him. We may need some help in understanding the language or some of the underlying concepts that would have been familiar to every Greek but we are far better off coming to an understanding of what he means by ourselves. To back me up, here are some quotes from ancient authors.

ἤκουσέ τ’οὐδενός, ἀλλ’αὑτὸν ἔφη διζήσασθαι καὶ μαθεῖν πάντα παρ’ ἑωυτοῦ

He (Heraclitus) studied under no one but claimed that he enquired of himself and learnt everything from himself.

Diogenes Laert. Ix 5 (Notes on LXX in Heracliti Ephesii Reliquiae I. BYWATER)

So Heraclitus himself didn’t need other people to explain things to him. I would not claim that we do not need teachers or books but they should be aids to understanding. In a way you could pass exams questions on Heraclitus and even write doctoral theses just by regurgitating and recombining what others have written without every having actually grasped what he meant. So how do we grasp his meaning.

Αὐτὸς ὁ ἐν Δελφοῖς θεός, οὒτε λέγων , καθ’ Ἡράκλειτον,  οὒτε κρύπτων ἀλλὰ σημαίνων τὰς μαντείας, ἐγείρει πρὸς διαλεκτικὴν διερεύνησιν τοὺς ἐπικοόυς τῶν χρησμῶν.

According to Heraclitus, the god in Delphi (Apollo) doesn’t openly declare his oracles nor does he keep them hidden but by indicating them by signs he arouses the hearers of the oracles to interpret their meaning by conversation.

Stobaeus Floril. lxxxi.17 (Notes on XI in Heracliti Ephesii Reliquiae I. BYWATER)

By this he means that Apollo gives the oracle but you have to do your bit and work out what it means. You do this by conversation (dialectic in the Greek). That is either by discussion with other people or perhaps some internal thought process. The same applies to the sayings of Heraclitus. They don’t come with the meaning clear. We have to think and talk about them and it is this process that helps us understand them so that in the end it is as though we had written them ourselves.

This is similar to the situation in Plato’s Meno where the slave is taught to solve a mathematical problem. Socrates did not say to the slave ” This is the rule to double a square”; he took him through step by step so that in the end the slave solved the problem by himself. Likewise by turning over these sayings, sometimes we get a flash and a meaning emerges as if we were going undergoing a Platonic recollection. That is we were remembering something we already knew.

In some of my future posts I will write how I have interpreted some of the sayings using my own personal dialectic.

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