Heraclitus and knowledge

ξυνόν ἐστι πᾶσι τὸ φρονέειν.

Understanding is common to all

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

Although the law of understanding is common to all, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.

What I think Heraclitus means by these statements is that there is a true knowledge which is available to all people if they would think intelligently. If you think differently from this true knowledge then you are misguided. For instance if you were to say the earth is flat, you would be wrong. This is not just a matter of opinion. You wouldn’t say to a flat earther that his opinion was just as valid as any other and all opinions should have equal weight. You would say he was wrong and didn’t share in the knowledge which was common to all.

In a way we all implicitly believe in this view of Heraclitus and it is the underlying principle behind science. Where we differ is in believing this knowledge is easily accessible and that we can be certain when we think we have it that we actually do have it. We might be on safe ground when saying the earth is not flat but less sure when talking about quantum theory or about religion. Heraclitus thought he had this knowledge but we might not be so sure that he had it.

There is some uncertainty as the meaning of logos. I have used the translation “law of understanding”. It could mean the general principle behind things. So rather than understanding and knowing particular things it is enough to understand the general principle. What this is you can discover by paying attention to Heraclitus’ sayings and grasping their meaning. Their meaning is not obvious so we have to work them out for ourselves. If we are like most people we won’t be able to do this because we stupid. As he said “ἀξύνετοι ἀκούσαντες κωφοῖσιν ἐοίκασι· φάτις αὐτοῖσιν μαρτυρεῖ παρεόντας ἀπεῖναι” “Those who hear without understanding are like the deaf and they are examples of the saying – although present they are absent”.

This general principle includes such maxims as – all things are in motion, the universe retains its elements in the same proportions, strife and war keep the universe alive, opposites are the same. I will look at some of these in future posts.

As Heraclitus says

(τοῦ δὲ) λόγου τοῦδ’ ἐόντος ἀεὶ ἀξύνετοι γίνονται ἄνθρωποι καὶ πρόσθεν ἢ ἀκοῦσαι καὶ ἀκούσαντες τὸ πρῶτον· γινομένων γὰρ (πάντων) κατὰ τὸν λόγον τόνδε ἀπείροισιν ἐοίκασι, πειρώμενοι καὶ ἐπέων καὶ ἔργων τοιούτων, ὁκοίων ἐγὼ διηγεῦμαι κατὰ φύσιν διαιρέων ἕκαστον καὶ φράζων ὅκως ἔχει. τοὺς δὲ ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους λανθάνει ὁκόσα ἐγερθέντες ποιοῦσιν, ὅκωσπερ ὁκόσα εὕδοντες ἐπιλανθάνονται

Although this principle (logos) always exists, men are ignorant of it before they have heard it and once they have heard it. For despite the fact that all things happen according to this principle they are like people with no experience of it when they try the words and works I am relating dividing each thing according to nature and saying how it is. It passes by other men what they do when awake just as they forget what they do when they are asleep.

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