Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Heraclitus, Fragments

Fragments attributed to Heraclitus, approximately 6th century BCE. Penguin Classics; translated by Brooks Haxton (2001). Cost: Free, read at Borders. Total pages, ~90 of text (half in Greek).

I like what Carl Sagan once said about how the term "pre-Socratic philosopher" is a degrading term - as if these powerful minds and their insights had no more to be said of them than to be lumped together before a single philosopher.

As I peer back into this time, it amazes me how prescient these minds were. Often I cannot look back at them as a critic (which presumes to know more than they did), but as a respectful layman.

In Heraclitus, I see a lot of explicit parallels with Taoism (the Tao Te Ching is dated to a similar time). It talks about flux and opposites and harmonies and rhythms embedded in nature and life.

60. Without injustices,
the name of justice
would mean what?

78. Only the living may be dead,
the waking sleep,
the young be old.

89. Look: the baby born
under the new moon
under the old moon holds
her grandchild in her arms

I've written this in previous entries, but again, the question I can't seem to answer from just reading these sorts of texts is about the interactions of these old philosophers with the thought-systems of the different parts of the world at this time. Growing up, I always thought Socrates, Plato, and their world to be unimaginably ancient, but now, thinking even as far back as Thales, the supposed first Greek philosopher, I wonder about his possible influences from the other major kingdoms of the time - Egyptian thought (he was said to have traveled here), Chinese thought, Babylonian thought, and Jewish thought (by this time already many centuries past the time of King David). I am not sure where, or if, there are answers to these. How do these ancient kingdoms interweave or diverge? Is there one locale of truth, a starting point, that they converge upon? Is it Babylonian? Jewish? Or do these things naturally arise in any human society when the conditions are ripe, regardless of mutual influence? Are they inevitable byproducts of human activity and ability, wherever they are? Are their overlaps in conclusions about the universe and our place in it similar to the completely separate development and awareness of mathematics among both the Aztecs versus the Babylonians?

The first two fragments of Heraclitus, in this edition, almost exactly echo a more familiar text -- the gospel of John, written many centuries later:

1. The Word proves
those first hearing it
as numb to understanding
as the ones who have not heard.

Yet all things follow from the Word.

2. For wisdom, listen
not to me but to the Word,
and know all is one.

81. Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so I am as I am not.

All is flux. One modern connection I see is something I recently learned, something that really blew my mind: 90% of the weight of an atom is not from subatomic particles like quarks but from nothingness. There is a quantum fluctuation (whatever that means) that blips in and out in the nothingness that creates weight. At the opposite end, on the scale of the universe, 90% of the weight of the universe is from dark energy - essentially, again, a nothingness that actually has weight (that propels the universe against the effects of gravity). One way, then, of looking at the universe is that everything literally is a fluctuation of nothing, a net sum of zero. And even we human beings are literally comprised of the nothingness that dominate atoms. All is flux from the default of nothingness.

But then, I still have to honestly question myself: what the heck does it mean that there are blips in nothingness that weigh something?