…. order and the political, which they conceived of as arising from natural necessity. Thus the cosmic realm and human community are mutually revelatory, since they are different registers of the same dynamic Being.
Heracleitus was an exemplary pioneer of the physiologoi in the invention of the kosmos. I say “invention” following Gregory Vlastos in his discussion of the innovative transference of the idea of kosmos from its description of ethically and aesthetically laudatory behaviour and relations within the community to its application as descriptive of the natural order and, even more remarkably, as the name of our world. The idea kosmos as used by the ancient physiologoi (“those interested in the logos of nature”) extends the ethical and aesthetic nuances of “beautiful order” to universal proportions. The insights of Heracleitus (though collected only as fragments) are an inspiration for contemporary conceptions of the coming community: first, Heracleitus issues an imperative to “follow the common”, which is certainly not an injunction to discover or create the lowest common denominator as the human universal, but an appeal to wakeful and honest co-poiesis in the example of the kosmos; second, Heracleitus determines the role of the sovereign as the dynamic origin of the ethical and aesthetic order from within that order and as a paradeigma of it – i.e. as the kosmic example.
Only within the binary opposition of the universal and the particular does the radical and irreducible singularity of individual identity and the importance of unique events vanish in faceless and spiritless mechanical government and jurisdiction that enforces a regimatic will to meaning which ultimately undermines meaning. This seems to be the disease of the modern community, but its origins were certainly ancient. Heracleitus seeks an idea beyond the universal that does not disparage the importance of the “common” aspect of community in favour of lawless singular co-habitation – he embraces instead, the kosmic. In this way he steers a clear course between the Scylla of the reductive tendency of isonomia to pervert equality into sameness in the repetitive generation and application of norms, and the Charybdis of the anarchic
Eden of certain postmodern phantasy.
The first segment of this essay will involve a detailed examination of Heracleitus within the context of ancient thought and literature which will prepare the reader for a postmodern appreciation and appropriation of these ancient fragmentary and forgotten insights in a discussion of the coming community’s possession of an ancient past.
The mood of Heracleitus is neither fanciful, mystical nor is it mechanical. The following three fragments illustrate his vision of the community in terms of the kosmos:
For those who are awake the cosmos is one and common. But those who are asleep turn aside each into a private cosmos. (22B89)
We should not act and speak like men asleep. (22B73)
One should follow the common. But while the Logos is common, the many live as though they had a private understanding. (22B2)
In these three fragments, Heracleitus warns us against the idiocy so likely to flourish when the “common” aspect of community is forgotten and the private eclipses the public dimension of human interaction. The Greek word “idios” (from which we get “idiot”) refers to someone who has no concern for public life, especially politics, and prefers to keep to himself. As an adjective, the word means “what is most one’s own, what is proper to one”. Vlastos notes, “…Heracleitus finds the key to its [the dream state’s] enfeebled intelligence in its privacy – its anarchic subjectivity. In sleep he sees us cutting ourselves off from the common world which sets the norms of veridical perception, coherent speech and effective action.” Singularity left to itself without the guidance of the common, may have the tendency to take the negative turn towards dreaming idiocy, which is ultimately impotent rather than effective, creative or poetic. In appreciating the singularity of unique and irreducible persons, we must be careful that we do not place such an overwhelming burden on that singularity that it becomes the “lightness of being” poeticised by Milan Kundera – lest our community become a village of idiots. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same is a way of endowing singular actions with a purposiveness (without purpose) by employing a dignifying finality to each action as if it were lived for itself without reference to a greater goal – means without ends. But the “as if” of the imaginary eternal return was unnecessary for the Greeks to feel the significance of singularity because they celebrated that singularity as a distinguishing kind of wisdom in a community characterised by strife. Heracleitus says:
What is opposed brings together; the finest harmony is composed of things at variance, and everything comes to be in accordance with strife. (22B8)
This is, perhaps, what accounts for the extremely litigious enthusiasm of the Greeks in general. Bernard Knox points out, “There can have been few Athenians who did not sooner or later appear in court as prosecutor or in self-defense”, and with the establishment of a democracy, the power to contend in speech (the agon of the logos) was essential since “in the new Athenian law courts, as in the assembly, a man spoke for himself, not through a lawyer.” In Pericles’ famous funeral oration recorded by Thucydides he says, “Here [in Athens] each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well… this is a peculiarity of ours; we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.” It is not surprising that the dialectic was forged from the cut and thrust of lively debate that arose in the agora. Rather than having a diabolical force, this constructive strife emerged as the cement that bound the polis together. While strife seems a paradoxical promise for unity in a community, we must understand that this primordial paradox of plurality is played out within the equiprimordial unity of the Logos.
Heracleitus identifies the “Logos” as that which unites singularities. But in this idea there is more than the common denominator of mere rationality; it is a sophisticated way of thinking that intelligently appreciates the ethical and aesthetic nuances of the kosmos and transforms the ordered changes of nature into a model of a healthy community, thereby creatively obscuring the distinction between nature and society, and exterior and interior for a poetic plurivocity that resides in a well-ordered ontological univocity. Heracleitus says “Thinking is common to all” (22B113), “Right thinking is the greatest excellence, and wisdom is to speak the truth and act in accordance with nature, while paying attention to it.” (22B112) and “It belongs to all people to know themselves and to think rightly.” (22B116). Thus thinking is intimately linked with the beautiful arrangement of nature in groups of natural or naturalised commonalities – I will say more about the common and commonalities later. But what does “paying attention” to it entail?
It is necessary to examine this kosmic order – of the human in communion with nature – within a consideration of strife and sovereignty. The order of nature is anything but impersonal, abstract, valueless and mechanical for the pre-Socratics – it is endowed with seemingly human virtues like justice and moderation. It is proper to wonder whether the articulated order of the kosmos is derivative from human community or vice versa – properly it is neither, since the order is proper to neither – it is, in fact, “universal”. The apparent regularities of astronomical motions are the beginning of an understanding of the kind of order Heracleitus (and the other physiologoi) have in mind.
The sun will not overstep his measures, else the Erinys, the adjutants of Justice, will find him out. (22B94)
The importance of the kosmic order is that it takes into account and organises the diverse turnings of the different celestial bodies – solar, lunar, planetary and astral movements are not reduced to a normative explanation but taken in their irreducible variety as striving elements that ultimately harmonise in an ordered beauty. It is not surprising that the term that emerged in the Latin vocabulary (and the Roman state in which it was situated) to describe the world and celestial spheres was universus. This concept of ‘universe’, which means ‘turned towards one’ does not comprehend the diverse striving elements that comprise a kosmic harmony, but forces a reductive unity that obscures community. In his discussion of Heracleitian cosmology, Vlastos notes:
Solar regularities are either themselves absolutely unbreachable or else any given breach of them will admit of a natural explanation as a special case of some other, still more general, regularity which is itself absolutely unbreachable. What makes the world a cosmos is the existence of such highest-level, unbreachable regularities.
It is here that we see the infinite horizon of possibility opened to the play of discordant elements that Heracleitus envisioned. If a seeming breach of the natural order erupted and disrupted the expected regularity, the physiologoi contended that there must be a greater, all-encompassing rule within which such an irregularity was nothing but a coincidence of regularity, such as we experience frequently in our own interaction when personal purposes overlap for the effect of “good fortune”. This means that the frontier of the “rule” is never final – it is always being pushed beyond the limits that it establishes, thereby defying the limiting power of the limit and opening kosmic order to the vast expanse of infinite possibility. In this way, the kosmos is always re-making itself in the creative unfolding of poetic harmonisation. But what defines this movement and the power (dunamis in the Platonic sense) that opens up the potential (dunamis in the Aristotelian sense) of this constant re-creation (poiesis) of the kosmos?
Fragment 22B94 testifies to an order kept aright by none other than the Furies. According to E.R. Dodds, the Erinys (Furies) that we know from the tragedies are already very old. In their later years they became entrusted with an ethical mission to avenge wrongs that transgress the divine law. But their original task was not morally beholden – they were, rather, the enforcers of moira (Fate) which “contained by implication both an ‘ought’ and a ‘must’ which early thought did not clearly distinguish.” The moira (sometimes translated “fate” or sometimes “lot, portion”) is clearly what is most one’s own – what is most proper to each singular person, and these respective personal moira sometimes clash both within a person and between persons, arousing the action of the Erinys. It is important to note here that moira is not a passive lot, but an active mission – it is what makes us be who we are (not what as in the case of Plato’s Forms) inasmuch as through our actions we define our own singularity. It is therefore also the “limit concept” that marks the finitude of each singular person. Thus the Erinys are agents of strife – quelling strife when there should be peace and stirring it up when it is needed to force the moment to its crisis of action like gadflies from hell. We must be careful to understand that here, strife does not necessarily mean negative conflict and discord – it may, at times involve this and a necessary component of violence; however more positively, strife functions as a healthy tension that exerts a natural check and balance between all elements of nature. Heracleitus states: “Fire lives the death of earth and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, earth that of water” (22B76a). And it is this constant turning and striving of elemental kindling and extinguishing that in fact unites all things: “The same thing is both living and dead, and the waking and the sleeping, and young and old; for these things transformed are those, and those transformed back again are these” (22B88).
In 22B88, the Sun is kept in his own moira, i.e. in his own proper role, by the Erinys. Since the celestial bodies were habitually referred to as gods, even by the physiologoi who claimed they were stone or fire, their movements need less guidance from the Erinys – they are already doing what they “must”. The Furies are not hell-goddesses of discord and wrath, but the catalysers of tension that drives us to do what we “ought” or “must”. In this cyclic momentum of constant change, we find an intimacy with the divine – the gods are no longer supernatural, but part of a shared order – a poetic community of “Immortal mortals, mortal immortals, living the death of the others and dying their life” (22B62). But it is human beings, not gods, who need frequent stimulation and agitation to accomplish what they “must”. The element of change that strife begets in the kosmic order attunes the discord of plurality with harmonic (comm)unity.
If the sun always operates within a beautiful order with calculable regularity, how do the physiologoi explain the phenomenon of an eclipse? With few and rare exceptions, Greeks as well as barbarians explained such an event as an omen from the gods – but the physiologoi were those exceptions. They denied supernatural intervention because of the dangerous baggage it entails. Vlastos comments:
If you believe that the gods have the power to make the sun drop out of his course in the sky, there will be no limit to the number of ways in which you will credit them with the ability to break into your world; and this will affect your whole attitude to what is going on around you and even, as I shall explain directly, to what is going on in you, in your very thoughts and feelings.
This is why Heracleitus has good reason to say that most people are like men sleeping – just as we do not exercise any control over the dreams that arise in our slumber, if while awake men act as if they are sleeping by attributing such unlimited power to the gods, they necessarily limit themselves to the severest most dehumanising impotence. There can be no power that suspends the kosmic order, whether from within or without, whether divine or otherwise. If there seems to be a disruption or suspension of the expected order, it is attributable to either a coincidence of movements of the harmonised discordant elements or to an unbreachable regularity that is not yet apparent, but which can potentially be made apparent by further inquiry, and patient investigation, i.e. by a kind of awakening from the slumber of illusion into the kosmos characterised by a Logos that is always ecstatic. Heracleitus has even better reason to advocate a revolution in thinking, which is what his consistent kosmic theory grounds and liberates. The force of his own thought, ultimately, is that there is no Archimedean point outside of the kosmic order from which it can be disrupted. Sovereignty and power courses through the unfolding of the unbounded kosmos by virtue of the proper moira allotted to each and the strife that binds them together.
It is also important to keep in mind that Heracleitus’ thought is quite different from some of the other pre-Socratics, namely Democritus and Leucippus, who posited an infinite number of indivisible and indestructible atomic particles that themselves never changed, but whose movement, combination (by the power of eros) and separation (by the power of eris, or strife) resulted in the generation and destruction of natural objects. Heracleitus abides by the four primary elements – fire, air, water and earth – but elevates fire as principal. As we see from fragment 22B88, these elements themselves are not indestructible, but they are born and die into each other with such a fluid, dynamic and beautiful symmetry that he says “We should know that war is common, and strife is justice and that all things happen according to strife and just necessity” (22B80) and “The adverse is concordant; from the discord the fairest harmony” (22B8). Even though the elements are striving to live, and are therefore locked in deadly tension, they perpetuate each other through their very strife and the reciprocity of their exchange. When we take this as a model of human relations, we realise that in the community which includes its own beyond (the interior that includes the exterior by excluding it) our being and identity belongs to an elemental flux rather than an atomistic collision. In other words, it is the fluid relation, rather that substantial composition, that unites human beings without ever being able to reduce us to sameness. In his investigations into the reasons for the Persian Wars, Herodotus captures this important idea:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other. (Proem)
…I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike. (I.5)
The difference between Greek and barbarian, great and small is one of time and situation, and therefore relation, not substance. But just as fire’s death begets water (its apparent opposite), there is no terror involved in the fluid beauty of life and death, even for humans. Heracleitus says, “Things unexpected and unthought of await human beings when they die” (22B27). Not only do the elements and human individuals come into being and perish, so do communities. Heracleitus points out that there is a bit of “magic” involved in the invention of the new from the old, “Unless he hopes for the unhoped (anelpiston) for, he will not find it, since it is not to be hunted out and is impassable (aporon)” (22B18).
How are we to expect the unexpected, hope for the unhoped for? The reason that “it” cannot be “hunted out” is because in looking for it we expect some definite thing, but what is revealed as the hoped for is precisely the unexpected – it is something definite, but what exactly? It is whatever being of infinite possibility, which is the image of the child playing: “Eternity [or a lifetime] (aiōn) is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child” (22B52). The ambiguity of the term aiōn is telling: it means both eternity and lifetime, capturing the Heracleitian notion of the community in flux – the kosmic order is infinite and eternal, and it contains the lifetimes generated out of each other and death. There is no horror in the fluid metamorphosis of kosmic mutations, but rather a kind of playfulness reminiscent of “purposiveness without purpose” and “means without end”. Beauty arises in the order of kosmic playfulness and the reversal of expectations.
Returning once more to the Logos, which Heracleitus claims is common, we must understand that in saying this he means that it is common to all things not merely common to human beings. Aristotle comments of Heracleitus: “When one man said, then, that logos was present – as in animals, so throughout nature – as the cause of the world and of all its order, he seemed like a sober man in constrast with the random talk of his predecessors.” This being so, the Logos has a role in the birth and death of the constant change that characterises kosmic flux. On the natural level Logos is the ordered symmetry of transubstantiation, which means that the Logos governs the elemental transformations of fire into water etc., and therefore, the Logos itself is born, dies and is born in its own death with a new “face” or meaning. In the human realm Logos is manifested in the Word, our rational linguistic Being. In this cycle of birth and death, the Word is born in the death of silence, and silence is born again in the death of Word, but Word is also in strife with Word, being born and killed of itself in the same symmetrical strife of elemental flux. The silence of the infant becomes the babbling voice of the child, then the argument of the youth, the sharply honed dialectic of the adult, the babbling of the elderly and the silence of death. Sometimes the energetic rumble of the dialectical clash is quieted by the speechless experience of a mystical encounter which is unintelligible in terms of the strictly natural limits of human reason. The agon of debate intersects, tames, destroys or edifies singular logoi which comprise the “thinking” that Heracleitus is also certain to emphasise as common to all.
When the child matures, the adult comes into being – the child becomes the man embodying the sacrifice of innocent playfulness (in the sense if in-nocere – not hurting, not yet hurt and not to be hurt). The child is today, perhaps, the last or only vestige of “whatever being”. Agamben points out, “Quodlibet ens is not ‘being, it does not matter which,’ but rather ‘being such that it always matters.’” Every child appears uniquely important not merely because of its innocence, but in the manner of its innocence. However, the practically universal love and concern for children becomes universal precisely because we forget the “why” and the “how” and focus instead on the “that”, which is symptomatic of a “universal” culture that has forgotten (lanthanein) the truth (alētheia – related to lanthanien) of whatever-being. Heracleitus’ injunction to “pay attention” applies to the truth as well as to nature (22B112), but this is only possible for those who are awake and vigilant. Kosmic Culture.
If the child is the ideal, the man becomes the image of the reality of human community, and he must in turn be sacrificed but not killed, i.e. returned to innocence. The child becomes the hanged man of the Mediaeval Tarot card deck. A.E. Waite notes, “He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection.” The Hanged Man carries out of the middle ages the Christian manifestation of the cyclic, symmetrical fluidity of Heracleitus’ flux – the death and rebirth that restores and preserves the sacred nature of human life and the precious singularity of each person as if each were still a child.
A.E. Waite writes, “It should be noted (1) that the tree of sacrifice is living wood, with leaves thereon; (2) that the face expresses deep entrancement, not suffering; (3) that the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life, not death…It has been called falsely a card of martyrdom…I will say very simply on my own part that it expresses the relation, in one of its aspects, between the Divine and the Universe.” Some of the other themes connected with this card are sacrifice, letting go, suspension, patience, new point of view, contemplation, harmony, and waiting. In the Rider-Waite tarot deck, it is described the card of “wisdom, circumspection, discernment, trials, sacrifice, intuition, divination and prophesy” but reversed it represents “selfishness, the crowd, the body politic”. There is another important aspect not explicitly discussed by Waite which is striking: the halo. The hanged man is very close to the empress – the sum of the Arabic numerals which translate the Roman XII, i.e. 12, adds up to 3, the number of the empress’ card. She is the image of sovereignty, but because she is feminine (often she is called the mother of the hanged man, and within the context of that relationship he is referred to as the child) she is nurturing and fecund, not only with life, but also with ideas.
I present this image along with the preceding discussion of Heracleitus in order to invent a way of seeing the coming community much as the Greeks invented the kosmos as a way of seeing the world. The suspension of life for the hanged man is representative of the necessary suspension of the ordinary normative cast, a rethinking of the nature and relation of things from a different perspective and a self-possession beyond identity or nihilistic existential serenity that arises through a real appreciation of potentiality. The hanged man is not waiting in a passive manner; we get the sense, from the sublimity of his expression and gesture that he is proud if not defiant of the sovereign power that hanged him there, and yet still a part of the living community in his calm communicative patience. He is “letting be” what is, because as a whatever-being, or in whatever-situation, it too is significant. Agamben’s description of the coming community follows the trajectory of the new concepts that have emerged in the challenge afforded by our present mood of meaningful political failure:
The new categories of political thought – inoperative community, compearance, equality, loyalty, mass intellectuality, the coming people, whatever singularity, or however else they might be called – will be able to express the political matter that is facing us only if they are able to articulate the location, the manners, and the meaning of this experience of the event of language intended as free use of the common as a sphere of pure means.
Heracleitus maintained that both the Kosmos and Logos were “the common”. Agamben posits, “If…we define the common (or as others suggest, the same) as a point of indifference between the proper and the improper – that is, as something that can never be grasped in terms of either expropriation or appropriation but that can be grasped, rather, only as use – the essential political problem then becomes: ‘How does one use a common?’”
If it is the task of the postmodern community to think what has remained unthought in the history of Western Metaphysics, it is helpful to refer to the pre-metaphysical thought of Heracleitus when he says, “They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre” (22B51). The word translated by “variance” is diapheromenon, so the sense of the passage suggests that the thinking of difference lies at the heart of the ambiguous “it”. Whether “it” refers to the kosmos or to an individual or implies both remains undifferentiated, but the spirit of the statement recommends something along the lines of the “whatever-being” discussed by Agamben, and involves a thinking of difference beyond the specific difference of classification towards the unique difference that is so central to Being that it is always already within the “itself”. This difference in the core of the “itself” is the tension between actuality and potentiality and refers not to the possibility of a thing’s differing from itself in the manner of phusis, but rather in the manner of to einai. Herodotus uses phusis as a way of talking about the stable character of a thing including the limits within which it acts and is acted upon. Later, Plato uses the term dunamis instead of phusis to express much the same idea, but with an important clarification. While a thing will not differ from its own phusis, it does possess a dunamis within that phusis which preserves a flexibility as to how, or to what degree, or whether a thing expresses itself in all the possibility bound up in to einai. It is because of this that it is imperative for Plato to develop an ethical philosophy out of which to einai can be ordered much as chaos is ordered from the beautiful model in the Timaeus. Agamben understands this acutely in the passage from “Ethics”: “There is, in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this something is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality.”
The coming community is to be an intellectual one – but not one that would be something like a “universalisation” or profanation of the arcana of our well-guarded ivory towers. Not even a god could save us if the whole world were to be the macrocosm of a philosophy department. Just as Plotinus explained that the mystic must descend again to “reality” of the sublunary sort, but with a refined discursive ability, and Plato before him described the descent of the philosopher once again into the depths of the cave with a new vision and a new truth, so too we must again descend into childhood with a new appreciation for the articulation of Being. We elevate the truth of childhood speech with the experienced garnered from the vision of adulthood when we become poets. Poetry has something important to say in the coming community – its power is the infinite possibility of combined human potential. Even though language often seems to be a whipping up of noise out of silence without respect for silence (and academics tend to be the worst offenders next to rap artists), poetry can save us by making language holy or sacred once again by making it innocent. Poetry is the tongues of the coming community, because it is also always a promise of the Word yet-to-be. It promises also a re-creation of Being as Being-in-Language because it is the art of the future – always the “to come” patiently awaited by the adulthood suspended as the child is born anew within.
The intellectualism of the new community is one that always already appreciates innocent life (perhaps what Agamben meant by the “bare life”) as we all already idealise the pure life of children uncomplicated by the demarcation of territories, bureaucratic hurdles, burdens of proof, identity, and the sophisticated deceit of manners. Aristotle said, “All men, by nature, desire to know” not “all men, by nature, desire to live” because life itself is nothing – it is the good life, one which entails being potentially, open to letting be whatever may come inasmuch as it always matters. As Plato’s Socrates explains in the Symposium, one cannot desire what one already has, so one who desires to live has, in a sense, already lost life.
The temptation to postmodern phantasy is a powerful one – to imagine a world without walls and fences, rights and properties, where “One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects…” , where boundaries and territories are again returned to geology or nature and where instead of crowns, helmets, mitres, yarmulkes, veils and other insignia of power, empowerment or separation we are capped by the radiant glow of the nakedness of bare life – the halo. And there is nothing wrong with dreaming in a poetic, idealist fashion. But we must take Heracleitus’ warning seriously – we must not think and act like men asleep, but face the real problems that confront us with wide-eyed sobriety. Plato, very much influenced by Heracleitus through Cratylus (his teacher before he met Socrates), knew that “the state must be reformed so that the real man could live in it.” But how does one go about a realistic transformation that takes place in a real time and real place? Plato saw that the state is capable of killing even the wisest of men when injustice breeds suspicion in the private kosmoi of sleeping men. In his seventh Letter, Plato confesses to a profound hopelessness toward the problem of the state. “…he felt that the contemporary state, not only in
Athens but everywhere, was lost, unless a miracle came from heaven to save it. He had cared nothing for the power at which others were grabbing: since the State (aute he polis) for which he lived and worked was a purely moral order. It could be brought into existence by itself alone.”
Heracleitus too exhibits a streak of despair, and although he very well knows how we ought to understand things and act, his reputation for misanthropy is attributable to his realistic pessimism:
This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with the logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep. (22B1)
Heracleitus’ frustration is much the same as Socrates motivation for becoming the gadfly of
Athens, but Socrates was killed and Heracleitus’ vitriolic attacks don’t seem to have roused many or made his teaching any more urgent or compelling. Do we remain like “men asleep” even as philosophers? How possible is it to live well or live at all in pure potentiality without reference to being or actuality or a futural community beyond sovereignty and law? Are Agamben (as well as Derrida, Nancy and the others) gesturing towards a political imaginary that is incommensurable with nature, necessity and justice?
Heracleitus again observes, “A fool is excited by every word (logos)” (22B87). “Those who speak with understanding must rely firmly on what is common to all as a city must rely on law and much more firmly. For all human laws are nourished by one law, the divine law; for it has as much power as it wishes and is sufficient for all and is still left over” (22B114) But why is this necessary? Heracleitus responds “What understanding or intelligence have they? They put their trust in popular bards and take the mob for their teacher, unaware that most people are bad, and few are good” (22B104). The popular bards attributed the hopelessness of the community grieved with all sorts of evils, “burdensome labour, painful diseases and death” to a silly story about a girl with a jar and accepted their lot passively with nothing more than a grumble aimed at
Beginning with Hesiod’s Theogony, there was, in Greek thought, a perfect coincidence of the supernatural with the natural, to such an extent that nature was described in terms of the divine and vice versa, effecting a practical identity. While the physiologoi fancied themselves revolutionary scientists whose critical approach to nature diverged sharply from Homeric superstition, they still constantly refer to the gods, Muses and other “supernatural” powers as responsible for natural phenomena, though at this point (beginning with Hesiod, though Heracleitus ridicules him mercilessly) the names of the divinities refer to a personification of powers like Justice, Necessity, Time and other elements of human experience that seem to happen in a miraculous sort of way. If the divine is really integrated with the natural, if there is, strictly speaking, no supernatural divinity, then the divine law to which Heracleitus (and others of the Presocratics) refer is not “above” or “outside” the kosmic “juridical” order that is common to all – wandering planets and wandering men alike. By appealing to something divine, Heracleitus surely recognises the limit concept of law – it is more powerful than human constitutions but not separate from the human power to constitute. It is as if the kosmos itself is a miraculating machine out of which law emerges, much as Gaia miraculously appears out of Chaos and the Abyss – this is the Logos which permeates all and yet is so full as to be sufficient for all and still be left over.
Heracleitus wrote, warned, enjoined, ridiculed and pronounced, in his distinctively pregnant oracular style, the problems of the community, their origin and the means for their eradication. And his logoi did not fall only on deaf ears – Plato heard and was moved. He saw that revolution and class conflict are insufficient to guarantee a consistent ethical environment as a stable foundation for human action; true reform is through education (paideia). The old customs and laws need not be discarded or abandoned, but must be sustained by new insight into what justice is through a creative subversion of human tendencies towards uncritical, fascist behaviour. Since it is nearly impossible to change the attitudes of a fascist, it is important to prevent such a pernicious mental rigidity – the rigor mortis of the Logos – to lock the mind in the first place, and so it is necessary to minister to children through a new paideia. The responsibilities falls to those of us who understand the beautiful harmony of the kosmos because we can see the Logos that permeates and animates the order of all things. The new paideia is poetic, not in the sense that students memorise and recite the great poetry of all times, but in the etymological sense of the word poetic (from poiesis, “to make or create”) – creative, generative, productive – not of specific products, but of an environment, a mood, an understanding in which the Logos is clearly manifest or shining in the harmonious concord of striving elements. To do this, we need to understand the boundaries of practicality as the lines of the permeable and flexible limits that real commonalities exist. The people with whom we participate (metechein) in both the political activities of responsible citizenry and the joyful laughter of bare life – our relatives, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, colleagues – form natural and overlapping groups or naturalized groups defined by specific commonalities that are each unique expressions of the kosmic Logos. The lines of commonalities are not rigid, permanent territories that bear hard concepts like ownership and rights, and are exclusive not on principle but by practical necessity. The Logos is that which is seen, and our apprehension of it extends no further than our power of vision. Like every finitude, humans have natural limitations, a natural phusis, as does the community of the common. We need to appreciate the common in smaller non-universal portions, i.e. with those with whom we really do have something in common. Jaeger notes:
[Socrates’] service of God was dedicated not to ‘humanity’ but to his polis. That is why he did not write books: he only talked to men who were actually present. That is why he did not lecture on abstract theories, but argued his way to an agreement with his fellow-citizens about a common idea, presupposed in every such conversation, and rooted in common origin and a common home, common history and tradition, common laws and constitution. This sharing in a common knowledge or belief gave concrete content to the universals he was always seeking.
The hope needed to pursue this course does not come “from above” – it is not planted in our thumos by a god. Hope is part of the Logos of human community, and is the fecund place of surging, dynamic potentiality. It was not given but simply is, for as Heracleitus knows, “The cosmos, the same for all, none of the gods nor of humans has made, but it was always and is and shall be: an ever-living fire being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures” (22B30). “Unless he hopes for the unhoped (anelpiston) for, he will not find it, since it is not to be hunted out and is impassable (aporon)” (22B18).
1. I preserve the Greek spelling of “kosmic” throughout to retain the ancient connotations attached to this idea by the Presocratics, and to avoid confusions with the blasé usage “cosmic” of our own rather cosmetic culture.
2. Even though Plato quarrelled with several ideas held by the physiologoi, he too maintained the intimacy of the natural order and the political community, as is best shown in his twin dialogues the Republic and the Timaeus.
3. For more detailed information regarding this see Gregory Vlastos excellent discussion in the first chapter (“The Greeks discover the Cosmos”) of Plato’s Universe, Parmenides Publishing, 2005.
4. (A “making-together”, literally, but with resonances of “cooperative search for truth” and the event of community that exhibits the highest capabilities and virtues of humanity as such.)
5. (“Equality before the law”: this was the original term used to designate democracy. “Democracy” was actually a derogatory term approximately meaning “mob rule” that was applied to the Kleisthenic reforms and the plans for
Athens after the annihilation of the tyranny, by the opponents of democracy (as advocates of aristocracy or tyranny)).
6. Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott.
7. Vlastos, Plato’s Universe, p. 8.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera appreciates the absolute insignificance of singular actions when they remain singular since every person (and therefore every action of every person) happens only once. In their “pure” singularity, every action and decision is therefore deprived of the gravity and force of those situated in Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.
9. Bernard Knox, “The Walls of Thebes” in The Oldest Dead White European Males, p.89.
10. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War II.40. An interesting description of the Athenian democracy precedes this passage at II.36, where Pericles goes to great lengths to emphasise the great freedom that lies at the heart of the mutual tolerance of singular expression in the private sphere of life that exists because of a “deep respect” of the law. We see here that the Athenians did not view their law as a homogenising or reductive limitation, but as a stable ground that secured the liberty that enabled them to spiritedly pursue their unique moirai within the collective moira.
11. Aristophanes’ Clouds is a humourous testament to Greek litigious zeal, and Aeschylus’ Eumenides reveals the central importance of the law court where the means of litigation is itself the “end” of justice, so powerful that it mitigates the Fury of the Erinys who held sway over all order, even the regularity of celestial movements (as noted below in 22B94).
12. Ibid. p.10.
13. E.R. Dodds, Greeks and the Irrational.
Press, 1951, p.8.
14. Consider the interesting example of Orestes in Aeschylus’ Orestaia: when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, he is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. This puts Orestes in an ethical dilemma: if he does not avenge his father’s murder, he risks a curse on his bloodline for failing in his familial duty, but if he kills his mother thereby avenging his father, he is guilty of matricide, another infraction of the familial bond. This seems an irresolvable issue – Orestes is doomed to be hounded by the Furies no matter which action he chooses – unless we remember that the task of the Erinys is originally as enforcers of moira and that they have arisen not only to drive him mad (in their new role as blood-guilt avengers which Aeschylus has already incorporated) but would have arisen in any case.
15. Ibid., p.12.
16. Vlastos, Plato’s Universe, p.7.
17. Frequently the Presocratics, including Heracleitus, will posit logos as a universal attribute and by this they do mean that it applies to all things not only rational beings. For an extended discussion of this on many levels, see Gregory Vlastos’ work
Studies in Greek Philosophy: Volume I: The Presocratics.
18. Aristotle, Metaphysics 984b15-17.
19. Agamben, The Coming Community, p. 1.
20. The word Heracleitus uses is epaiontas from epaiō meaning “to give ear to, to perceive, to feel, to understand”, and it is not too far of a stretch to hear in this verb choice the echo of pais (child), though there is no etymological connexion.
21. A.E. Waite. The Pictoral Key to the Tarot, quoted at length on the Wikipedia article “The Hanged Man”
23. Pamela Coleman Smith with A.E. Waite, “Instructions” for the Rider Tarot Deck. 1971.
24. See the Wikipedia article “The Empress (tarot card)”.
25. Agamben, Means Without End, p. 118.
26. Ibid., p. 117.
27. See, for example, Herodotus’ description of his Egyptian excursion where he encounters the crocodile (II.68) and the hippopotamus (II.71). He seems to suggest something in the way of “form”, but in neither a strictly Platonic or Aristotelian sense – it is, more accurately the “nature” of a thing from which we can expect certain actions and passions.
28. Plato, The Sophist 247e “…a thing really is if it has any capacity at all, either by nature to do something to something else or to have even the smallest thing done to it by even the most trivial thing, even if it only happens once.” Here ‘capacity’ translates dunamis.
29. Agamben, The Coming Community, p. 43.
30. Agamben, State of
Exception, p. 64.
31. Jaeger, Paideia: Ideals of Greek Culture Vol. 2:In Search of the Divine Centre, p.73.
32. Plato Ep. 7.325e-326a.
33. Jaeger, p. 98.
34. Hesiod Works and Days 90-100.
35. Jaeger p. 74-75.
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