Sunday, December 19, 2004

Things Are Not What They Seem

Dear Reader,

Heraclitus wrote "Eyes are more accurate witnesses than ears." Polybius, a later Greek writer, summarized this as meaning that vision is the more reliable sense. Modern readers are likely to interpret it the same way. It seems trivial.

Information out of context is noise. The problem is our own lack of context. When we read the rest of Heraclitus and study the culture of other Greek philosophers, we begin to find patterns that cause us to reinterpret what seemed obvious to us.

Two crucial pieces of context change the meaning of this entirely.

First, Heraclitus wrote in paradoxes, riddles, and double entendres. Little he wrote means only what it says on the surface. Heraclitus was later called "The Dark" or "The Obscure" because of this. With experience, we begin to learn to look for what he has encoded. The hidden meaning in his work is often the more important part.

Second, Heraclitus was aristocratic, and like most Greek philosophers deeply distrusted doxa--popular opinion. Numerous other fragments from his On Nature revolve around this theme more explicitly. Popular opinion in ancient Greece was transmitted by speech, which we hear with our ears.

In this fragment he advises us to look with our own eyes for the truth, not to trust to received opinion. He is also saying that the pursuit of truth is a lonely and difficult activity. There are no shortcuts to the truth. You cannot let other people interpret the truth for you. The pursuit of the truth is serious business, too serious to trust to others. Further, he did not say the eyes are accurate, only more accurate. Sometimes you will be wrong about things you investigate yourself directly, just as sometimes received opinion may be right.

This brings us to another crucial layer of meaning--the relationship of his original meaning to our own context today. Two ideas are readily apparent.

First, were he writing today, in our increasingly visual information age, he could not express these ideas in this way, because we are more likely to be exposed to popular or official opinions with our eyes and ears. This succinct statement does not work as well for us. In fact, it would be a challenge to come up with so concise a formulation of these ideas today, given the structure of modern culture.

Second, this implies a distrust of news media at a scale beyond what most modern people are willing to accept. In ancient Greece, speech was the primary mechanism of distributing news and propaganda throughout the culture, as well as gossip and popular opinion. Today, we have corporate media to do the equivalent job. Most moderns assume they are reasonably well informed because they are immersed in such media. Radio, television, books, magazines--Heraclitus advises us not to trust any of this. No matter how it is packaged, the content of our information media remains glorified gossip. This does not mean that we should cut ourselves off from these information sources, only that we should take it for the formalized gossip it is--a witness, but an unreliable one--and investigate for ourselves anything that really matters to us.

Seven words in English, five in the original ancient Greek--their meaning seems obvious and trivial, but the truth of it is hidden and important. The Greek term doxa comes from doke moi, meaning "it seems to me." Encoded within the Greek philosophical disdain for popular opinion is a further distrust of appearances and assumptions, of how things seem to us.

In short, Dear Reader, in this fragment of On Nature, Heraclitus both advises us and also demonstrates that things are rarely what they seem and that the popular interpretations of things are not trustworthy.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: In my remedial explorations of ancient Greek philosophy to date, Heraclitus emerges easily as my favorite. He is not an easy philosopher to read, as I hope this exploration of a single fragment reveals, and this is among the clearer fragments. Some are perhaps impossible to fully resolve given how little of On Nature is left to us and how unreliable even ancient interpreters of his work prove to be. Nevertheless, many of the remaining fragments eventually reveal themselves to be both profound and poetic, intense concentrations of meaning like philosophical poetry.

I can particularly recommend Philip Wheelwright's book Heraclitus for its interpretations; although even a few of his interpretations miss the original meanings, he nevertheless fully appreciates the philosopher's style and always works to unfold the intended meaning. Likewise, Brooks Haxton wrote a fine translation in Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, which I am reading now.

In the second comment on my previous blog entry, "Logos and Cosmos," my friend David Whitten added this url to a site with translations of Heraclitus's fragments by G. W. T. Patrick: Thanks Dave! I appreciate that each fragment includes English and Greek, as well as the sources. The translations are not as finely tuned as those used in Wheelwright's book, but they at least convey his obscurity and some of his flavor. Unfortunately, for anyone not already deeply familiar with On Nature, reading the fragments can be an unpleasant and misleading experience, so venture on your own with due warning. As I hope this blog entry made clear, with Heraclitus the meanings of things are often not what they seem.

From time to time in future entries I will work to untangle the meaning of other fragments. Dear Reader, you may also ask for my help with specific fragments in comments on this entry and I will gladly do my best to make sense of them for you. Nevertheless, take this fragment to heart and do not overly trust my interpretations either.

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