Friday, April 28, 2006

Hide and Seek

Dear Reader,

Two and a half millennia ago in his masterpiece On Nature, Heraclitus wrote Physis kryptesthai philei; in English: Nature loves to hide.

Nature hides most things in Time's currents, almost hid these three Greek words from us, did hide most of his words, leaving only fragments. Heraclitus dedicated his book at the temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) in the ancient city of Ephesus and left a scroll of it there. That scroll and every other copy of his writing vanished long ago. Later, the writers Themistius, Philo, and Proclus quoted this terse sentence of his, or we would never know he had written it.

As I wrote in Verbal Medicine December 19th, 2004, Heraclitus's writing always compresses layers of meaning, entire books or essays worth of information, into the shortest of sentences, and we cannot fully grasp his intentions without using his other fragments and the ancient Greek worldview to put them into context and thereby help them to speak clearly to us across the millennia.

Understanding Heraclitus always begins by seeking the paradox, the seeming contradiction that points toward the truth. He implies that nature loves to hide from us. Here is the contradiction. Nature is all around us and within us, apparent to everyone, and everything is part of nature. How can something obvious and everywhere hide from us? This paradox encapsulates one of Heraclitus's two core messages from On Nature, something fundamental about human nature and the nature of the cosmos that everyone should learn and relearn from infancy throughout their lives, but that is instead not taught at all because modern culture considers it a heresy, forbidden knowledge.

In the fragments that follow to help unravel Heraclitus's meaning, I will use Philip Wheelwright's translations, except for one by Kenneth Smith and one of my own, a modified and I believe more accurate version of one of Wheelwright's. I am also rearranging the fragments——whose original sequence we do not know anyway——to help them in the unveiling.

Although this Logos* is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it——not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time. That is to say, although all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos, men seem to be quite without any experience of it——at least if they are judged in the light of such words and deeds as I am here setting forth. My own method is to distinguish each thing according to its nature, and to specify how it behaves; other men, on the contrary, are as forgetful and heedless in their waking moments of what is going on around and within them as they are during sleep.

* Logos = the cosmic, interwoven logic of the forces of nature and the interwoven forces of the logic of nature.

Here in the opening words of his work he gives the expanded form of the paradox within "Nature loves to hide." The Logos is everywhere, and everyone experiences it, but they cannot understand it. We look right at the truths about the cosmos and do not see them. It is as though we are not awake at all, a race of sleepwalkers.

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own. Although intimately connected with the Logos, men keep setting themselves against it. Most people do not take heed of the things they encounter, nor do they grasp them even when they have learned about them, although they suppose they do. Even he who is most in repute knows only what is reputed and holds fast to it. Fools, although they hear, are like the deaf; to them the adage applies that when present they are absent.

As sleepwalkers, instead of reacting coherently to the cosmos we respond to our private ideas/beliefs/delusions/dreams about it instead, each person behaving idiosyncratically in response to his own hallucinations, which we mistake for reality; our worldviews are crudely aligned with each other, but so badly that we are in a continual state of war and confusion with each other. Our private worldviews make sense to us, and when we experience the world we interpret it in terms of those private worldviews so that we believe we understand what we are seeing, but we do not. Our beliefs about how things truly are are merely self-consistent lies. When we interact with people, they are not really interacting with us but with their dreams of us, as though they are drugged out or hallucinating or sleepwalking. When a man looks at you, he cannot see you, only his waking dream of you.

Character is fate [tr. Kenneth Smith]. Human character has no real understanding; only the divine character has it [tr. Rick Marshall]. Man is not rational; only what encompasses him is intelligent. Much learning does not teach understanding. What is divine escapes men's notice because of their incredulity.

The problem is internal and intrinsic. The problem is human nature, in the essence of what it means to be human. We are inherently irrational. It is not in our natures to understand the cosmos. We are not gods of reason; we are crazed monkeys. The truth is an alien language to our minds. Given more information or education, we use it not to escape from our labyrinths of delusion but instead to construct more and more intricate and self-reinforcing systems of falsehood, internally consistent but profoundly false worldviews. Our confidence in our own beliefs leads us to discount the cosmos when it contradicts those beliefs. We look right at the evidence in the world that proves us wrong and scoff at it. The truth is out there, the Logos of which actuality is woven and by which it dances and transforms, and only it has the power to set us free of our delusions, but it can only do so if we turn away from popular opinion and authority and our most cherished beliefs and certainties. We must suspend disbelief and look at the cosmos with fresh eyes, disregarding the many rationalizations within us and our cultures that urge us not to question our beliefs.

The human mind craves strong, clear patterns, prefers them socially popular or personally rewarding——not uncomfortable uncertainties, not the nuances of the actual ever-shifting cosmos. The lies we tell ourselves are designed to appeal to us; the truth is not, so it is never as compelling. Never. The truth feels cold, alien, unreasonable, unlikely. We know the truth isn't true. Only our comfortable lies are true, and over our lives we build sophisticated, self-reinforcing, often internally consistent logics out of those lies, entire worldviews of flattering falsehoods. We hate change, so we protect our lies from attack--protect ourselves from the truth--with pride, with arrogance, with hostility or aversion toward anyone or anything that makes us uncomfortable, that dares to challenge the fragile houses of cards within our minds.

A gap, a chasm, an abyss separates our beliefs from the real world. Worst of the lies we believe with utter certainty is that the abyss does not exist, that we see the world as it is, at least in its essentials. This lie above all demands we reshape everything we experience to obscure the gap——ignoring, misinterpreting, misremembering, forgetting anything necessary to make reality seem consistent with our core beliefs, protecting our false certainties, reacting with anger if anyone dares to challenge them. Our lies are precious to us.

To break through our beliefs enough to challenge them, the gaps between our delusions and the truth must strike us too completely and suddenly for us to rationalize away, because we are master rationalizers. The chasm must lurch crazily open at our feet, shocking and frightening us. It can happen, rarely, for that tiny percentage of the population who can distinguish a challenge to our beliefs from an attack on us, who can turn the shock and anger of disillusionment against our old beliefs instead of against whoever questions them. When the light of reality sears our eyes momentarily, almost everyone almost everywhere almost always turns away from that painful disillusionment to seek a new delusion, a new certainty that differs in its disproven details but feels familiar emotionally, equally compelling, equally addictive.

Minds capable of real understanding would seem alien to us. This is why Heraclitus opposes the human and the divine, to emphasize the otherness and superiority of a mind capable of perceiving truth instead of the merely human capacity to perceive self-selected patterns and imagine them to be the truth. To perceive the truth, we must become better people, almost more than human, a transformation that burns away the merely human to become like the divine capable of true understanding, like Heracles burning away his humanity to become a god and join his father Zeus on Mount Olympus, an apotheosis by fire.

To extinguish hybris is more needful than to extinguish a fire. Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find [truth], for it is hard to discover and hard to attain. The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives signs. The hidden harmony is better than the obvious.

If we want to see the world, if we want the truth, we must approach the cosmos humbly, abandoning pride. To give up our arrogance is the most important thing we must do to approach the truth. What we expect, what we believe, what we already know to be true, all of these are false. To find the truth we must struggle against ourselves and search those ideas and beliefs we least want to consider. Nature does not truly hide; we hide from it. But neither does the Logos give itself to us easily. The important truths about actuality lie not in the surface patterns with which science is obsessed, but deeper than that, in the principles by which all things are related and shift. Nature exposes these deeper truths to us in principles that can be observed all around us, but we have to work against our reflexes to see them at all, and have to distinguish the obvious noise from the subtler principles that generate all things. Underneath the details of the cosmos is a music by which all things dance, and that is where the Logos may be learned.

Here is another implicit Heraclitean paradox: to become capable of true understanding, we must transform ourselves to become like the divine nature, like gods, yet we can only do so and remain so by extinguishing our hybris, through humility. The divine nature is both vastly superior in its understanding and simultaneously vastly humbler than human ego, which emphasizes how horrifically inflated the human ego is. Given that bizarre scale of human hybris, it does constitute a life-threatening emergency; it is a fire that endangers us all, and whose smoke blinds us to the truth.

Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men having barbarian souls.

This sentence elegantly refutes science, especially the premise that anyone following the right methodology can determine the truth; it refutes the very idea of educating people by pouring "objective" knowledge into their heads. Even if the truth were not hidden in an underlying harmony of the cosmos, even if it were directly perceivable in the surfaces of nature, in the appearances of things, still the mind must interpret those perceptions to create true knowledge. The mind is not a passive receptacle; it organizes any "information" to which it is exposed. Even directly perceived truth can be--will be, must be--converted by a barbarian soul into falsehood, because the barbarian soul wants to satisfy its appetites, stroke its ego, and reinforce what it already believes--so that is how it will twist everything it sees and hears. And, most crucially, every soul is a barbarian soul unless and until it is cultivated, something Modern education does not do. Those signs by which nature hints at deeper truths can only be perceived and correctly interpreted by those who make a lifelong project of cultivating their souls to raise themselves up out of their birthright of barbarism.

Heraclitus recognized that cultivating people competent to perceive the truth is profoundly difficult, that anthropoculture--the cultivation of good and wise people competent to govern themselves--should and must be the main purpose and priority of any culture if it is to achieve any lasting good in the world. To even know what is truly good is impossible unless the soul has been bent back against itself, cultivated into a capacity for recognizing the truth, a capacity with which we are not born, for which we must struggle lifelong to discover, attain, and retain. As all of Greek tragedy exists to attest, unless you know what is truly good and keep your hybris in check, all your actions are liable to lead to hamartia, missing the mark, which is the source of most evil in the world. Without this cultivation of the soul, the mind has no access to the truth and therefore no reliable capacity to judge good and evil; without the truth and right judgment, there can be no democracy, no free market, no justice, nor anything else worth having, only the swinish pursuit of appetites and the struggle for power. Science, by abdicating such isses, abdicates everything worth having and pursues only the means to better control the mechanisms of the universe, powers that are then made available to the highest bidder, usually those with the most barbarian souls.

To accurately perceive the world, we must be able to undo the distortions introduced into our perceptions by the barbarian tendencies of our souls. We must be able to twist our minds to look at themselves, and to know themselves so well that they can reverse their own involuntary defense mechanisms and thereby lay bare the truth of what we are seeing. Even then, to properly interpret what we are seeing we must understand the hidden harmony of the cosmos, which means we must have been adept at this back-bending trick of laying bare our perceptions for long enough to become acquainted with the true world, to slowly, painfully, step by step retrace a lifetime of missteps in service to a barbarian soul, idea by idea stripping off the layers of false interpretation from everything we think we know. Because our minds are not naturally socketed to permit us to bend them backward enough to do this, we must practice this almost like a kind of mental yoga to introduce a kind of flexibility into our thinking that does not come naturally to us. There are no shortcuts to this difficult discipline if we ever want to become realiable witnesses of ourselves and the world around us.

Gnothi seauton: Know thyself.

This is why the ancient Greeks, although having no commandments, did have divine advice that they carved into the entryway on the temple of Delphi within which resided the sacred Oracle; chief among these recommendations was this two-word, deeply profound seed of all wisdom, which a proper reading of Heraclitus reveals to be the implicit flipside of Physis kryptesthai philei, where I started this essay. Nature loves to hide because its truths are to be found in a hidden harmony hinted at by signs we ignore because we have barbarian souls. Those with barbarian souls--all of us--are sleepwalkers who look right at life and misinterpret it, interpreting it in terms of our private dreams. If we ever want to understand nature--that is, everything, for to the Greeks even the Gods are part of nature--we must wake up. To do that, we must first understand our own souls well enough to cultivate them well enough to become competent to recognize the truth when we see it. We don't need something new to think about; we need something new to think with.

We are the obstacle between ourselves and the truth. Pogo was right: "We have met the enemy and he is us." Until we know ourselves and our liabilities we cannot know anything else. Until we know ourselves, nature hides from us.

Yours truly,

Postscript: The bronchitis continues.

1 comment:

Rick Saling said...

It seems to me that you absolutize the polarity between form and content, to use two Hegelian concepts, and could be interpreted to be saying that because of our character flaws, we can perceive only the superficial form of things, and are unable to penetrate through to the essential content. I realize you don't use these exact concepts, so correct me if I am misinterpreting you.

Anyway, Hegel does not polarize those concepts but sees them in a dialectical interrelationship / unity. Here's a very brief quote (links below: he goes on at great length about this and it impressed me to where I still remember his discussion from having read it 30 years ago):

"Form and content are a pair of terms frequently employed by the reflective understanding, especially with a habit of looking on the content as the essential and independent, the form on the contrary as the unessential and dependent. Against this it is to be noted that both are in fact equally essential; "

"A work of art that wants the right form is for that very reason no right or true work of art: and it is a bad way of excusing an artist, to say that the content of his works is good and even excellent, though they want the right form. Real works of art are those where content and form exhibit a thorough identity."

People delude themselves, but not absolutely: form reveals the content to some extent, and hides it to some extent. That's one implication of Hegel, and appears to conflict with your interpretation of Heraclitus.

Here's the links:

And here's another one: