Sunday, January 17, 2010

Opportunity Lost--Sixth Century B.C.!

Imagine your life’s work is pioneering in the field of philosophy. You are one of the first authors on record to decide that man has a soul or spirit and to discuss its separate and universal nature. You identify that there are four important elements (fire as well as earth, air, water), not just three, a theory that will affect everything from astrology to agriculture to medicine until about 1400 and beyond.

You offer your one manuscript up to the gods. Or specifically, your manuscript languishes in the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus but your reputation lives on, you are misquoted and misrepresented, and when your manuscript is recovered, it’s in small pieces due to floods, fires, and rain damage.

Good thing Heraclitus was a Stoic. Well, of course he was dead, too, so maybe it really didn’t bother him.

There’s a huge argument over whether this pre-Socratic philosopher wrote a treatise or a bunch of sayings. Somewhere in obscure corners of the Academy, philosophers labor over the scraps and the quotes from other sources, trying to put them in order and interpolate the thrust of his arguments. For now, with only fragments, I figure sayings are all we get. And they are the kind of thing that make you go huh.
“The way of writing is both straight and crooked.” Fragment 59
“The road up and the road down are the same road.’ Fragment 60

Even the most profound people screw up. Heraclitus insulted a colleague, another pre-Socratic scholar. It's funny, but a big mistake. It's all the worse because it's his last word, the last fragment (129):
“Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, trained himself to the highest degree of all mankind in the art of investigation, and having selected these writings, constructed a wisdom of his own—a lot of learning, [for] a disreputable piece of craftsmanship."
Ahh, the Pythagorean Theorem, just to review:

He laughs best who laughs--first.

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus, now part of Turkey, from 535 to 475 B.C. The temple was rediscovered by archeologists in 1869.

References: Heraclitus, Fragments, Text and Translation with a Commentary by T.M. Robinson, U Toronto, 1987. Also, Heraclitus entry in Who's Who in the Classical World, Ed. Simon Hornblower and Tony Sawforth, Oxford UP, 2000. And Pythagoras and the Temple of Artemis' sad history, both at Wikipedia, illustrations by Wikipedia and


Bob G. said...

Ann T:
Now this is a good way to begin MY Sunday...(better than PBS, and no beg-a-thons)...


Have a good one.

Unknown said...

See I just learned something. Fabulous.
I need to hold off on getting chosen as a contestant on Jeopardy. I need to read you for another 10 years then I'll be good to go.

The Observer said...

Ann T

Yes the way of writing is straight and crooked, as I demonstrated in your comments section a couple of posts ago. ;-)

The Pythagorean Theorem was one of the few bits of geometry that I understood.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G, peedee, and The Observer,

Wow, Bob, such a compliment! I had fun with this one. I'm almost out of hair-raising stories so we'll have to go with the crazy other things I know.

Peedee, Jeopardy! would be fun but I think it also takes brain-hand-mouth coordination and so I would never pass the audition . . . Also a willingness to endure embarrassment, which (believe it or not, considering some of my posts) I am not good at. Maybe we should to a team Jeopardy and split the take!

Dear The Observer,
I love both of those quotes for the many places they apply. Don't worry about a thing. Probably Heraclitus wanted to be sure you would never forget him.

You guys are great to comment, and i have one last one. The more I read Heraclitus, the less i understand why he is called stoic . . . he seems to conceited to be a stoic. Another mystery! or perhaps a personality failing???

Ann T.