The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXXI

The Universal Logos…

Versus the Relativity of Private Opinion…

The Fallibility of Sense-Perception…

“Nature loves to hide”…

Universal Allegory: the World as a Book and the Book of the World…

The Universal Harmony of Opposites…

As Heracleitus regularly laments, “The way up and the way down are the same” is a truth that very few are capable of understanding. Here are a few of the many fragments that have been preserved on this theme:

Though the logos is one, as I have said, men always fail to comprehend it…

For though all things come into being in accordance with this logos, they…are as unaware of it when awake as when asleep.

Though they are in daily contact with the logos, they are at variance with it, and when they encounter it, it appears alien to them.

Logos in Greek means “word” or “reason”, both of which connotations will be preserved in the “Logos” that would in due course become the second person in both the Middle Platonic and Christian trinities. It is thus fateful for the history of Western thought that in emphasizing the unity and immutability of the Godhead, Heracleitus moves from the concretistic imagery of Fire to this majestic conception.

In any case, Heracleitus’ Logos-doctrine confirms again that the Greeks conceived of the essential nature of the Divine as a Rational Intelligence, insofar as it presides over the order and justice of the cosmos. For Heracleitus, the Logos is evidently another name for that “thought” or “wisdom” which, as he represents it in the famous fragment cited above, “steers all things through all things”.

 

But the divine Reason is paradoxically alien to men, even though they are in direct contact with it. In a number of fragments, Heracleitus condemns the variety and fallibility of individual human judgment, by opposition to the objective unity and universality of the Logos:

Listening, not to me but to the logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.

To those who are awake the world-order is one, common to all; but the sleeping turn aside into a world of their own.

We ought to follow what is common to all, but though the logos is common to all, the many live as though their thought were private to themselves.

Just as men who are asleep turn aside from a single world that is “common to all” into the many private worlds of their own, so men are alienated from the universal Logos by their own subjective fantasies. For “each forms his own opinion”, as Xenophanes had said. But the truth cannot lie in private opinion, if it is grounded in the absolute and transcendent unity of the Logos itself. This insistence too is characteristically Greek, and furnishes the groundwork for Plato’s critique of the epistemological and moral relativism of the Sophists.

 

The difficulty that men have in perceiving the absolute and unitary truth of the Logos is once again a function of their reliance on sense-perception, as opposed to the rational intelligence of which the Logos is the transcendent principle. Sensory knowledge is inherently ambiguous, if not deceptive. Insofar as she manifests herself to men in sensible images (as Heracleitus says in another of his famously cryptic pronouncements),

Nature loves to hide.

Nature conceals the reason of things under a false veil of sensual images, in the same way as the Delphic oracle conceals the truth in “signs” and “enigmas”. All of the chaotic variability and multiplicity of the natural world is thus a sign or symbol both concealing and revealing the unitary and immutable Godhead, who invisibly governs its rational and orderly operations.

This, again, is an idea of incalculable importance for later Greek and Christian religious thought. It stands in the background of the longstanding topos according to which the world is a book whose natural objects and processes are visible signs and symbols pointing allegorically to the rational mind of its divine Author; just as all literature, both sacred and profane, whether “revealed” or mythological fiction, points allegorically through its symbolic objects or personalities to the same divinely inspired truths. Reading the book of the world symbolically, thereafter, becomes one of the principal spiritual methods for the ascent of the mind to God, whether in such Platonic dialogues as the Symposium, or in the famous verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.”

 

The physical senses, then, give men only “signs”, which are worthless unless they are accurately interpreted. When the human intelligence “sleeps” in its own world, of course, men inevitably fail to read the signs aright. “Eyes and ears”, runs another fragment, “are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that do not understand their language.”

This is why men are estranged from the Logos—the universal principle of rational intelligence, that is, which is necessary to adjudicate subjective impressions—though it is common to all:

They do not understand how, though it is at variance with itself, it [the Logos] agrees with itself. It is a harmony of opposed tensions, as in the bow and the lyre.

In opposition, there is agreement; between unlikes, the fairest harmony.

The hidden harmony is stronger than the apparent.

Here, in the idea of a concordia discordiae (a “harmony of discords” or “tension of opposites”) is another of Heracleitus’ most resonant bequests to Western imagery and thought. In the bow as in the lyre there inheres an equilibrium of forces, the pull of the frame against the taut string being balanced by the pull of the strings against the bent frame. The result is a harmony of opposed tensions, precisely as we find in the world-order, through the equal and opposite transformations of fire.

From the point of view of sense-perception, these transformations are many, a plurality of changes proceeding in opposite directions, apparently disrupting the stability and shattering the unity of the world-order. But from the point of view of reason, they are merely the sensible “signs” that conceal and reveal the constant and unchanging order of the Logos-Fire, whose opposing tensions are harmonized in an equilibrium of forces. The world is thus both a “one” and a “many”, or, as Heracleitus puts it with his wonted terseness, “changing, it rests”.

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