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1997 Commencement Address—Heraclitus at Amherst
May 25, 1997
I wrote my senior thesis on Heraclitus of Ephesus. I knew nothing of him when I went to college. But over senior year, like many of you, I labored away over obscure references and far-fetched interpretations, trying to make sense of a hundred or more scattered words and phrases of ancient Greek set down on the coast of Turkey two thousand five hundred years ago. “Why him?” you might ask, as sometimes still I ask myself. I will try to answer that question today as a way of asking why any of us study what we study and what our choices add up to. This is my way of wishing you godspeed as you leave us today for other adventures.
When I was in high school, I read Simone Weil’s great essay on the Iliad, “the poem,” as she called it “of violence.” In it and in her other writings she often gave Greek citations in the original. I liked the way the letters looked, with more squiggles and accents than the letters in English or Latin or French. When I first got to college I took ancient Greek philosophy and loved the earliest of these philosophers who wrote so little and had such magnificent names: Anaxagoras who said that mind or intelligence controls all things and Parmenides who thought that appearances and sensations mask a vast unity of being hidden behind what we see and feel.
I think the first thing I read of Heraclitus was the fragment that says that dry souls are best.
I found it striking and exciting: primitive, I suppose, but powerful and suggestive. Souls, he thought, are made of fire. To me this meant that the best portions of our identities are fiery in the metaphorical sense: full of heat and light and possibly rebellion.
He wrote in a distant language and place, using words that we translate only approximately. We have talked of souls for hundreds of years in religious traditions undreamt of by Heraclitus. Fire is still fire, I suppose, but many of its uses—and perhaps much of its mystery—may have disappeared for us. Even if we can learn his language, its vocabulary and syntax, we can never be sure that we will ever understand just what he meant by much of what he said.
All of Heraclitus' writings are called “fragments” because we find them in broken clauses and phrases in the works of later Greek philosophers and historians. The words attributed to him show up as shards or remnants in the reports of his life and ideas. And given the distance that separated him from these later writers, we can be reasonably sure that what they say about him is inaccurate.
We have little idea how Heraclitus lived or died. He was from Ephesus; his name and education bespeak privilege; his words tell us all we will ever know of his life.
I was drawn to the obscurity of Heraclitus, as well as to the fragments themselves. This was a philosopher about whom no one knew much. The apprentice scholar had as good a shot at him as the most venerable professor. Many of you picked your topics or majors in a similar spirit of exploration, with a sense that you might be the first person to understand a Russian poem or a rock formation or the economics of prejudice.
None of us is immune to the dream of Columbus, much as we know that there never was a Columbus in this sense: a first human on far-off shores, a discoverer whom no one preceded; Columbus was not even the first from his own continent, but simply, accidentally, the first in the complicated and tragic line that leads us to where we are here and now. In learning no one is a Columbus. Yes, there are discoveries—in archeological digs, in literary texts, in chemistry and physics and sports. But mostly we go where others have gone before us, noticing, if we are lucky, something they missed or perhaps misunderstood.
All along the path, we can notice where others have either preceded us or else pointed the way.
But Heraclitus was doubly obscure: not just unknown and almost unknowable but also paradoxical and willfully difficult. There is good reason for his reputation, in literary traditions, for a kind of snarling reclusiveness. It is his words and sentences that snarl at us and go into hiding. Heraclitus said such things as “the road up and the road down are the same road” and “you cannot step twice in the same river.” In a famous fragment he is said to have commented, about a fire in a hearth, “there are gods in there, too.” What exactly he meant by this will be forever uncertain. He may have meant to shock those who thought the gods were in the temples or on Olympus. He may have meant to suggest that all fire is divine, like the fire in the sun. He may have meant to say that the names people gave to the gods only concealed the truth that the divine is present in the everyday.
But knowing that Heraclitus was hard to understand only made the attempt more alluring. Yeats speaks of “the fascination of what’s difficult.” In literary archeology such as this, there is uncertainty but also great freedom to imagine and conjure. No one can prove you wrong, though neither can you prove yourself right.
Some of you will have studied as I did, hard and freely, with joy in the play of such material. Others of you will have been more disciplined in your taste and more rigorous in your results. No matter; I take Heraclitus as my ancient guide to what you—what we all—have been about. All knowledge courts certainty amid obscurity. All of it risks refutation and revision. None of it stands still for long.
Heraclitus believed that reason, what he called Logos, was everywhere and in all things, much as we often fail to grasp it. Repeatedly he said that we are asleep to what goes on before us and around us. “Nature loves to hide,” was one of his most noted sayings. We go through life like sleepwalkers, he thought, bumping into this and that obstacle that we imagine to be something familiar or something frightful, but too rarely examining it or inquiring how it functions and why. Our task, our intellectual task, is simply to wake up.
If there is a faith underlying our studies, all of them together, it is a faith in questions, in inquiry. Our answers comfort for a time, but most of them are provisional and incomplete. Learning is hard; and more than hard it is unending. Yet most of us persist in believing that we can make headway, that we can learn something more than initial impressions or judgements tell us: that we can learn, at a minimum, what questions get us nowhere, and which seem hopeful and of lasting interest. Probably the most radical witness to that faith at Amherst is the insistence by your professors that even as a brand new student you could indeed take on the hardest questions of philosophy or painting or anthropology. They have pressed you in these four years, as Heraclitus pressed those who listened to him. “If you do not hope for the unhoped for,” he said, “you will not discover it, since it is undiscovered and no paths lead there.”
When I set out to understand Heraclitus, I felt the romance of inquiry as well as its faith. Here was something distant from me, odd, known to few people, and difficult. It required another language, an ancient one, with all the uncertainties that go with a language that no one speaks. Moreover, Heraclitus challenged us, as great teachers can, with paradoxes and riddles.
I loved to study the words themselves: to look at them in Greek just as Diogenes and Aristotle must have. Research has this tactile joy for most of us: chalk and a blackboard for the mathematician; vials and the steel hood for the chemist; library stacks and the old manuscripts for the critic or historian.
Above all, I was drawn to the ideas in these words. That's what it means to be a student or an intellectual, you may say. Yes it is, but to be drawn, as if by nature, towards generalizations, speculations, imagery of all kinds, is also a portion of what it means to be human.
The main ideas of Heraclitus are few, if surprisingly striking and forceful. Throughout his fragments, there is an emphasis on a unity concealed by disunity or opposition. In one of his most beautiful images Heraclitus invokes divinity: "God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, fullness and hunger, changing as fire does when spices are thrown in and it takes the name of each."
I offer you then three Heraclitean ideas: First, the idea that there is a Logos or reason to all things, undiscovered as it may be. This seems to me to be the faith of all of us in every field of inquiry. It is intrinsic to the sciences and social sciences. It is implicit in history and biography, painting and theater, as we try, again and again, to understand what at first baffles us.
Second, Heraclitus believed that change is a constant of, and essential to, this order or reason that we can find by dint by inquiry. He put this law of change most vividly and concretely in a fragment that remarks that even “the sun is new each day” and like the river has less fixity than we think. Those of us who study the classics have sometimes prided ourselves on the apparent fixity of the writers and philosophers of ancient Rome and Greece. But the lesson of our own lifetimes is radically different: Plato, the Parthenon, the Greek or Roman family—all have changed as we have changed and our approaches and inquiries have changed. Those who believe in fixity in curriculum, in work, even in nature—they call out, like the Nordic king, against tides more powerful than we know.
What follows from this is a third aspect of Heraclitus’ philosophy, the insistence that clashes, oppositions, and struggles are implicit in all existence, in all changes. “We must know,” he said, “that war is universal and justice is struggle and that all things come to be in strife and necessity.” This is not to say, with Hobbes, that we live a war “of all against all.” “People do not recognize,” Heraclitus said, “that disagreeing is itself agreement . . . ” He used a striking image for this: the bent wood of a bow pulled taut and tense by a cord, whether to fling arrows or, in the Greek lyre, to make music. We are pulled taut by argument but the result can be music—or even community.
When you study an organism, or a culture, or a poem, you must feel some of what I felt in studying Heraclitus: the wonder at the intelligence in these peculiar sayings; the puzzlement at what they meant and what held them together; the intrigue at their oddity, their differentness, from what I was used to in my own ways and those of my family and culture.
Yet many of you have studied things more paradoxical, more remote, and more mysterious than Heraclitus. His Greek is, after all, the language of a civilization naively but learnedly almost worshiped in our own traditions of law and literature. He stands with a handful of other philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, at one of the first forks in the great European path that was to divide into philosophy, on the one hand, and science, on the other. In literature and in philosophy in our own waning century, Heraclitus is a familiar figure of dissidence and rebellion. We find him cited or echoed in Nietszche and Heidegger, in Simone Weil, and even in Derrida and Foucault.
I had not travelled far, after all. And this, too, may be a lesson of your studies—as of your lives. Just when you think you have gone the farthest from your starting point, you will see, in yourself or in what surrounds you, something surprisingly familiar, something modest perhaps. Let it keep you from the arrogance of discovery or accomplishment. Yes, you will have come a long way, and learned a great deal; but no life takes us so far, no learning teaches us so much, that we should lose sight of the shore from which we launched our voyage.
We talk about a world out there, beyond this campus and beyond these four years, as if it were a different world, a new one, with new rules and new realities. I am never sure whether this is a way of denying something important about the college community—its frustrations, perhaps, or its limits—or of asserting something about the way our lives should unfold when we leave here. If, as Heraclitus insists, the differences we cling to are often illusory, then we should take some care with this casual dualism.
There is no field of study or endeavor in which the laws of Heraclitus—the laws of change, of strife, of paradox—do not hold. Whatever you have studied here, I hope you will have learned this.
Heraclitus wrote often of the fire in our souls. He once said that “You will not find the limits of the soul, even if you travel down its every path: its Logos is too deep.” You will not soon find your own limits either, no matter how far you go. But be guided by your sense of self, of your own dry and fiery souls. The most beautiful of Heraclitus’ fragments consists of three Greek words: ethos anthropoi daimon. Character, for human beings, is fate. May your characters be fiery and sturdy, full of curiosity and compassion. And may your fates be kind and lively.