Two opposite attitudes towards the Greeks are common at the present day. One, which was practically universal from the Renaissance until very recent times, views the Greeks with almost superstitious reverence, as the inventors of all that is best, and as men of superhuman genius whom the moderns cannot hope to equal. The other attitude, inspired by the triumphs of science and by an optimistic belief in progress, considers the authority of the ancients an incubus, and maintains that most of their contributions to thought are now best forgotten. I cannot myself take either of these extreme views; each, I should say, is partly right and partly wrong. Before entering upon any detail, I shall try to say what sort of wisdom we can still derive from the study of Greek thought.
As to the nature and structure of the world, various hypotheses are possible. Progress in metaphysics, so far as it has existed, has consisted in a gradual refinement of all these hypotheses, a development of their implications, and a reformulation of each to meet the objections urged by adherents of rival hypotheses. To learn to conceive the universe according to each of these systems is an imaginative delight and an antidote to dogmatism. Moreover, even if no one of the hypotheses can be demonstrated, there is genuine knowledge in the discovery of what is involved in making each of them consistent with itself and with known facts. Now almost all the hypotheses that have dominated modern philosophy were first thought of by the Greeks; their imaginative inventiveness in abstract matters can hardly be too highly praised. What I shall have to say about the Greeks will be said mainly from this point of view; I shall regard them as giving birth to theories which have had an Independent life and growth, and which, though at first somewhat infantile, have proved capable of surviving and developing through more than two thousand years.
The Greeks contributed, it is true, something else which proved more permanent value to abstract thought: they discovered mathematics and the art of deductive reasoning. Geometry, in particular, is a Greek invention, without which modern science would have been impossible. But in connection with mathematics the one-sidedness of the Greek genius appears: it reasoned deductively from what appeared self-evident, not inductively from what had been observed. Its amazing successes in the employment of this method misled not only the ancient world, but the greater part of the modern world also. It has only been very slowly that scientific method, which seeks to reach principles inductively from observations of particular facts, has replaced the Hellenic belief in deduction from luminous axioms derived from the mind of the philosopher. For this reason, apart from others, it is a mistake to treat the Greeks with superstitious reverence. Scientific method, though some few among them were the first men who had an inkling of it, is, on the whole, alien to their temper of mind, and the attempt to glorify them by belittling the intellectual progress of the last four centuries has a cramping effect upon modern thought.
There is, however, a more general argument against reverence, whether for the Greeks or for anyone else. In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.
Between Pythagoras and Heraclitus, with whom we shall be concerned in this chapter, there was another philosopher, of less importance, namely Xenophanes. His date is uncertain, and is mainly determined by the fact that he alludes to Pythagoras and Heraclitus alludes to him. He was an lonian by birth, but lived most of his life in southern Italy. He believed all things to be made out of earth and water. As regards the gods he was a very emphatic free thinker. ‘Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another… Mortals deem that gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form… yes, and if oxen and homes or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds… The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.’ He believed in one God, unlike men in form and thought, who ‘without toil swayeth all things by the force of his mind’. Xenophanes made fun of the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration. ‘Once, they say, he (Pythagoras) was passing by when a dog was being ill-treated. “Stop,” he said, “don’t hit it! It is the soul of a friend! I knew it when I heard its voice”.’ He believed it impossible to ascertain the truth in matters of theology. ‘The certain truth there is no man who knows, nor ever shall be, about the gods and all the things whereof I speak. Yea, even if a man should chance to say something utterly right, still he himself knows it not—there is nowhere anything but guessing.’
Xenophanes has his place in the succession of rationalists, who were opposed to the mystical tendencies of Pythagoras and others, but as an independent thinker he is not in the first rank.
The doctrine of Pythagoras, as we saw, is very difficult to disentangle from that of his disciples, and although Pythagoras himself is very early, the influence of his school is mainly subsequent to that of various other philosophers. The first of these to invent a theory which is still influential was Heraclitus, who flourished about 500 B.C. Of his life very little is known, except that he was an aristocratic citizen of Ephesus. He was chiefly famous in antiquity for his doctrine that everything is in a state of flux, but this, as we shall see, is only one aspect of his metaphysics.
Heraclitus, though an lonian, was not in the scientific tradition of the Milesians. He was a mystic, but of a peculiar kind. He regarded fire as the fundamental substance; everything, like flame in a fire, is born by the death of something else. ‘Mortals are immortals, and immortals are mortals, the one living the other’s death and dying the other’s life.’ There is unity in the world, but it is a unity formed by the combination of opposites. ‘All things come out of the one, and the one out of all things’; but the many have less reality than the one, which is God.
From what survives of his writings he does not appear as an amiable character. He was much addicted to contempt, and was the reverse of a democrat. Concerning his fellow-citizens, he says: ‘The Ephesians would do well to hang themselves, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless lads; for they have cast out Hermodorus, the best man among them, saying “We will have none who is best among us; if there be any such, let him be so elsewhere and among others”.’ He speaks ill of all his eminent predecessors, with a single exception. ‘Homer should be turned out at the lists and whipped.’ ‘Of all whose discourses I have heard, there is not one who attains to understanding that wisdom is apart from all.’ ‘The learning of many things teacheth not understanding; else would it have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.’ ‘Pythagoras… claimed for his own wisdom what was but knowledge of many things and an art of mischief.’ The one exception to his condemnations is Teutamus, who is signalled out as ‘of more account than the rest’. When we inquire the reason for this praise, we find that Teutamus said ‘most men are bad’.
His contempt for mankind leads him to think that only force will compel them to act for their own good. He says: ‘Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows’; and again: ‘Asses would rather have straw than gold.’
As might be expected. Heraclitus believes in war. ‘War,’ he says, ‘is the father of all and the king of all: and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free.’ Again: ‘Homer was wrong in saying: “Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!” He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away. And yet again: ‘We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife.’
His ethic is a kind of proud asceticism, very similar to Nietzsche’s. He regards the soul as a mixture of fire and water, the fire being noble and the water ignoble. The soul that has most fire he calls ‘dry’. The dry soul is the wisest and best.’ ‘It is pleasure to souls to become moist.’ ‘A man, when he gets drunk, is lead by a beardless lad, tripping, knowing not where he steps, and having his soul moist.’ ‘It is death to souls to become water.’ ‘It is hard to fight with one’s heart’s desire. Whatever it wishes to get, it purchases at the cost of soul.’ ‘It is not good for men to get all that they wish to get.’ One may say that Heraclitus values power obtained through self-mastery, and despises the passions that distract men from their central ambitions.
The attitude of Heraclitus to the religions of his time, at any rate the Bacchic religion, is largely hostile, but not with the hostility of a scientific rationalist. He has his own religion, and in part interprets current theology to fit his doctrine, in part rejects it with considerable scorn. He has been called Bacchic (by Cornford), and regarded as an interpreter of the mysteries (by Pfleiderer). I do not think the relevant fragments bear out this view. He says, for example: ‘The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries.’ This suggests that he had in mind possible mysteries that would not be ‘unholy’, but would be quite different from those that existed. He would have been a religious reformer, if he had not been too scornful of the vulgar to engage in propaganda.
The following are all the extant sayings of Heraclitus that bear on his attitude to the theology of his day.
The Lord whose is the oracle of Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign.
And the Sibyl, with raving lips uttering things mirthless, unbedizened and unperfumed, reaches over a thousand years with her voice, thanks to the god in her.
Souls smell in Hades.
Greater deaths win greater portions. (Those who die then become gods.)
Night-walkers, magicians, priests of Bacchus, and priestesses of the wine-vat, mystery-mongers.
The mysteries practised among men are unholy mysteries.
And they pray to these images, as if one were to talk with a man’s house, knowing not what gods or heroes are.
For if it was not to Dionysus that they made a procession and sang the shameful phallic hymn, they would be acting most shamelessly. But Hades is the same as Dionysus in whose honour they go mad and keep the feast of the wine-vat.
They vainly purify themselves by defiling themselves with blood, just as if one who had stepped into the mud were to wash his feet in mud. Any man, who marked him doing this, would deem him mad.
Heraclitus believed fire to be the primordial element, out of which everything else had arisen. Thales, the reader will remember, thought everything was made of water; Anaximenes thought air was the primitive element; Heraclitus preferred fire. At last Empedocles suggested a statesmanlike compromise by allowing four elements, earth, air, fire and water. The chemistry of the ancients stopped dead at this point. No further progress was made in this science until the Mohammedan alchemists embarked upon their search for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, and a method of transmuting base metals into gold.
The metaphysics of Heraclitus are sufficiently dynamic to satisfy the most hustling of moderns:
‘This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.’
‘The transformations of Fire are, first of all sea; and half of the sea is earth, half whirlwind.’
In such a world, perpetual change was to be expected, and perpetual change was what Heraclitus believed in.
He had, however, another doctrine on which he set even more store than on the perpetual flux; this was the doctrine of the mingling of opposites. ‘Men do not know,’ he says. ‘How what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.’ His belief in strife is connected with this theory. For in strife opposites combine to produce a motion which is a harmony. There is a unity in the world, but it is a unity resulting from diversity:
‘Couples are things whole and things not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.’
Sometimes he speaks as if the unity were more fundamental than the diversity:
‘Good and ill are one.’
‘To God all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some right.’
‘The way up and the way down is one and the same.’
‘God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it Is mingled with spices, is named according to the savour of each.’
Nevertheless there would he no unity if there were not opposites to combine: ‘It is the opposite which is good for us.’
This doctrine contains the germ of Hegel’s philosophy, which proceeds by a synthesizing of opposites.
The metaphysics of Heraclitus, like that of Anaximander, is dominated by a conception of cosmic justice, which prevents the strife of opposites from ever issuing in the complete victory of either.
‘All things are an exchange for Fire and Fire for all things, even as wares for gold and gold for wares.’
‘Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.’
‘The sun will not overstep his measures; if he does, the Erinyes, the handmaids of Justice, will find him out.’
‘We must know that war is common to all, and strife is justice.’
Heraclitus repeatedly speaks of ‘God’ as distinct from ‘the gods’, ‘The way of man has no wisdom, but that of God has… Man is called a baby by God, even as a child by a man… The wisest man is an ape compared to God, just as the most beautiful ape it ugly compared to man.’
God, no doubt, is the embodiment of cosmic justice.
The doctrine that everything is in a state of flux is the most famous of the opinions of Heraclitus, and the one most emphasized by his disciples, as described in Plato’s Theaetetus.
‘You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.’
‘The sun is new every day.’
His belief in universal change is commonly supposed to have been expressed in the phrase ‘all things are flowing’, but this is probably apocryphal, like Washington’s ‘Father, I cannot tell a lie’ and Wellington’s ‘Up Guards and at ‘em.’ His words, like those of all the philosophers before Plato, are only known through quotations, largely made by Plato and Aristotle for the sake of refutation. When one thinks what would become of any modern philosopher if he were only known through the polemics of his rivals, one can see how admirable the pre-Socratics must have been, since even through the mist of malice spread by their enemies they still appear great. However this may be, Plato and Aristotle agree that Heraclitus taught that ‘nothing ever is, everything is becoming’ (Plato), and that ‘nothing steadfastly is’ (Aristotle).
I shall return to the consideration of this doctrine in connection with Plato, who is much concerned to refute it. For the present, I shall not investigate what philosophy has to say about it, but only what the poets have felt and the men of science have taught.
The search for something permanent is one of the deepest of the instincts leading men to philosophy. It is derived, no doubt, from love of home and desire for a refuge from danger; we find, accordingly, that it is most passionate in those whose lives are most exposed to catastrophe. Religion seeks permanence in two forms, God and immortality. In God is no variableness neither shadow of turning; the life after death is eternal and unchanging. The cheerfulness of the nineteenth century turned men against these static conceptions, and modern liberal theology believes that there is progress in heaven and evolution in the Godhead. But even in this conception there is something permanent, namely progress itself and its immanent goal. And a dose of disaster is likely to bring men’s hopes back to their older super-terrestrial forms: if life on earth is despaired of, it is only in heaven that peace can be sought.
The poets have lamented the power of Time to sweep away every object of their love.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
They generally add that their own verses are indestructible:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
But this is only a conventional literary conceit.
Philosophically inclined mystics, unable to deny that whatever is in time is transitory, have invented a conception of eternity as not persistence through endless time, but existence outside the whole temporal process. Eternal life, according to some theologians, for example, Dean Inge, does not mean existence throughout every moment of future time, but a mode of being wholly independent of time, in which there is no before and after, and therefore no logical possibility of change. This view has been poetically expressed by Vaughan:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow moved; in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
Several of the most famous systems of philosophy have tried to state this conception in sober prose, as expressing what reason, patiently pursued, will ultimately compel us to believe.
Heraclitus himself, for all his belief in change, allowed something everlasting. The conception of eternity (as opposed to endless duration), which comes from Parmenides, is not to be found in Heraclitus, but in his philosophy the central fire never dies: the world ‘was ever, is now, and ever shall be, an ever-living Fire’. But fire is something continually changing, and its permanence is rather that of a process than that of a substance—though this view should not be attributed to Heraclitus.
Science, like philosophy, has sought to escape from the doctrine of perpetual flux by finding some permanent substratum amid changing phenomena. Chemistry seemed to satisfy this desire. It was found that fire, which appears to destroy, only transmutes: elements are recombined, but each atom that existed before combustion still exists when the process is completed. Accordingly it was supposed that atoms are indestructible, and that all change in the physical world consists merely in re-arrangement of persistent elements. This view prevailed until the discovery of radio-activity, when it was found that atoms could disintegrate.
Nothing daunted, the physicists invented new and smaller units, called electrons and protons, out of which atoms were composed; and these units were supposed, for a few years, to have the indestructibility formerly attributed to atoms. Unfortunately it seemed that protons and electrons could meet and explode, forming, not new matter, but a wave of energy spreading through the universe with the velocity of light. Energy had to replace matter as what is permanent. But energy, unlike matter, is not a refinement of the common-sense notion of a ‘thing’; it is merely a characteristic of physical processes. It might be fancifully identified with the Heraclitean Fire, but it is the burning. Not what burns? ‘What burns’ has disappeared from modern physics.
Passing from the small to the large, astronomy no longer allows us to regard the heavenly bodies as everlasting. The planets came out of the sun, and the sun came out of a nebula. It has lasted some time, and will last some time longer; but sooner or later—probably in about a million million years—it will explode, destroying all the planets. So at least the astronomers say; perhaps as the fatal day draws nearer they will find some mistake in their calculations.
The doctrine of the perpetual flux, as taught by Heraclitus, is painful, and science, as we have seen, can do nothing to refute it. One of the main ambitions of philosophers has been to revive hopes that science seemed to have killed. Philosophers, accordingly, have sought, with great persistence, for something not subject to the empire of Time. This search begins with Parmenides.