Book Review: The paradox of Heraclitus

by Chris McCaffery

The Logos of Heraclitus by Eva Brann (2011), Paul Dry Books: Philadelphia

Lucky Heraclitus to have such a disciple! Brann cuts through the misunderstanding that plagues ‘the obscure’ in this short book.

“A large book is a large evil”, Callimachus says; Hillsdale students might be willing to agree. Eva Brann’s The Logos of Heraclitus is neither, but the pithy saying is like Heraclitus’ aphorisms: compact, tense, and dismissive. Brann, a St. John’s College tutor, sets out to explain in this little volume what Heraclitus means by the word Logos, how it relates to the rest of his philosophy—or our idea of it: panta rhei, fire, all those wet feet—and the figures in the murky world of pre-Socratic philosophy who influenced the enigmatic aphorist.

We receive no full text from Heraclitus, only fragments and quotes in the works of other authors. Brann pays careful attention to the important aphorisms that we have, often offering her own translations to bring out key facets of the compact original Greek. She discusses Pythagoras and Homer and shows how Heraclitus borrowed from both even while claiming to despise them and his fellow Milesian “Physicists.” As evidence of his general disdain for his contemporaries, Diogenes Laertius, a third-century A.D. biographer, tells us that Heraclitus said, “Homer deserved to be driven out of the lists and flogged.” Brann calls him the “greatly absorptive despiser.”

Heraclitus’ project was to discover what, if anything, is intelligible about the world. His answer was the Logos, a ratio and principle of exchange between all matter that in a lawlike manner guides all the transformations of the world. Rather than a static peace, the world is constantly in tension as the Logos forces every thing into relationality with every other thing. Is this a deity? Heraclitus says that this Logos “is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus.”

Logos has a long history before and after Heraclitus. Its earliest meaning, found in the verb legein, is “to pick up and lay down of lay by, that is, to collect, hence to count up, to tell, re-count, and thus to give an account.” From this origin we get meanings related to speech, with speech as the sign of human reason. As we speak, we tell and relate tales—logos also means ‘fame’. Just as we speak to others and address them, so too does logos bring things into relation with each other, and this is how Pythagoras, Heraclitus’ immediate predecessor, used the term. In this way, Latin’s ratio translates to logos as well. The ratio-relation “connects two terms in mutually determining juxtaposition, especially in respect to their common measurability.”

It is this key meaning of logos that Brann expounds upon. Heraclitus makes use of analogy in the same way Homer used metaphor, which “says poetically what analogy says prosaically; the thought structure is the same”. Brann claims that Heraclitus learned metaphor from Homer, albeit in characteristic “creative ingratitude”. It “perfectly suit[s] the expression of his way of thinking and the construction of the cosmos—by the bond of all-pervasive logoi”. Homeric metaphors, such as:

“As in heaven the stars shine so splendidly,

So in the plains of Troy shone the Trojan campfires.” (Iliad 8.555)

Show the fundamental way that things may be compared to each other when put in relation. These smaller logoi connect the numbers 3:4 and 6:13 along the same “thought structure” as heavenly stars:Trojan fires. The Logos is the sum of all smaller logoi, forcing and binding everything together.

Aphorisms are designed to be unpacked, to have layers of meanings held in tension. Brann’s solution to disagreements as to how Heraclitus meant his Logos to be understood—rationality, structure, wisdom, word, deity, saying—is, like the memetic taco ad, “¿Por qué no las dos?” (Or in this case, todos). Brann’s writing is compact, clear, and at times poetic. She leads the reader through each stage of her argument quickly and without confusion. Beginning with this standard translation:

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

Bringing out more meaning, Brann transforms it to:

“For those hearing not me but the Saying, to say the same is the Wise Thing: Everything [is] One.” [Brann’s italics]

This Logos speaks to us and we are obligated to “say the same”; we agree and echo, and in a sense obey, the Saying or Speech which is also a Speaker. This Speaker says a Wise Thing, but also seems to be the Wise Thing itself. “Is” bracketed shows another layer of the puzzle: Heraclitus does not identify, “Everything is One”, he simply juxtaposes, panta:hen. And so the fragment is further transformed:

“Listen not to me but to The Speaker, there is a wise thing to agree with— One:Everything.”

This sort of unpacking is exhilarating to watch. Brann builds upon herself and incorporates each new fragment into the grand story of the Logos. She touches on mathematics and music, myth and etymology, to draw out the meanings folded into the Greek sayings. On the aphoristic mode itself, Brann sees parallels with the core of Heraclitus’ philosophy:

I have no doubt that Heraclitus intended all the possibilities, and intended them all at once, not from sheer linguistic ability, but because his style of aphoristic succinctness, exploded by his punning resonances, so exactly conveys his discovery: the all-at-onceness of all things in their multiplicity—lightly girdled speech sweeping along vast skirts of significance. (18)

Like each aphorism, this 160-page book is written with such economy I won’t endeavor to outline Brann’s entire train of thought, lest this magazine explode. Tolle lege, you won’t regret it.

Heraclitus is the source of the long philosophical history of logos, and Brann devotes a section to the later use of the word and other Heraclitian concepts, from Zeno and Saint John the Evangelist to James Madison. The Logos of Heraclitus is well worth its compact look at “the first philosopher of the West on its most interesting term”, paying careful attention to his historical context. It does not rely on late interpretations, not even from Socrates and Aristotle, who, Brann claims in an interview, “had their own agendas and misunderstood his insistence on true paradox, saw him as unifying opposites.” Logos is the key word of the Western philosophical tradition, which “acts as a tradition because its moments are bound together and driven apart by dialogue: the back-and-forth of the logos”.

That might be the key to grasping Heraclitus, to become comfortable with discomfort, accustomed to his ratios that can never be resolved into one term. Juxtaposition of opposites, divided and spread out across each other in perfect proportionality with everything but never together. In this restless world we must hope there is room for love, for as Marilynne Robinson put in Gilead, “there is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be…It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”

Forum Editor-in-Chief Chris McCaffery is a junior studying history and is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.

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