The Hungriness of Stuff

We previously reflected upon the intimate, multifaceted relationship between ancient man and fire, and considered how easy it would have been for a man such as Heraclitus to conceive of the idea that fire is the fundamental constituent of all matter.

Heraclitus was, after all, a subject of the Persian Empire, a land of fire worship, and the reputed cradle of alchemy. Alchemy is a practice of transmuting matter that depends greatly upon fire. It seems to be a natural—albeit mystical—offspring of the bronze age.

Perhaps after recognizing the ubiquity of fire, Heraclitus reflected upon the nature of fire, and came to this conclusion:

Burning Man effigy, Black Rock City, Nevada

Burning Man effigy, Black Rock City, Nevada

fire is hunger and satiety.


Fire is indeed a hungry phenomenon. It seems to exist exclusively to consume, though the light and heat it has provided us through the millennia make it much more than a consumer. Yet it remains an archetype of consumption. Is not combustion the primal hunger within us? Is it not our deepest physiological craving for the fuels of combustion: oxygen and carbon compounds?

But fire is obviously not equal to hunger, for as consumption, it is also the satisfaction of its hunger.

Seeing everything around us as governed by this paradox, one can easily see the function of fire in the philosophy of Heraclitus. Heraclitus taught that the world is governed by a harmony of opposites. Recognizing that harmony, he saw wisdom in the working of things, but it was a harmony of war, of hunger. Whatever equilibrium he could see was a dynamic, cyclic equilibrium under tension. To Heraclitus, fire must have seemed fundamental both literally and metaphorically.

The Biology of Fire

What is the color of life?

Green. Certainly, most observers would agree.

Yet when one considers what the green represents, one might not remain so certain. Green is the color of photosynthesis. It is therefore the color of the conversion of light energy to chemical potential energy—stored energy.

Fire Poppy

Fire Poppy: only appears immediately after a fire.

Isn’t life better seen as the active changes in things, rather than the potential for those things to change? What life would there be if nothing ever actually changed?

Life itself is in the consumption of the potential—the combustion of the products of photosynthesis. The actual life is in the burning, that is, the respiration.

A fire seems alive. It respires just as we do, needing the same oxygen and exhaling the same carbon dioxide. it is that same phenomenon—combustion, in the form of cellular respiration, that gives us life as aerobic creatures.

Not to take anything away from water or carbon, which to some extent all life seems to require; it’s specifically combustion that gives us life. Of course fire is a universal phenomenon of which combustion is but one example. Ultimately, it is fire that gives us the building blocks of life—elements such as oxygen and carbon; but for now let us stick with combustion.

Spontaneous combustion: It happens all the time.

Spontaneous combustion: It happens all the time.

The food that we consume is used to feed the internal combustion engine within us, just as a campfire consumes wood; just as a car’s internal combustion engine consumes petroleum. Like the life that we know, the fire grows as it consumes, and as it grows, it travels. Not only does an individual fire grow; some even bear children: they spit out fire children that rise on the parents’ convective currents and fly outward to begin lives of their own.

Perhaps you have seen a fire sleep, mimicking the stars in the sky with its constellations of red coals. Or maybe you’ve watched the mesmerizing dance of a fire. Maybe you listened to its crackling song while it danced. Was it a song, or was that the sound of its infernal molars crushing its food? Did you hear it breathe? It breathes in and it breathes out.

Have you ever suffocated a fire? Funny how that can seem a little like a killing.

Fire and Water

Here in California, we have two seasons: a season of water and a season of fire. The fire season generally begins when the rains cease, which is typically in mid-April—say, Tax Day. The fire season continues beyond the end of summer into the warm California autumn, until the rains return—around about Halloween.

I remember, as a matter of fact, the rains returning last Halloween, while trick-or-treating with the kids. I remember how warm that first rain was. It even seemed refreshing.

The old Gaelic year ended on Halloween, so I hear. In California, the return of the rains is obviously a big deal, but I’m not sure it ought to mark our new year (as though it represented a rebirth).

I say I’m not sure, but it probably should. It’s ironic because the leaves haven’t even fallen from the trees yet by Halloween, but one can watch the world being slowly reborn through the mild winter months. February and March bring progressively more glory, but it all begins with the first rain in autumn.

My doubt has to do with the role of the sun in all this. To base the rebirth solely upon the return of the rains seems to disrespect the importance of sunlight in bringing about life, but I suppose it’s obvious enough that this is all made possible by the fact that the sun is somewhat ever-present around here.

Pink Floyd and Thoreau

I was just listening to the Pink Floyd song “Time” the other day, when three lines of the song struck me:

You fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way …
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today …
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

I had long been cognizant of a connection between the last line and something Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation

… but this time I suddenly recognized two other connections between this song and Thoreau’s masterpeice:

Our life is frittered away by detail … Smplify, simplify.

as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

I wonder what Roger and the boys had been reading when they wrote “Time”. Though I don’t see the same depth in the song that can be found in Walden, these verbal coincidences make me wonder what were their inspirations.

My College Sweethearts

It suddenly occurs to me that I wrote my first love poem 26 years ago. I wrote it in Apple ][ BASIC. I just had to tell her how fine she looked on that low-res green screen. What beautiful pictures that green screen could make of my sweet little Trigah.

Trig! That bitch was the bane of my senior year. All those mysterious identities to be memorized—what for? For college? I wasn’t even finished with high school, and I was already sick of college.

The school counselor had a talk with my math teacher. He had seen me with Trig, and he could tell that we weren’t meant for each other. The counselor told my parents to steer me clear of anything involving Trig, Math, or anyone like them. They just weren’t my type.

But my Apple ][+ showed me her beauty—like the stars: a little coefficient here, or an angle multiplier there, and her sines and cosines suddenly had a beauty—a meaning—all their own.

By the time I met her again in college, I couldn’t get enough of her. How she had grown!

That’s right: college. I couldn’t find anything else to do with myself, so there was no way out of it. So I enrolled in the local community college.

But college had little or nothing in common with college prep. I could finally meet subjects on their own terms—not on behalf of college preparation.

That’s where I met Calculus. She was beautiful too, in a new way, and I loved her too. I wrote little love programs to her, even while I was still writing poems to Trig. Sometimes I would write one poem for both of them. I wonder whether they knew.

Loving them both was more fulfilling than loving just one or the other. Without one in my life, the other seemed—incomplete.

Their charms were so—complementary.

Then there was Diffy Q., and Vectora Nalysis—and Linnea L. Gebra. They were each beautiful in new, refreshing and surprising ways. I loved them too.

I loved them all.

The Source

The theme, or motto, of this blog has its source in an essay of Plutarch entitled “On Listening to Lectures.” Here’s a translation of Plutarch’s actual words:

The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.

Love, Sympathy, and Value

The September 13 episode of the Philosopher’s Zone podcast really struck a chord with me. I spent most of the episode mumbling non-verbal cues of non-committal acquiescence, but by the end I was slapping the steering wheel, saying, “that’s fucking beautiful” with tears welling up in my eyes. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The key, to violate the plot line and jump to the climax, is to recognize the sympathetic and value-conscious aspects of love. Adam Smith came close when he recognized the sympathetic nature of human intelligence, and some Stoics seem to have believed in our natural capacity to appropriate others into our sense of self-consciousness (oikeiosis), but neither party, so far as I know, combined the notions of sympathy and value-consciousness as does Australian philosopher Jeanette Kennett:

What I saw so vividly in the most general sense was my son as a valuer.

Her trembling voice, no doubt, may have influenced my reaction, but this thinking has a deep appeal to me. It is not enough to sympathize with the joy and pain of others (please read Smith before you correct me with the word “empathize”). That is fine, but I believe the word “love” means something more, and the idea that we directly experience—or “see vividly”—the subjective value-consciousness of others is about as close as I’ve heard an idea get.

Thank you for listening, that was very brave of you. People have to learn that underlying business, the message of everything is love. Which is why society sticks together. You and I have love. —Jonathan, in Tell me I’m Here by Anne Deveson

If I’m selling Adam Smith or the Stoics short here, please let me have it. I would be happy to give them their due.

Because I believe love to be an innate inclination, I cannot use this line of reasoning to endorse Christian love, because Christian love is founded on a narrative of divine love. The dominant idea taught by the Christ-myth is that God loves us, therefore we ought to love one another. This sounds nice, but I believe that it undermines one aspect of love that I value most: its innate character. I would rather associate with the Stoics, who likely wielded a great influence upon Christianity, and came very close to speaking what I feel to be the truth.

Still, it seems to me that all classical western models miss an critical ingredient: value. Perhaps they left it out because they took value for granted. Perhaps it went without saying, but I believe that, in this age, it needs to be said. Plato came close in his near-deification of Beauty, but he didn’t develop that theme enough to convince me that he acknowledged the fundamental importance of value. I know that sounds rather circular: of course value is important! But I don’t mean to say that our sense of value is tied to what we find important; rather, I believe that our very existence is value-laden.

In looking for a classical symbol of this point of view, if not a philosopher or a kindred spirit, I cannot think of a better example than Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) for his essential intuition of a value-laden world, though the insights of the Stoic theory of oikeiosis and Smith’s theory of moral sentiments are crucial. … And let’s not forget Kennett!

PS: At the risk of sounding elitist, I’m not sure that I would have ever appreciated such discussions on love had I not become a parent.

Haunted by Heraclitus

Heraclitus is not merely turning in his grave, he’s haunting his inspirations.

It appears that an image of a painting that was inspired by Heraclitus’ aphorism the way up is the way down somehow underwent a vertical flip somewhere out on the aether, such that the way up is quite literally the way down:

Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'

The Up-Way Up

(How Maisner painted it)

Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'

The Up-Way Down

(how I found it)

I encountered this painting by Bernard Maisner on the online Harvard Square Library. I came across the image on the right while searching for an abstract representation of the theme of the aphorism. When I posted it, I asked for Maisner’s permission, and—to make a short story shorter—he very gracefully noted that the image was upside down.

It turns out that the orientation of the actual painting is significant, as it contains text that is somewhat more readable when up-side-up.

Ethos as Destiny

This is a continuation of our reflections on character as destiny.

We left this discussion having stripped down the self to nothing but her choices, but that was not where I wished to leave her. I would sooner clothe her in all the particulars of the universe than leave her a naked abstraction.

Heraclitus of Ephesus

Charles H. Kahn breaks down Heraclitus’ epigram ethos anthropoi daimon as follows:

‘character, for man [is his] daimon’. The meaning of the sentence depends on the meaning given to daimon.

As discussed before, we could read this as it has often been read, as the pronouncement of an inspirational speaker: yes, you are the master of your own destiny!, or a Kahn puts it, the cause is not in the stars but in ourselves. That may be how Heraclitus meant it, but as I have argued previously, it sounds a little out of character (pardon the pun) for a man whose mantra appears to have been all things are one.

Kahn suggests two basic definitions for daimon:

  1. one’s destiny, fortune; one’s prosperity or misfortune
  2. a god, divinity, or angel; one who distributes or assigns a portion

I believe both of these definitions are equally appropriate, and I’m not terribly concerned with drawing a distinction between them. My concern is whether Heraclitus intended to suggest that character is the lone causative agent by some causational unfolding of one’s personal destiny, or rather, whether Heraclitus may have meant that character, as is said of virtue, is a destiny—a fortune—unto itself.

Though Kahn does not address this issue directly as it pertains to this specific epigram, he does discuss it in relation to another aphorism.

But if everything that goes up must come down again, since there is no transmundane realm, no escape from the cosmic cycle …, one might question the coherence of this conception of the soul’s path upwards to celestial light or fire as a ‘greater destiny’ … where is there any ultimate difference of principle between the nobler and the baser fate, where in the long run is there any advantage allotted to wiser lives or better deaths?

Here we see Kahn confronting Heraclitus, and demanding consistency of him. If we do so, we must suspect that daimon must mean something other than one’s ultimate condition at the moment of death (or ascension).

Kahn continues …

This is the specifically Heraclitean form of a general question that any monistic system of ethics must face. And Heraclitus would surely have answered like Spinoza: the beatitude which rewards a life of excellence is the quality of that life itself; in his own words ‘man’s character is his fate’, his daimon for good fortune or for bad.

Hence, we might reword the phrase a touch:

Character, for man, is his fortune. —Heraclitus

… and we might be reminded of something that was said 500 years later:

Virtue is its own reward —Ovid

I think I prefer the non-compensatory language of Heraclitus, ambiguous as it is.

Roll over Herakleitos

Man’s character is his fate.

“Ethos anthropoi daimon.” What could an old Greek and subject of the Persian Empire have meant by such a declaration? Many modern folk seem inclined to replace the implicit verb “is” with an explicit “determines”. It only makes sense to the modern liberal mind: a man’s character determines his destiny. How else could character relate to the unfolding of events, I suppose that they reason, but that is the rationale of a modern—and somewhat Western—mindset.

As an American, I am accustomed to the mantra of self-determination: “you can be anything you want to be”. I do my best not to repeat it. I certainly have my doubts that a pre-socratic Greek could have been proposing such a doctrine by putting the words ἔθος (disposition, character, custom, habit), ανθρωπος (man, mankind), and δαίμων (divine power, angel, fate, etc.) together.

He might have meant “a man’s custom is his angel,” or maybe “disposition is destiny.” Who can say for sure?

Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'
Bernard Maisner, The Way Up Is the Way Down – Heraclitus

We might strive to acquaint ourselves with the man, as obscured as he is by the ravages of time, before attempting to fit his words together. We ought to also consider what his words might have meant to a subject of the Persian Empire who lived before much of what we recognize as western philosophy was even born.

Heraclitus is known most as the philosopher of change. There is little doubt that change was a big part of his philosophy, but there is considerable dispute as to whether change was the centerpiece of his thought. I am inclined to side with those who see Heraclitus as a philosopher of universal unity and interdependence. When he spoke of change, he spoke of it not as arbitrary flux, but as the result of a harmonious dialectic of opposing principles, or forces. Given that, one can hardly see the Heraclitus who summarized his own thought as “all things are one” as a prophet of self-determination or radical individualism, or even of personal determinism.

So what might be a more likely interpretation? I would like to read the aphorism with an eye for irony, which I believe to be warranted given the general pattern of Heraclitean epigrams. If we take the word daimon to mean destiny, we should ask ourselves what Heraclitus might have meant by the word. Would he have meant the final destination of a man, at the moment of death perhaps? The words of Heraclitus give us a strong impression that he did not believe in ultimate destinations. In light of this, I believe it is reasonable to suggest that destiny must be seen as something fulfilled, in an immediate sense. Furthermore, a man who made it clear that he was aware of the external forces that can exert themselves upon a man, could hardly have believed that a man is impervious to external influence. Given these points, it seems to me that Heraclitus must have meant that a man’s character is his destiny, with destiny taken to mean the fulfillment of oneself; that is, not so much that one’s choices determine what one becomes, but rather one’s choices define what one is.

“I am my choices.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” — Albus Dumbledore

Does birthplace or name define a person? Hair color, or height? Coordination? Intelligence? Personality? Are these things characteristics, or circumstances? When we look at such so-called characteristics, we soon see them as our personal environment rather than characteristics that we can claim to be our own. Ultimately, the sum of these characteristics is the sum of our environment: existence itself. All things are one.

All that remains for the individual are one’s choices.

One cannot expect to change anything, but one can choose to change anything.

This is a rather stoic definition of personal destiny, but I think a stoic interpretation might be true to Heraclitus, given his evident awareness of the interdependence of things, and stoicism seems appropriate given the homage the stoics often paid to Heraclitus.