#112: THE FLOW. Of all the classical Greeks, it’s Heraclitus who might most comfortably have sat down to breakfast with the Buddha. The theme of impermanence is standard hat to anyone versed in the sutras; the difference is in the tone. The famous fable of the Buddha’s life tells of his being sequestered in a deceptive luxury until adulthood, and that ease being shattered by the unexpected sight of age, illness and death. Fable though it may be, it is one convincing and plausible explanation of the obsessive fears that drove him to his long meditation beneath the Bodhi tree on the dusty plains of northeastern India. Likewise, what little we know of Heraclitus has the suspicious air of something made up after the fact, pieced together from the scraps of his thought that survive, and invented to explain the mind behind them.
But the depradations of time, that have reduced what we have of Heraclitus to 130 very brief fragments, may not have been entirely a disservice. Heraclitus, yes, has the poise, the steady insight of a philosopher, but all the interstitial heavy breathing of philosophy—the logical connection and conclusion, the extended and systematic thought—has vanished, and we read his fragments with the special concentrated attention that we give to Sappho. In Brooks Haxton’s translation for Penguin Books (2001) the words have the lustre and snap of poetry. Reading him, the top of your head comes off.
“Panta rhei” (“Everything flows”), the most famous of Heraclitus’ remarks, doesn’t actually occur in the work itself, but there you have the focus of his experience. From this comes the upending wisdom of his other preoccupation—the coincidence of opposites. “Just as the river where I step / is not the same, and is, / so I am as I am not.” The Logos, the word, fire and water, death and life—these in their ongoing permutations are the special province of Heraclitus. As a Greek, he has, more than the Buddha, a certain trust in thought and reason: “Seekers of wisdom first need sound intelligence.” He could express, with a kind of snorting humor, the intelligent man’s impatience with the dim-witted: “Stupidity is better kept a secret than displayed.” He compacted, as did Sappho, an extraordinary range into the few words which survived. And he believed, with Plato, that the source of wisdom and philosophy both was a sense of wonder: “Time is a game played beautifully by children.” “The sun is new again, all day.” Very little in literature is more alive than this echo of a lost voice.
He ends, as the Buddha might approve, with a single word, which Haxton renders as two: “Silence, healing.” Diogenes, instead, in the fine translation done by Guy Davenport, begins with “I come to debase the coinage,” a phrase in which you can hear a kind of cackling malice. It might, we learn, be a reference to the crime of his father which disgraced the family, but it also sounds like a verbal D.E.W. system: this man is no respecter of persons. He was a slave in Athens when the city’s glory was passing; he speaks from the bottom of history’s brightest barrel. It is this utter lack of status, of position, that informs the difference we can hear between Diogenes and La Rochefoucauld. La Rochefoucauld was a prince of the realm, and speaks with the assured and perfected French of a member of the old nobility. Diogenes speaks as a member of the underclass of nobodies, and speaks with their special freedom and bluntness.
None of his completed works survive—bits of him have only lasted in quotation, and no doubt often inaccurately at that. Guy Davenport has done him and us the favor of pulling these quotes and translating and again, as with Heraclitus and Sappho, there’s marvelous variety in this little. Without status, yes, but humble, meek, no: “In the rich man’s house there is no place to spit but in his face.” “I’m turning that invitation down: the last time I was there, they were not thankful enough that I came.” “An obol now, friend, and when the community asks you to contribute for my funeral, you can say that you’ve already given.” As I said, no respecter: “Share a dish of dried figs with Plato and he will take them all.”
But, but: when he coined the world “cosmopolitan,” and said of himself, “I am a citizen of the world,” he knew as well that he, who by proper call was no citizen of anywhere, had some standing, that would always be respected by the Greeks, in the larger world of philosophy, of those who loved wisdom. “To own nothing is the beginning of happiness.” (Note: the beginning.) “We have complicated every simple gift of the gods.” He had the Greek gift of pity—“The greatest misery is to be old, poor and alone.”—and of realism: “If, as they say, I am only an ignorant man trying to be a philosopher, then that may be what a philosopher is.” And, at the end, a note of stubborn joy: “Give up philosophy because I’m an old man? It’s at the end of a race that you break into a burst of speed.”
This spare feast was first published in Davenport’s Herakleitos and Diogenes (Grey Fox Press, 1979; the Heraclitus translation is excellent as well) and later subsumed into Seven Greeks (New Directions, 1995).