Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Heraclitus & Parmenides

I. Heraclitus

It was difficult to choose only two Heraclitus Fragments to write about, especially since so many struck me as interesting. My first selection, therefore, must be the one that impressed me so many years ago I cannot remember when first I read it. But I know it was as a child in Catholic School that I first came to understand these words (which is in itself a paradox, but that is for another story).

"Men who love wisdom should acquaint themselves with a great many particulars." (3(35))

For me this has always translated into the term: "Jack-of-All-Trades." I have always interpreted "Jack-of-All-Trades" using the Yankee definition. That was how it was used by those close to me during my lifetime -- Connecticut Yankees of the tradesman class. They used the term to mean someone who is skilled in many trades. This also happens to be the original medieval meaning of the word as defined by the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" (William and Mary Morris, HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988) Even if one tacks on the more modern "master of none" to the end of the original I do not see that as a disparagement as so many others do. This I will explain below.

"Men who love wisdom" (also known as philosophers) does not have the same meaning as does the phrase: "a wise one." The same is true that a skilled craftsman is not the same thing as a master craftsman. But also true is that a skilled craftsman in many professions is neither the same thing as a skilled craftsman in one profession, nor an expert craftsman in one profession.

I may seem to be running in circles for no good reason, but there is method in this madness for I seek to exclaim that a Jack-of-All-Trades is a person who loves wisdom. The Jack is not a sciolist, rather the sciolist is the dark opposite, the photo-negative of the Jack. A sciolist being "one," as defined by Webster's Dictionary, "who knows many things superficially; a pretender to science; a smatterer." The Jack-of-All-Trades, on the other hand, is skilled in many things; the Jack is not a pretender.

Heraclitus might have defined a sciolist by another of his fragments: "Most people do not take heed of things they encounter, nor do they grasp them even when they have learned about them, although they think they do." (57(17)) Therefore Heraclitus makes, I think, a distinction here that gives us reason to infer that when he uses the word "acquainted" he means having more than a passing acquaintance, or in this context, "skilled."

Having a working and skilled knowledge of a great many particulars, to be a Jack-of-All-Trades in Yankee parlance, allows one to have a functional skill in many areas of knowledge. This enables the Jack to be able to do many different jobs without outside help. In other words, the breadth of the Jack's knowledge enables a self-sufficiency a degree above and beyond the ordinary, and especially much different than the "wise one" or master craftsman of a single skill. A master craftsman necessarily has devoted a lifetime in the pursuit of one Ideal, one trade or skill, to the exclusion of others. The skilled craftsman is competent, knowledgeable and is in no way lacking of the fundamentals of a specific trade. The difference between a skilled craftsman and a master craftsman is art. While both can construct quality products that will serve the purpose intended, the master crafts a work of art while the skilled crafts a functional piece. The products are the same in function but different, and the difference is perception -- i.e. art. But then, paradoxically, just as a tourist sees the exotic in a landscape that the native sees as mundane, the Jack sees the divine in what the expert sees as ordinary. Both are correct in their observations, but each perception leads the onlooker to different goals.

A Jack-of-All-Trades can perceive who is an actual expert in all the many fields, and who are merely skilled or even just pretenders. A Jack can grasp this even in the fields the Jack has relatively little knowledge of because a Jack also understands that everything is relative. In fact, the Jack can see the threads of relativity that paradoxically bind all things into one universe -- to see the divine in all things. It is this, I posit, that allows the Jack to be skilled in "all trades" -- that the Jack sees the connection between what he knows and what he doesn't know, and uses what he knows to understand the unknown. This is the result of the skill the Jack has honed, the skill of acquainting oneself with a great many particulars. So, once again paradoxically, the Jack finds that he has an expertise as well.

We know what Heraclitus said about "understanding" -- that "Human nature has no real understanding, only the divine nature has it." (61(78)) So whenever we find a way to real understanding we are finding a bit of the divine in our base nature. And while that may seem impossible, we must also remember what Heraclitus says about the nature of the paradoxical universe. If I may sum up his several known statements on paradox in my own words: expect the opposite of what you expect, but both will be true.

Therefore, human nature is base, and divine. Divine nature is noble, and human. Just as Herclitus proclaims in the fragment "Nature loves to hide itself." (17(123)), the divine and base hide themselves in each other. Just as he says in another fragment, "The fairest universe is but a heap of rubbish piled up at random." (40(124)). Here is the beginning of Chaos Theory.

And all of this revolves around, and is orbited by, the fragment "Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is hard to discover and hard to attain." (19(18)) So, what is wisdom but the truth that hides in all things?

When I go down to the Quinebaug River for meditation, I arrive and see water, dirt, gravel, grass, trees, muck and remains of past human, animal and weather passage. As I meditate there quietly the surroundings come into focus and I see chipmunks, turtles, fish, crayfish, frogs, toads, as well as birds, plants and insects of many varieties. If I meditate a bit longer it becomes a web of relativity, independent yet connected, a dewdrop of the divine.

A Jack sees what the Fool is blind to, what the Knowledgeable only glimpse in one dimension, and what the Wise One understands completely but only in myopia. In my capacity as a public librarian, admittedly of the lowest rank not even deserving of the name librarian for I have no paper that proclaims me such, I have helped an elderly master craftsman, a sculptor of wood, a cabinetmaker of the highest order research particulars for his life's work -- a definitive encyclopedia on all aspects of 18th Century Yankee cabinetmaking. In so doing, time and again he comes to me, the lowest of librarians, to help him find some bit of information in a field other than his chosen one. Everything is indeed relative, and 18th century cabinetmaking does not exist in a vacuum. Many different skills and trades are necessary to get the raw material from a faraway land transformed into a finished product here. From merchant sailors to ship the exotic woods across the world, to stonemasons to build the buildings that the shipping community needs to support the industry, to toolmakers to design and forge the tools of the trade, and even to all the simple people who do the necessary odds and ends of life. It is all connected. When I help him find what he is looking for, the object of the search seems familiar to the point of being ordinary to me because it contains the thread of the divine that flows through everything. But he finds it as wondrous as a child finds a new toy. He also sees the thread of the divine as commonplace, but he is amazed that something so familiar to him in his chosen field can also be found in places not within his area of expertise.

And so I attempted to define the "philosopher," the lover of wisdom who is acquainted with a great many particulars, opposing him to the "wise one," by exhibiting the "Jack-of-All-Trades."

II. Heraclitus

While I rambled in spirals on the first Heraclitus fragment I chose, on this second one I will be direct and succinct.

"I have searched myself." (8(101))

As above, so below.

Perception colors all. To know how one's perception filters reality one must know oneself.

After I wrote the above, which I did honestly come up with out of my own mind while pondering the fragment -- I looked up the "as above, so below" quote to jog my memory of where it came from. To my surprise I found that it is ascribed to The Emerald Tablet and Hermes Trismegistus. That it, along with the precept "know thyself," form the foundation of ancient occultism as the Doctrine of Correspondences. That I have read that before I do not doubt. Also without doubt, I agree that these two Ideas are connected and important -- so much so that no other narrative need be given.

My knowledge is such that I know a little about a lot, and I don't waste brain cells worrying about who said what. All that matters to me at this point in my life is the connection between one Idea and Another. People are singular and transitory, Ideas fade in and out of vogue but live far longer than people. While it is interesting and sometimes informative and important to know who said what, the always-important part is The Idea.

I remember the Idea and its use, not the people or the dates. I can always look up the people and dates when they are needed, but the Idea is necessary for everyday life. In much the same way it is not important when the Battle of Thermopylae happened, or even who was involved, only that as an Idea it survives.

Obviously, I believe in the two Ideas, "know thyself" and "as above, so below," as Universal Truths. So for me there is naught else that needs be said.

III. Parmenides

Ah, the original snake oil peddler. No, I don't mean the original meaning: one who sells snake oil as a remedy for joint pain. Rather, I brand Parmenides with the later and current meaning, one who, with dubious credentials and boisterous hype, is exhorting a fictitious miracle cure. But there is some truth in what he says -- for the best lies contain obvious truths in order to misdirect the listener. I find it very difficult not to ascribe the character of W. C. Fields in "My Little Chickadee" to this person.

Reading Parmenides brings the concept of Zero to my mind. I will give Parmenides the benefit of the doubt that he knew not of the Idea of Zero -- even though by his own words that could not be so:

8a, Paragraph 2 "The decision on these matters depends on this: either It Is or It Is Not. But it has been decided, as is necessary, to let go the one as unthinkable and unnameable (for it is no true path), but to allow the other, so that it is, and is true. How could What-Is be in the future? How could it come-to-be? For if it came-to-be, it is not, nor is it if at some time it is going to be. Thus, coming-to-be is extinguished and perishing unheard of."

Perhaps I mistake his meaning, but according to what I read here he would exclaim that "Zero" always was, is and will be, yet since "Zero" is the Absence of What-Is it could not be. The Idea of Zero is a difficult one. I do not pretend to know all of its form. But I dare say that the Idea of Zero would give Parmenides fits.

8a, Paragraph 3 "Nor is it divisible, since it all alike is. Nor is there any more of it here than there, to hinder it from holding together, nor any less of it, but it is all a plenum, full of what-is. Therefore, it is all continuous, for what-is touches what-is."

Is he describing Zero or Infinity, or both? Has he, if this Idea is applied to Zero and Infinity, has he traveled full circle back to his starting point? Are Zero and Infinity different aspects of the same Concept? If we explore Zero will we find Infinity? If we explore Infinity will we find Zero?

5 "Wherever I begin, it is all one to me, for there I shall return again."

But wait, he seems to say in this following passage that there is no such thing as Infinity. No Infinity and no Zero.

8c "Since, then, there is an ultimate limit, it is completed from every direction like the bulk of a perfect sphere, evenly balanced in every way from the centre, as it must not be any greater or smaller here than there. For neither is there what-is-not, which could stop it from reaching its like, nor is there a way in which what-is could be more here and less there, since it all inviolably is. For equal to itself in every direction, it reaches its limits uniformly."

IV. Parmenides

He claims The Goddess speaks of What-Is. What is What-Is?

6 "Whatever can be spoken or thought of necessarily is, since it is possible for it to be, but it is not possible for nothing to be."

What does he mean that whatever can be thought of must be? Does a character or idea in a fictional story actually exist? What is Existence? Does Fictional Existence qualify as Existence? According to Parmenides it seems so.

8b It is the same thing, to think of something and to think that it Is, since you will never find thought without what-is, to which it refers, and on which it depends. For nothing is nor will be except what-is, since it was just this that Fate did shackle to be whole and unchanging; wherefore it has been named all things that mortals have established, persuaded that they are true: 'to come-to-be and to perish', 'to be and not to be' and 'to shift place and exchange bright colour'.

Does this mean that whatever anyone can think of, Is? For it cannot be what Is Not if it has been thought. But what of conflicting and incompatible Ideas? Can the Idea of Deity and the Idea of No Deity co-exist, not only in the separate minds of individual mortals but in our collective perception of Reality? Is there such a thing as a "collective perception of Reality," or do we simply ignore each other's realities for the sake of convenience?

If we invented Deity, is it actually Real? Is Belief enough to create Reality? Once created, does a Thing thereupon always Exist? Does The Deity have a reality separate from our thoughts? Must we have created the concept of Deity for it to exist? What if we never created the Idea of Deity? Would Deity therefore not exist because it was not thought of, or would it still exist outside our thought? What if the Idea of Deity was lost in the mists of time -- if we forgot Deity? Would it still exist?

I don't have the answers.

A Fictional Idea can be experienced as Real to believers. For example, Roman Catholics used to believe in Limbo because learned Catholic Theologians declared it must exist in order to hold the innocent souls who have never offended The Deity, yet had not been baptized. The Roman Catholic Church never taught the Idea of Limbo, but it survives nonetheless.

Purgatory. One Pope, speaking with the Infallibility of being The Deity's Representative on Earth, decreed Purgatory existed. The Vatican II Council decided to "continue the belief" in a cleansing fire that eradicates sin after death, but the Council does not go so far as to say Purgatory exists. Does the belief in it make it a reality?

Pope Gregory the Great, speaking with Infallibility, declared that Mary Magdelene was a prostitute. The Vatican II Council declared that Pope Gregory the Great was wrong. Many people still believe Mary Magdelene a prostitute even though many learned Theologians consider her now to have been an Apostle. How does she really exist? Is she Real only as the perception of the Many, or the perception of the Few? Or does she exist as she really was regardless of how we perceive her? Do we need to create two Mary Magdelenes, one a Prostitute and one an Apostle, because the two Ideas exist and influence people's lives?

The Autistic's Reality is fictional to the Non-Autistic, but frighteningly real to the Autistic. Can there be a multiplicity of disparate Realities, separate but equal in authenticity? Is all Parmenides trying to say -- Perception is Reality? I don't know.

I have had a great trouble comprehending Parmenides at the time of this writing. Perhaps my difficulty lies in that he presents his case as Objective Truth from the mouth of The Goddess. What mere mortal can contradict Her? He has tried to sell his ideas under the falsehood that his words are Her words. I do not believe The Deity spoke to him, and I reserve the right to question his arguments as I would those of any mortal.

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