Total Eclipse of the Sun, Thales Edition

By far my most boring class ever dealt with pre-Socratic philosophers. The problem was not with the subject matter. Who doesn’t want to drop the adjective Heraclitean at a cocktail party? The problem lay in the presentation, a droning seated lecturer who never raised his eyes from his notes to discern that his audience wasn’t a collection of 19th century Oxford dons.

I did learn a few facts, though. Heraclitus correctly surmised that things were constantly in flux, Democritus developed an atomic theory of the universe, and Thales correctly predicted a solar eclipse circa 585 BCE.

Even back then, this prediction thrilled me with an appreciation for human ingenuity. How many hours, days, years, and decades of sky-observation did it take Thales to come up with this prediction? We’re talking with the naked eye in a slide-ruler-less world. Did he, as the Savoy Brown song says, “Sleep with the sun and rise with the moon?” He must have, had to.

Anyway, I raise my eclipse eve morning blood mary to Thales, to Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and to my professor who, despite his dry approach, devoted his life to scholarship rather than hedonism.

Thales

 

 

Trafficking In Mockery

illustration by Pawel Kucynski

Constant change, or anicca, is a central concept of Buddhism, one of the three marks of existence, along with dukkha (suffering) and anatta (non-self). The Gautama Buddha (c. 567- 487 BCE) taught that attaching to impermanence (e.g., your childhood goldfish, your adolescent puppy love, your undergraduate hairline, your spouse, your existence) ultimately results in sorrow. To escape the natural inclination to become attached to objects of desire, Gautama Buddha points out a pathway that enables one to transcend ego, i.e., to enter a state of anatta, in which one becomes not even zero but this [1] [                    ].

The concept of constant change is inherent in quantum mechanics, cellular division, and, more obviously, in the shifting shapes of the clouds above. Everything is always in a state of flux. Not only did Eastern sages like Gautama come upon this concept of constant change, but also so did the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher — a contemporary of Gautama — Heraclitus, whose dates are c. 535 BCE – 475, BCE.

It’s easy to imagine Heraclitus’s most famous saying “No man ever steps into the same river twice” coming come from one of Gautama’s sermons. Unlike serene Gautama who suggested “a middle way,” Heraclitus, known as “the weeping philosopher,” was profoundly pessimistic. No doubt his pessimism contributed to what I hope are apocryphal accounts of his death.

According to Neanthes of Cyzicus, Heraclitus, suffering from dropsy, attempted to cure himself by covering his body with manure and lying out in the sun to dry, but he was made unrecognizable by the dung covering and was finally eaten by dogs. [2]

Heraclitus and Democritus
Johanness Moreelse

Not surprisingly, impermanence has been the theme of many a poet, and my main man WB Yeats is no exception. Take his masterpiece “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”

Many ingenious lovely things are gone

That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude.

He offers examples of ancient art that has been lost:

[ . . .] There stood

Amid the ornamental bronze and stone

An ancient image made of olive wood –

And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories

And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

Or as the latin poet Aaron Lipka puts it:

Vita brevis, ars longa,
tamen non est sempiterna.

 

Yeats goes on to lament the end of the pax Victoria when “a great army [was] but a showy thing.” However, in 1919 the “days are dragon-ridden,” and “[t}he night can sweat with terror as before/ We pieced our thoughts into philosophy.”

He adds that he (or she) “who knows no work can stand [. . .] has but one comfort left: all triumph would/But break upon his ghostly solitude.”

He ends the first section of the poem with this stanza:

But is there any comfort to be found?

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,

What more is there to say? That country round

None dared admit, if such a thought were his,

Incendiary or bigot could be found

To burn that stump on the Acropolis,

Or break in bits the famous ivories

Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

(Or, in the case of Hobby Lobby, traffic in stolen ancient Mesopotamian clay cuneiform tablets, perhaps looted by ISIS.)

Is what Yeats calls “ghostly solitude” anatta?”

Probably not. In Section 3, he refers to a Platonic theory of an afterlife. This theory holds that the greater a person’s accomplishments, the more likely those accomplishments will encumber her in her passage to the next world. Therefore, “if our works/Could vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death/For triumph can but mar our solitude.”

From the Cambridge Introduction to WB Yeats:

Before the poet can take comfort in his conclusions, it dawns on him that the evanescence of mortal triumphs is precisely what makes us love them. The fact that great works vanish does not make it easier to cast off our attachment to them. Indeed it makes it harder.

Andrew Wyeth

Today marks the 8th Sunday since my Judy died. The Buddhist ideal of total detachment, although wise, is better suited for one with a monastic temperament. If you are a husband or wife, a father or mother, a pet owner, a lover of Billie Holiday or the Marx Brothers, detachment is inexcusable. That doesn’t mean, however, you should embrace Heraclitus’ model and wallow in melancholy.

Weep when you must; party when you can.

Also, cynicism, though not ideal, can offer some satisfaction:

Come let us mock at the great

That had such burdens on the mind

And toiled so hard and late

To leave some monument behind,

Nor thought of the levelling wind.

 

Come let us mock at the wise;

With all those calendars whereon

They fixed old aching eyes,

They never saw how seasons run,

And now but gape at the sun.

 

Come let us mock at the good

That fancied goodness might be gay,

And sick of solitude

Might proclaim a holiday:

Wind shrieked — and where are they?

 

Mock mockers after that

That would not lift a hand maybe

To help good, wise or great

To bar that foul storm out, for we

Traffic in mockery.


[1] Insert “the sound of one hand clapping? The formula “form = emptiness; emptiness = form? The inexpressible mental concept of non-concept? Your original face before you were created?

[2] Janet Fairweather.“The Death of Heraclitus,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies.

How Democritus and Heraclites Might Have Reacted to the Trump Election

four-elements

 

This evening after a series of minor vexations – son sick, Gamecocks clobbered, eye invaded by wayward particle – I got to thinking about Horace Walpole’s observation that “[l]ife is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.” I quote Walpole when I’m teaching tragedy and ask students to offer an interpretation.

It’s a hard question, hard to put the answer into words.

Of course, to address the question, you need context.   For example, let’s examine the thinking/ feeling/comedy/tragedy conundrum from the perspective of Trump’s election.

(I know some of you may have supported Trump, perhaps because you feel immigrants are overrunning the country or that massive tax cuts will defy history and fuel an economic boom or that you consider Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama Satanic spawn or some/all of the above).

However, the [tautology alert] a priori premise in this thought experiment is that Trump is a vulgarian with authoritarian tendencies whose boorish pronouncements during the campaign have eroded codes of civility and whose total lack of a sense-of-history and intellectual curiosity make his election as leader of the free world very, very unfortunate.

Not to mention his pathological avariciousness.

Democritus

Democritus

Okay, let’s bring in the cynical pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, aka “the laughing philosopher.”

Seneca claimed that Democritus, whom he called “the Mocker,” laughingly held human beings in disdain, modeling a detached amusement at the foibles of the masses. In temperament think Bill Maier as opposed to Louis Black.

If human folly is laughable, this election might very well provoke Democritus to guffawing at this turn of events:

A swindler and pathological liar who pleads guilty to fraud a week after the election and who referred to his opponent as “Crooked Hillary” with the help of Fox News and Russian hackers (not to mention the New York Times) convinces a majority populace that he’s “more trustworthy” than she.

[cue laugh track]

Coal miners in Kentucky counties who have decreased their uninsured rate by almost twenty percent vote 93% to 6% for a man who wants to abolish the estate tax.

[cue laugh track]

Thinkers like Democritus take the long view.   Human folly is essentially history’s major motif. Thinkers are familiar with not only Huck Finn’s the “Duke and the Dolphin” but have read Swift and Shakespeare and perhaps Horace and Juvenal.

In their view, only incredibly naïve pollyannas would expect their generation to be less prone to foolishness than their forebears. Most of humankind is purblind, always have been, always will be.

After all, anyone reading this will be literally dead in 80 years. So what if the American Experiment fails? So what if Arizona once again boasts a view of the Pacific? Letting the little people decide was a very, very bad idea.

Just desserts.

By the way, should I add that this view might be considered elitist?

Heraclitus

Heraclitus

Heraclitus, on the other hand, aka the “weeping philosopher,” was a feeler, invested in the here and now. So what if Swift’s view of Yahoos was essentially correct? Those yahoos who voted for Trump in Kentucky lives will not get any better but actually worse: they will lose that recently acquired insurance, babies will die, and those promised coal mining jobs ain’t coming back ever.  Once again, they’ve been lied to.

How horrible, Heraclitus laments, that such chicanery is so rewarded. A spoiled, 70-year-old adolescent tweets preposterous lies and pays no apparent price for his dishonesty and in the mean time transforms the Founding Fathers’ republican democracy into an authoritarian kleptocracy!

People are real, not abstractions to be mocked. Pain is real.

In fact, sorry. My eye is killing me. I got to sign off.

 

fallout1