11 November 2008

Signs of life-and-death

Thoreau's journals are especially pointed and profound when they take on the prophetic tone of an oracle. The same is true of the fragments of Heraclitus, such as this one:
Ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει Ζηνὸς ὄνομα.
(‘The wise is one alone, unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus.’)
The genetive form Ζηνὸς for ‘of Zeus’ is one of those meaningful puns often deployed by Heraclitus, as it could also mean ‘of life’. This connects the polyversity of names with the per-versity (the pervasive or ‘thorough turning’) of life-and-death, or birth-and-death as Buddhists call it.

Charles Kahn's comment on this fragment sums up the whole practice and purpose of the oracular style:
If Heraclitus must, like the oracle, ‘neither declare (legei) nor conceal but give a sign’, that is because his listeners cannot follow a plain tale. If they had what it takes to comprehend his message, the truth would already be apparent to them. But since words alone cannot make them understand ‘when their souls do not speak the language’, he must resort to enigmas, image, paradox, and even contradiction, to tease or shock the audience into giving thought to the obvious, and thus enable them so see what is staring them in the face. If they succeed, they will understand not this sentence alone but the unified world view that Heraclitus means to communicate. And central to such understanding will be a recognition that the principle of cosmic order is indeed a principle of life, but that it is not willing to be called by this name alone. For it is also a principle of death. Human wisdom culminates in this insight that life and death are two sides of the same coin. And cosmic wisdom is truly spoken of only when identified with both sides of the coin.
— Kahn (1979, 270-1)

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