Sunday, January 11, 2009

Heraclitus & Logos

Before I delve further into the enthymeme, I thought it wise to tackle the driver of the chariot: Logistikon, figure of Logos, the reasoning portion of the human psyche. I assume he looks something like stoney Heraclitus below, marble-bearded, eyes void of any passion.

And it was Heraclitus, considered today the most important pre-Socratic philosopher, who first expounded on the subject of the Logos. No one is quite sure what exactly Heraclitus meant when he used the word -- we only have fragments of Heraclitus' work left, and the "definitions" he gives for logos aren't exactly conversation ending. Since his day, logos has been used to refer to a whole slew of related powers or principles: words, anything written or spoken; reason (either the faculty or the action); measure, proportion, ratio...

But Heraclitus seems to have thought about it in a much more fundamental way -- and not necessarily as a technical term. He is famous for believing that the "everything is in a state of flux." His most famous aphorism is an image of this flux: "On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow." The world figured as a flowing river -- though you might stand in one place in the river, it moves, and therefore, in some sense, the place changes, is always changing.

And yet, he says, somehow there seems to be a world that is common to us all. A "kosmos" he called it -- a somehow unified oneness we all exist within. How does this world-of-flux appear to become a kosmos? Well, as far as I can tell, for Heraclitus, that's where logos comes in. Logos is the principle, or the name he gave, to the commonness, the stability or orderedness, the able-to-be-described-ness, of the world. One Greek summed up Heraclitus' view this way: "Logos always exists, inasmuch as it constitutes the cosmos, and as it pervades all things"

For a believer in a world of flux, a believer in a world of motion, the ability to share a world in common is no small feat. Who or what performs this trick? We don't know, but what we do know is the rule of it -- we know the law it lays down, makes seen for us: the world around us. "Therefore," Heraclitus continues, "it is necessary to follow the common; but although the Logos is common the many live as though they had a private understanding."

What could it possibly mean for someone to have a private understanding of the shared surface on a world of flux? You get what you get -- I mean, different perspectives yes, but the common is the common. That's what we have, I imagine someone saying.

Potentially, he might have been attempting to describe the error of having any private belief at all. That is, of believing you have a private understanding, an understanding that is more or other than the understanding emanated to us by the logos, the kosmos.

Last night, and I'll end on this, I went to hear Arvo Part's 4th symphony, "Los Angeles." It was meditative, minimalistic, and, in certain moments, sublime. Part, like Heraclitus, is a mystical figure; one concerned with the most basic, the most elemental. In the notes handed to us at the door, there is a quote of his wherein he is attempting to describe the style of composition he pioneered in the late '70s, which he called Tintinnabulation. The word tintinnabulation comes from the latin world for bell, and is used in English to refer to the ringing of bells. Part's style has a simple bell-like quality to it, and is largely based on chordal triads, and a reduction of the music to these simple bell-like, resonating triads. As I read his reflections, it quickly became clear that tintinnabulation is more than a style for him -- it's a philosophy. It's a way of seeing the world. He speaks about it as though it were an abstract place of reflection. "Tintinnabulation," he says, "is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers -- in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises -- and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this."

I guess it reminds me of Heraclitus, and of the shame of saying I know anything more, or other, than the common. Human Dogma -- the world is there, and I'm stepping through it's movement, like an animal crossing a stream. The seed of all knowledge, and the extent of it.

Click on Heraclitus' stoney gape below to hear Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel," as heard in a Van Sant movie from 2002.

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