Some Tips For A Better Understanding Of Stoic Physics
by Elen Buzaré
Editorial note: Readers of the blog may have grown weary of the intricacies of Stoic physics in recent days, but will I think nevertheless find Elen’s thoughtful reflections most interesting.
(From Héraclite, La lumière de l’Obscur, translation and commentaries by Jean Bouchart d’Orval, Les éditions du Relié, Sagesses, 1997)
I recently posted a message on the Facebook Stoicism Group to introduce to members the work of translation and commentaries of Heraclitus fragments by Jean Bouchart d’Orval.
As the concepts detailed in this book are not always very accessible, I tried to organise these notions on word format while translating them in English. I think that it may help modern stoics to develop a different view of stoic physics. At least, this may provoke debate and creative thinking.
Qualifying the stoic physics of pantheism always left me unsatisfied. Pantheism is a a very modern concept (17th century) that I believe does not give justice to what ancient Greek is conveying. I have been objected that Pantheism is the belief that the universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity. Pantheism is indeed derived from the Greek πᾶν pan (meaning “all”) and Θεός Theos (meaning “God”). This is perfectly true, however I am afraid that pantheism, because it tends to divinize the forces of nature, may be a way of « reifying » the Nature. And once you said that stoics were pantheists, then what ? This is a short cut.
That does not mean that modern stoics should set aside their Physics. Reality escapes from us. It is flowing while being in harmony with the order of things. This is why, stoic teaching tremendously uses Nature. If we look at Nature, we see the teaching. Nature is the reality itself, the fundamental order of things. If we leave this reality, we suffer.
This is what Heraclitus tried to explain to people of his era, 2 500 years ago. Jean Bouchart d’Orval introduces his view of Heraclitus to people of our era in a very different way from traditional scholars –apparently inspired from the Vedanta. He presents himself as having worked in his youth in nuclear physics fields in Canada but later decided to pursue to his questioning following the meditative practice and living in India for a few years. He does not claim to belong to any school, but his though is modulated by intuition of non-duality. He appears sometimes to be considered as a controversial person.
The following lines are not mine at all. I omitted references first of all because that would have made the reading absolutely painful but also because I simply reorganized notions related to ancient Greek philosophy that appears repeatedly throughout this book in a coherent manner. However, all credits belong to Jean Bouchart d’Orval.
There is nothing « to believe in » nor « to have faith in » in the following lines. I simply hope that it will encourage debate and intelligent reflection.
I – About the phenomenal world
« Phenomenon » (φανερόν – phanerôn) :
- literally means « That is showing itself », « That is coming to appearance ».
« Nature » (ϕυσις- phusis):
- It is not certain that the word « nature » is a good translation for phusis. The contemporary signification of « nature » means the whole of the phenomena of the universe, with its laws as studied by the sciences of Nature (chemistry, physics, biology, etc.).
- Originally, the word phusis appeals to the idea of « to be born », « to grow ». Phusis may be « that which makes appear all that can be perceived », or « that which governs all things ».
- Phusis is that is growing, that is spreading out, that is coming to appearance. That is the Real as it manifests itself in space and time.
« The World »:
- The world is the « Great Living » and it appears as « world » when there is perception.
- The manifested world is the gift of Reality, unexplorable and without access as Reality, but accessible as the « world ». It is not possible to say that Reality « is ». The verbs « to be » and « not to be » are not applicable to « That which is neither something nor nothing ». The emergence of the form is the manifestation of the reality, but it also provokes the retreat of the reality. A thing is always perceived as a thing, either way it could not be perceived. The reality manifests itself by removing itself, it comes to being, erasing itself in forgetting.
- The manifestation of the Unique that we call « the world » is but movement and becoming
« All things » (τα παντα- ta panta) :
- designates everything that is an object of perception, all the elements of the phenomenal world. In other words: everything that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
- The ta panta name « all things », all what is. In practical terms, it constitutes all that can be perceived, all of which we can say « this is ». The domain of the ta panta is very wide : it can be a table, a tree, an animal, a human being, an atom, a ray of light, a galaxy, an emotion, a thought, a desire, a state of mind, everything.
- Are images formed on occasion of perception
Characteristics of « all things »:
- Every «thing» has its contrary
- Every «thing» knows an end
- Every «thing» is conditioned and interdependent, ceaselessly moving. They are transient, ephemeral sparkles, flashes of the Unique. Each sparkle has a special colour, a particular identity, but as the Unique has no colour in itself, no distinctive sign, this sparkle is necessarily limited in time and space. « All things » are governed according to this way, not by will, but by factual situation.
- All that is manifested holds by a dynamic balance of opposed energies, may it be in the « world », in our body or in our mind. This is only when one adopts an individual perspective that the contraries oppose themselves, that one is good, the other bad, that one is to select, the other to reject. The contraries are the instruments of the deployment of the Unique. It is out of the play of the opposites that harmony follows
- No movement would be possible without opposed tensions
- The more one is exploring the intimacy of matter, the more one is finding movement : the more one is approaching the infinitely small, the more the movement seems to be fast : cellular exchanges, intra-cellular exchanges, inter-molecular vibrations, movement of the electrons around the core of the atom, exchanges between protons and neutrons inside the core of the atom. Exchanges do not constitutes an important part of matter ; but the whole. That is why physicists are now more cautious with their images : they are more referring to energy patrons rather than to particles. All what one is designating as matter, or universe, is no more than process, links, exchanges. Nothing is static in the universe.
- It is also true at our level of perception : the lack of exercise causes the degeneration of muscles, bones, cardio-vascular system and a weakening of the general organism, including the nervous system and the immune system. Each one of us can verify this. This is true of all process of life.
II – About the logos :
The logos is referred to different designations: « That which is wise » (sophon), the Unique (Hen), the logos, « that which governs all things », « That which knows », The Divine, The Reality etc.
« λόγος– Logos » :
- what the word « logos » designates is central to Heraclitus. Translators of Saint John’s Gospel rendered this word by « spoken word, language ». The philosophers translates this word by « discourse », « true discourse » but that does not help much. Before being « spoken word » or « discourse », logos initially means gathering. Legein means « to gather », « to collect », « to pick up » and its meaning later evolves in classical Greek to mean « speaking, saying something ».
- Logos designates the movement of the « Unique » coming to visible.
Characteristics of the logos :
- Is transcendent : transcendent does not mean disconnected of all things, separated from all things ; it means that it is not something and that it cannot be grasped. When all we know about water is ice, liquid water and water vapor, we cannot have an idea of what water is in itself and not as one of its forms. But water in itself is not separated or foreign to the waves, to the clouds or to the ice floe. In the same way, could that which is wise and « governs all things », « the One, the only Wise », be separated even for a split second from its own forms, which are « all things ».
- According to Heraclitus, there is identity between the panta and the hen (the Unique). The identity between « ta panta » and the « Hen » is the essence of knowledge, of wisdom. It is a true identity. All things do not come out the Unique, either created by the Unique, or fragment of the Unique. No : Heraclitus claims that there is only the Unique. « All things » is the « Unique ». Every « thing » is the image of the Unique, his visibility in the world of perception. The human being only knows images of reality : this is what he names things. He believes that all these objects are separated from each others and from himself. He identifies himself with his body, his thoughts, his preferences, his habits etc. This is the ordinary state of consciousness. This is the source of faintness, sufferings and neverending torments for human being of every era and cultures.
- Yet the Unique is not a thing ; otherwise, Heraclitus would have only talked about the panta, and not about the Hen. This is why the Unique is « unexplorable and without access ». This is the main difficulty in the realisation of the Unique : at each stage, we may be tempted to objectivize it, to turn it into a thing, an object of perception, of knowledge, of discussion.
- Is timeless, is always (eontos aei) that is « always true »
- Governs all things through all things because it is the only reality of all things
- The Unique does not exist as one of the elements of the phenomenal world, it is not « in the making ».
- Needs no law to « regulate » the sparkles of his appearance. This is exactly the law of conservation of energy in modern science, that can be assimilated to law of action and reaction. This is a conservation of the whole, and not some will, that make all the elements to be regulated by an inexorable becoming. « In transforming itself it is resting ». The transformation of the elements is the expression of the essential untransformation of the Unique, which is the sole reality. Heraclitus employs the term kubernesai to significate « governs » : this corresponds to the action to guide a small boat by mean of a rudder. It is by leaning on the streams that it is possible to guide oneself on the waters. As soon as degeneration wins, a correction is applied naturally The universe is purposelessly governed by the mere fact that it is itself.
- Is unintentional
- Has no opposite
- Is pure conscience and through the mechanisms of perception of this universe, most notably the nervous system of the human being, its true nature is shining, while being veiled by the illusory impression of existing as a person, an entity separated from the whole.
- The fire is the Unique in his material aspect of dissolution and transformation. The fire represents for « all things » (ta panta) the extreme possibility, the destruction. That is why it is the judge of « all things ».
- Lightning (keraunos) names the fire in all its shining purity. What are the features of lightning ? Imprevisibility, instantaneity and power. The human being generally thinks that he can control the main factors of his life ; he can at least believe it for a long period of time. He gets to sleep in an imaginary world, the one of his representations of reality and reassure himself cultivating the known : his own image of his body, his preferences, his opinions, his relationships, his friends, his house, his job, his country, his religion in short anything that contributes in making him believe that he is existing as an individual. This is only when life submits him to important clashes or conflicts that his concepts are shattered. This is the test of contraries. Death, disease, failure is lightning that strikes and takes out man of his drowsiness.
III – About the human beings :
There is neither chance nor a God to judge us. Individual freedom is a delusion, chance too. This is Human Being’s attitude that shapes his destiny. This behaviour is not the consequence of a choice, because there is only the Unique and all that is action-reaction is nothing less than the expression of the unity and indetermination of the Unique (the Unique is not something). Heraclitus observes that it is man, by his way of being, his attitude, who is doing the job. These are not our actions that enchain us, this is our way of being, our attitude. Our actions may belong to the past, but we are always carrying our attitude wherever we are going ; The act and its retribution are manifestation of Human being attitude, even if we do not comprehend it clearly.
There are two categories of human beings :
« The sleepings»:
- They are «the sleepings » because they forget reality, they live in a personnel, or individual manner, stupidly waiting for the inevitable destruction of the body
- They are also qualified as being « oi polloi » i.e. the multitude
- They try to find it (i.e « that which is wise ») to the level of « all things » and so frustration and sorrow await them
- They are established in duality
- They are not skilled in the listening of the logos
- They are living as if they had an individual consciousness
- They are taking refuge in an individual world
- They are living at the level of appearences
- They are inhabited by horizontality.
« The sage » :
- Is the egrègoros (i.e the awakened), the Best, the dry soul
- Has a « dry soul » because this is the soul where any traces of ignorance has evaporated, under the prolonged action of the sun of Knowledge. On the contrary the humid soul is weak, softened by the energetic dispersion linked to the pursuit of pleasures.
- Has accomplished the telos of the human incarnation
- Perceives reality without mixing (samyoga) it, that is identifying it, with any form of the phenomenal world. The discrimination has come and it is the cessation (nirodha) of confusion (literal translation of samyoga), the abolition of ignorance (avidya).
- Is listening to the logos : this means is « picking the gloom ». The listening is contemplation, which implies an absence of direction. What is an undirected listening ? Who can impose a direction to the listening ? Asking the question is already answering. An oriented listening is a listening of the known, of the thought, of the cerebral, of the memory, of habits. Some use the term « egoic seizure »
- Is wise, sensible, has a healthy mind. Having a healthy mind is seeing clearly, that is keeping one’s attention on the reality and not living at the level of appearances. It would be possible to say « pick the reality as it is »
- Is updating in space and time the deep vision
- Is inhabited by verticality
- The knowledge is in fact a recognition (ginoskein).
- Is what establishes ease, joy and serenity, not partially or temporarily, but definitively and in totality
- Is the realisation of the Unique, that is the absence of ignorance. This knowledge is unshakable, even when the drama of the world is buzzing. The sleeping, however are getting by in their own mental enclosure, where every perception is interpreted in the frame of a subject/object relationship, which is the last thing that a human being questions.
- Must not be mistaken with the accumulation of knowledge, erudition.
- Freedom means total absence of constraints
- As long as a thought, a situation, a desire is disturbing or menacing one’s serenity, this means that his realisation is not absolute and that the listening is still a necessity in order to definitively eliminate roving and confusion.
Truth (αληθεία – aletheia) :
- Aletheia suggests the absence of covering, the absence of forgetting (lèthè). In his first light meaning, truth is not something, it is « that which is already here », « that which is always here ».
Meditation (askesis of listening to the logos, mindfulness)
- Meditation is that which brings an inner liberation that has the same quality as the Unique : natural, unintentional, inherent
- When meditation is as natural and devoid of intention in the nervous system of the human being, as is the manifestation of the world in the Unique, ignorance disappears and light is shining in all its brightness.
- Realisation comes by imitating the manifestation, when there is no intention, however subtle may it be. This is total humility.
- No matter the « objects », « impressions » or « thought » perceived : this is when the absence and the presence of theses forms, when registered, are nor seen as being different, when there is the Unique.
- Do not consists in not having or having thoughts.
After a Law degree in France and in Scotland as an Erasmus student, Elen Buzaré has been working in the insurance broking field for over 10 years now. She first encountered Stoicism when she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the age of 20 and since then, dedicated herself to the comprehension of the Stoic teaching, mostly as self learner. This led her a few years later to publish a little essay on Stoic spiritual exercises, a little book very much inspired by Stoic (in the light of the regretted Pierre Hadot’s work), Christian orthodox and Buddhist spiritualities. She is convinced that practising a form of mindfulness is central to Stoic practice in the sense that it develops an acute awareness of phantasiai and hence the ability to suspend judgement to question them. She would also be happy to explore further the Stoic physics as she feels that ethics has no real sense without its foundations. She also created Yahoo ! Discussion group named Stoici Amici for French speakers. You can join here.