One World in Common

The waking have one world in common, whereas each sleeper turns away to a private world of his own.

I think I need to write a song with that title. Sounds like a perfect song for some sort of world championship rugby game or something.

But isn’t that a terrific line. Heraclitus is the man! What a thinker. Given that he has been called the “central thinker” in all human history as well as “the father of the progress of the human mind,” one would think that his writings would be worth at least a semester of study.

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own.

When Heraclitus says that “most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own,” I think his statement that “each sleeper turns away into a private world” provides us with a very powerful analogy for understanding what he means. What happens in sleep is private to oneself. Those who sleep are not living in the world that is common to all. Sleepers live in a dreamy world all by themselves. And so it seems to me that a paraphrase of all this might be ‘most men live as if sleeping.’

But Heraclitus tells us

“One should not act or speak as if he were asleep.”

Liberal education is about waking up and staying awake.

But you ask “Who is it that is asleep?” How about people who have never had the opportunity, or even worse, have refused to consider the world in which they live? Imagine living a life in which you never took a significant amount of time to examine the world that we have in common. UGGGGH! Isn’t that a terrifying thought?

But you say “well, who doesn’t consider the world in which they live? Everyone knows as much as they need to know about the world by the time they graduate from high school?”

Ahhhhhh! But do they really? That is the question.

Isn’t it more likely that a person will live his life heeding the advice of the majority of those around him when they say things like “it would be nice to sit around and think about life and the world, but, man, you have to get practical. You have to make a living. And in order to make a living you have to get going right now!”

Who is really going to take the time to  seek out good teachers with whom one might spend a few years reading books about say “the soul.” Sure would be nice to figure out what a soul is wouldn’t it? After all, everyone apparently has one, well at least that’s what they tell us…

Or how about things like ‘motion’ and ‘change?’ I think there is such a thing as ‘change’ isn’t there? What is it? The pre-socratic philosophers seemed to think that every change could be boiled down to change of place. And come to think of it- I think that is what many in the scientific community are saying now. Things don’t ever come to be or pass away– just a mixing and un-mixing of eternal particles. This is what I tell people at funerals. Come to think of it, I haven’t been to a funeral in a long time.

How about ‘time’ and ‘place?’ What are these things? aren’t these things included in the world that we have in common? One would think that it would be good to actually know what these things are given the relatively short time we have to live in this place.

But most men have never and will never take the time to examine these insignificant realities. Maybe they have become discouraged by those who have tried and have apparently failed to get anywhere (wherever and whatever ‘anywhere’ means!).

Better to just get a job and live in this world unknowing the world in which we live. Better to live in the world asleep? Hmmmm…..

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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11 Responses to One World in Common

  1. Wenceslaus says:

    I never really knew how important Heraclitus was before; I suppose I shall have to dedicate some time to reading him now!

  2. Tom says:

    But doesn’t it take a great deal of time to become a metaphysician? That seems like a very hard occupation which most people are not cut out for

    • Mark Langley says:

      Understanding ‘change’ and ‘place’ and ‘time’ are all part of an understanding of natural philosophy (“η φυσικη”)- all prior to the study of ‘Metaphysics’ (i.e. the books after the physics “μετα τα φυσθκη”) So these are concepts that will only take the average human being the first 16- 20 years of life to get a handle on- 🙂

  3. Jim Dean says:

    The claim that Heraclitus was the “central thinker” in all human history as well as “the father of the progress of the human mind,” seems somewhat overblown, given that only fragments of his work “On nature” survive and that the interpretation of many of the statements attributed to him is disputed. Plato is the man who deserves the accolade of the father of western philosophy. He was influenced by all the pre-Socratics, from Pythagoras through Parmenides, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and others and of course by Socrates himself whose reading of his predecessors’ works helped to crystallise his, Socrates’, own philosophy as presented and augmented by Plato in his many extant dialogues. I suspect that Mr Longley is claiming the pre-eminence of Heraclitus solely on the basis of the latter’s use of the word “logos”, meaning some kind of rational principle according to which the world is organised, as anticipating St. John’s use of the same word at least 500 years later ascribing that principle to and identifying it with Jesus and God. But “logos” carries an enormous range of meanings, each of which can be claimed as the most accurate depending one’s philosophic or theological standpoint. See Wikipedia for a very instructive article on “logos”.

    • Dear Mr. Dean,

      It has been wisely said that Heraclitus is the central thinker in western thought, and your hesitations do not go to the point that he is The Central Thinker. Concerning the scarce body of Heraclitus’ work and dubious attributions, consider that the center of a circle is a point and therefore has no bulk and a strange and dubious existence–just like Heraclitus! But in seriousness–consider the following text of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to see that Heraclitus is, as the center of a circle, that from which doctrines go out in ALL, even opposite, directions:

      “Unlike most other early philosophers, Heraclitus is usually seen as independent of the several schools and movements later students (somewhat anachronistically) assigned to the ancients, and he himself implies that he is self-taught (B101). He has been variously judged by ancient and modern commentators to be a material monist or a process philosopher; a scientific cosmologist, a metaphysician, or a mainly religious thinker; an empiricist, a rationalist, or a mystic; a conventional thinker or a revolutionary; a developer of logic or one who denied the law of non-contradiction; the first genuine philosopher or an anti-intellectual obscurantist. No doubt the sage of Ephesus will continue to remain controversial and difficult to interpret, but scholars have made significant progress in understanding and appreciating his work” (SEP, “Heraclitus,” D.W. Graham, rev. 9/3/19).

      • And on the note that Heraclitus might not be the father of Western thought, perhaps you are right in that Plato is a more proximate cause with respect to the mass of later thinkers, but let’s not forget the words of Aristotle at Metaphysics I.987a:

        “In his youth Plato first became acquainted with Cratylus and the Heraclitean doctrines—that the whole sensible world is always in a state of flux, and that there is no scientific knowledge of it—and in after years he still held these opinions.”

        Perhaps then we can agree that Heraclitus is the grandfather of Western thought (or rather the great-grandfather, although Cratylus is seems a mere reflection of Heraclitus.)

        I’d love to hear what you think about that!


        • Jim Dean says:

          Your excerpt from the SEP expresses very clearly and much more elegantly than I can the problem with Heraclitus. He is all things to all men, with the consequence that a wide range of thinkers down the ages appear to have been influenced by him.
 (see sidebar)
          “Influenced: Virtually all subsequent Western philosophy, especially Cratylus, Antisthenes, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Stoicism, Hegel, Engels, Nietzsche, Spengler, Heidegger, Popper, McTaggart, Whitehead, Cratylism, Pater, D. H. Lawrence”
          But this does not make him the father of western thought, only that his fragmentary aphorisms are sufficiently enigmatic, controversial and even contradictory for all those named above to be regarded as in some way inspired by him. But note what one of them said of Plato: “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. “. (A.N. Whitehead Process and Reality, 1929). That cannot be said of Heraclitus.


          • Jim Dean says:

            An example of a possible contradiction is the statement “Everything flows and nothing stays still” (quoted by Plato in the Cratylus) in contrast to “For this reason it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.” (quoted by Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 AD), a sceptic and Pyrrhonist, hence likely to follow Heraclitus. The contradiction would occur if by Logos Heraclitus meant some kind of rational principle governing the world, a notion that would stand oddly alongside the idea that everything is in a state of flux and therefore we can have no certain knowledge of anything, a point made by Plato when he tries to persuade Cratylus of the reality of his world of absolute Forms and the inadequacy of Heraclitus’ view of the universe. However, it seems to me more likely that Heraclitus meant by Logos something much more basic. Logos is the common medium of discourse, i.e. language, but individuals are all capable of their own understanding of concepts that they regard as common to everyone, a phenomenon well illustrated in Plato’s Republic when the discussion gets around to the question “what is justice?”.


            • Jim Dean says:

              Incidentally, Aristotle does not seem to have a high regard for Cratylus. See Ar. Met. 4.1010a:
              “And further, observing that all this indeterminate substance is in motion, and that no true predication can be made of that which changes, they supposed that it is impossible to make any true statement about that which is in all ways and entirely changeable. For it was from this supposition that there blossomed forth the most extreme view of those which we have mentioned, that of the professed followers of Heraclitus, and such as Cratylus held, who ended by thinking that one need not say anything, and only moved his finger; and who criticized Heraclitus for saying that one cannot enter the same river twice, for he himself held that it cannot be done even once.”

              Cratylus himself as portrayed by Plato in the dialogue argues that names are “natural”, i.e. uniquely apt for the objects or persons they signify. After a long and tedious discussion on the etymology of names, both proper and common, Socrates finally comes down on the side of Hermogenes for whom all names are conventional. For Socrates, i.e. Plato, knowledge of the names is secondary to knowledge of the things in themselves, knowledge of the Forms of Truth, Beauty and the Good and so on. But Cratylus is not convinced and ends by saying he still inclines to Heraclitus. For my part, I don’t think I have fully grasped how “natural” names can be consistent with an ever-changing flux. Surely the vocabulary deployed to describe the flux would have to be accordingly flexible and hence conventional, able to change as their subject matter changes. It is a puzzling dialogue, but Heraclitus and his acolyte Cratylus certainly come out of it badly


  4. Jim Dean says:

    I think we should change the metaphor we use in studying the history of philosophy from one of family descent (e.g. “father”) to that of small tributary streams flowing together to form a big river. Socrates represents the river, as the character expressing Plato’s own thought. The pre-Socratics all made their own contribution, and many, if not all, are actually mentioned in Plato’s Dialogues. Some are named and then repudiated, such as Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and Democritus, but the fact that they are referenced at all indicates that Plato was familiar with their views, if only to refute some of them.

    Vote for Plato!

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