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In Our Time newsletter: Heraclitus

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 13:38, Monday, 12 December 2011

Editor's note: In last week's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Heraclitus. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.

Heraclitus

Hello

After the programme Angie Hobbs told us the saying that she most liked: "Mortals are immortal, immortals mortal, living their death, dying their life". Then we talked about drink. "A dry soul is wisest and best", says Heraclitus.

Plato, however, encouraged all older people to drink, even to get drunk, in order the better to enjoy themselves, particularly to dance. And young people, he thought, should drink to test their manhood. Galen said that the soul must be part of the body, because when you are drunk it changes your state of mind and body.

We then tried to work out a word for what this library of In Our Times could be called. It's a sort of encyclopedia. Peter Adamson suggested "audiopedia"; James Warren suggested "acoustopedia". Neither sounds quite right. By the way, there's a DVD of Heraclitus being read in Greek.

In the storms from Europe and the storms from what used to be called the heavens, there were still a few moments. I was in St James's Park the other day and saw a tall, angular, young woman. Near her was a chap, smiling away. She put her weight on her left leg and bent her right leg, and chucked as you do when you want a horse to come to you. A squirrel appeared, ran across to her, paused at her foot, ran up to her knee as she held a breadcrumb between her index finger and thumb, and then from her knee to her thigh, and then up to her shoulder, looked in her face and she popped the breadcrumb in its mouth, and down the squirrel went and back across the path.

She nodded. Her chap smiled. She chucked again.

And another squirrel did the same thing. The chap had a wonderful beam of happiness on his face and so had I. It was a trick she had. It turned out that she and her chap were Estonians, studying here. A bit of circus in St James's Park.

On Hampstead Heath were the birdwatchers beside the special bird pond. Binoculars, beards and haversacks - never can people be more innocently employed. But I wondered what the birds made of this flock on the ground. Did those eyes take them in? Did we even figure in their landscape? Hampstead is well served with magpies.

And walking down from London University through Trafalgar Square, there was Nelson on the top of his column on a mild, dusky evening, with a flotilla of grey clouds beyond him. He looks down towards Westminster. Perhaps he was sending down some relief vessels.

It's been busy. James Cook, a producer, and myself have been doing a programme on Ted Hughes which goes out tomorrow night (Ed's note: That was last Friday. You can hear the programme online for the next five days - PM) on Radio 4 (at 8.00pm!). This was triggered by Ted Hughes's entrance into Westminster Abbey in Poets' Corner.

It was a wonderfully simple service, conducted, with his usual style, by the Dean of Westminster. Juliet Stevenson and Seamus Heaney read poems and Seamus gave a superb address, part of which will be in our programme. Carol Hughes, Ted's second wife and obviously widow, organised the event and she, too, is on the programme, giving a very rare interview.

The other task has been continuing the pursuit of the history of the written word with Tom Morris. This time we went to London University to see an extraordinary collection of more than 15,000 implements and artefacts to do with the written word - clay tablets, papyri, early pens, early books, etc - all collected by a Mr Cole of Enfield, who's devoted his lifetime to bringing together what is a unique assembly which is now to become an online museum.

Where would we be without such benign obsessives?

Then off to York for the final talk of the year on the book about the King James Bible and a chance to look at their magnificent Christianity and Culture resource centre, which is reacclimatising schools and universities to the idea that those two have had, over the past few centuries, a profound connection.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    A good stimulating topic.We know Neitzche was fond of the Presocratics,as the rot set in with Socrates et al.The perceptible world is subject to displaying opposing qualities at the same time. Adamson was excellent on the river metaphor,the Greek as well as the meaning referring to both the person and the river changing.Opposites coincide in the same object:’bow’,its name is life, its work is death.It pulls in 2 directions at the same time.Things,eg the barley drink,have to keep moving in order to retain their identity.Identity is secured through the unity of opposites.Contradictions,differences in perspective are part and parcel of the nature of the world.Our human perspective is just one perspective on the world.He draws our attention to the wholeness of the world.

    “Wisdom is one thing.It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things”. For the 1st time ,attention is centred,not on the thing known,but on the knowing of it.Thought(‘judgement’, ’understanding’),controls the phenomena,just as it constitutes the thinker.The problem of understanding nature is moved to a new plane.In the ancient Near East it had remained in the sphere of myth.The Milesian school of philosophers had moved it to the realm of the intellect-they claimed the universe to be an intelligible whole.The manifold was to be understood as deriving from a sustaining 1st cause, but this was to be looked for in the phenomena.Heraclitus asserted that the universe was intellible because it was ruled by ‘thought’,and the same principle governed existence and knowledge.This wisdom surpassed even the loftiest conception of Greek mythopoeic thought: ”The wise is one only..called by the name of Zeus.”This was called ‘Logos’,or reason.

  • Comment number 2.

    This was a fascinating programme. Although I've studied and worked in Classics I'd never really come across Heraclitus before. After the programme I felt inspired to seek out his writings, the Penguin Classics edition seemed a natural enough choice, but I've read quite a few decidely negative reviews of this particular translation. I'd be interested if anyone reading this might be able to recommend a good current translation? In the meantime, I'll keep searching ...

 

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