By Jeremy Sheeler (AGI’18)
[Reprinted from Colloquy, Vol. 3, with permission from the author and editors.]
I came to St. John’s with a lot of confused ideas in my head—a combination of too much
American popular opinion and too many secondary sources about the books we read
here. Upon my enrolling, I was overjoyed to see a preceptorial about the supposed
“ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” focusing on the works of Heraclitus
and Parmenides that promised to get beyond the categories of experience that we
have inherited from these two sources (popular opinion and scholarship). I had never
read these two fellows before, and as most scholars of philosophy would have it, saw
them as nothing more than sort of unserious precursors to real philosophy—as merely
“Pre-Socratics.” However, as we began reading Heraclitus, I quickly realized, not only
that something very real was going on there, but also something very different than
anything I had ever encountered before.
The story we are told about these two enigmatic characters is that Heraclitus is the
“flow” guy, Parmenides the “static” one—all is nothing but change (you can’t step into
the same river twice), or all is one and unchanging. Yet, not only did I find this to be a
gross and unfair characterization, but an extremely limited and limiting one. It made
me realize the true value of what we do here—not submitting to others’ opinions
about these authors, but going to the sources to experience them for ourselves.
I especially found Heraclitus intriguing and far from the stereotyped picture that I had
previously held of him. Reading him opened up a whole new perspective for me and empowered me with a new vocabulary for my experience of the world. For the first time I possessed the words for which I had been grasping for at least the last five years of my life to express how I saw the world. Although I had been moving in certain directions, I was still unable to fully articulate what I felt until being exposed to his strange, seemingly oracular and counterintuitive pronouncements. I have always been most intrigued by philosophers who are able to impose a détente on this war between the poets and philosophers—Rousseau, Nietzsche, Montaigne, Plato—but nothing prepared me for what I would find in Heraclitus.
In him, the world of seeming and being merge in the most wondrous and wonderful ways, allowing for a united whole that has been lost in our modern abstracted world of science and pseudoscience. But as Heraclitus would say, don’t listen to me, but go to the logos itself, and see if you agree.