Thinking well is the greatest virtue and wisdom – to do and say what is true
‘Sophronein’, ‘thinking well’, comes up a lot in Heraclitus. It’s that Greek word which sums up what it means to live a good, balanced life. It’s not just about ‘thinking’ as we might define it; it’s about a way of living. This saying pushes the point a bit further, and makes it clear that this sort of thinking is not just something inside our heads.
Thinking well is about speaking and doing truth, which expands the idea of truth as well. Truth in this sense isn’t just about knowing that something is or isn’t the case. It’s about exercising good judgement in word and action.
Truth is always under attack, and the times in which we are living are no different. The nature of the attack has changed, though. Rumour and conspiracy theory aren’t new, it’s just that now we have more powerful ways for them to spread than there have been before. What is new, in the UK and the USA at least, is the rise of politicians who do not feel any shame about lying. Lying has always gone on, but always with the knowledge that it was wrong, and that being found out would mean resignation at the least. It is that which has changed: how much you can lie is purely a power calculation about how much you can get away with.
In such an environment – and in many parts of the world this is not a new phenomenon – speaking and doing truth can be a risky enterprise. It is also an essential part of being a fully-rounded human being, someone who can think, live, speak and act well.
Always having what we want may not be the best good fortune. Health seems sweetest after sickness, food in hunger, rest when we’re weary
Heraclitus was probably writing this in opposition to the ideology of his time; it’s equally uncomfortable in ours. I doubt if Heraclitus was expecting his readers to go out and try to get ill, any more than I would advise anyone to ignore the rules on avoiding coronavirus.
This saying isn’t advice, but a reflection on the reality of our human condition. Anything we have all the time, we begin to take for granted. When something new and good comes into our lives, it’s difficult – no, impossible – to keep on celebrating it in the way we did at the beginning. It’s a law that applies to anything, to our material circumstances, to our relationships, to our health and wellbeing: we get so used to things being as they are that it’s only their absence which makes us realise what we’ve lost.
Losses over the last few months have been of different kinds, but few of us have escaped without any sense of losing something. Living with loss is one of the hardest pieces of work for the human psyche. The loss of bereavement is the greatest, but at every level work needs to be done, not to ‘get over’ our loss, but to find out how we can continue to live with it and through it. Let us not underestimate how much there is to do, for ourselves and for our communities.
People must defend the law like their city’s walls
In an age of independent city states, always vulnerable to invasion, the walls of the city could be the only thing between you and death or enslavement. Once the walls were breached, it was all over.
Heraclitus is trying to make his readers realise that the law is just as important as that. I am struggling though to think of an example which would have the same immediate, life or death significance for those of us in a dispersed, global community. Maybe it’s because governments even in democratic countries seem increasingly to think they can get away with breaking the law: I write this in the week when a UK government minister admitted in Parliament that they were introducing legislation which knowingly broke an international treaty. They know that for most people it won’t feel at all important.
Times of crisis are exactly those in which the rule of law is most challenged. Emergency legislation restrains our normal rights, extensively so in this pandemic. The danger is that we become used to it: that law becomes something which only reflects the needs of the moment, unmoored from any deeper principles of justice or equity, from a vision of what we believe society should be like.
At times when exceptions have to be made, we need to defend all the more vehemently the walls which mark out the normal boundaries within which our society is kept safe, secure and free.
People differ most from those to whom they are closest
It’s been tough for a lot of people, having to stay at home, when home isn’t a safe or happy place. Domestic violence has been inescapable; victims of abuse have had far fewer places to hide. Those are issues of justice at any time, and it is horrible to think of the added suffering that some have undergone while the rest of us were ‘just’ dealing with the pandemic itself.
I’d like to focus mostly though on those of us who aren’t in such horrendous situations, but have also found ourselves spending more time with those with whom we are in the same household – for most of us, our nearest and dearest. For many, everything’s been just fine, but for some, relationships have come under real strain, even to breaking point.
I am one of the lucky ones, but that doesn’t give me a right to criticise those for whom things have been tough. On the contrary, it places an obligation on me to offer what help I can to those who have found their relationships under an unexpected strain. Those who have found themselves cast adrift from the relationships which were up to then their main support, need the rest of us all the more.
It’s hard work, reaching out when you feel as if you’re working as hard as you can just to keep yourself together. But if we are to rebuild community where it has been damaged that’s exactly what we need to do, as much as we can.
When I get a chance to go away on retreat, I go to stay with a community who live to the rule of St Benedict. Monks and nuns have a reputation for being a self-punishing bunch, but that’s certainly not what I perceive from the community I stay with. Of course they live simply, but they also seem to me to live a life which is very well balanced. The day has its times of prayer of course, and also times for recreation together, for solitude, for work. The rhythm of the day sits within the greater cycle of the year, as the church’s calendar marks it out, with its seasons of both abstinence and of celebration.
That is the sort of change which I at least find restful. Chaotic change is not! Change over which you have no control, or which you can’t at least predict, is exhausting – and it’s that sort of change we’re all living through at the moment. As the levels of virus rise and fall in different places, the rules of life change quickly. Keeping up with what’s allowed and what isn’t is hard work in itself.
Trying at least to keep to my own personal rhythm is one way in which deal with this. As much as I can, I make sure my life includes some things which are constant and regular, that I’m not spending the whole day at one sort of activity, that I’m aware of my own energy levels and take a break when I need one. But it’s not easy. If you’re not finding it easy either, join the club.
It is weary to toil at the same tasks and be always beginning
Even those who do not habitually read the Bible may remember at this point the very similar verses from Ecclesiastes,
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
Life is hard work, and harder than ever over the last few months. I have recently managed to have some holiday, and I don’t think I’ve ever needed it more. I feel deeply for those whose lives have not allowed them to have a break.
We all need rest. Not just now, but in the rhythm of our lives. The pandemic seems to have only accentuated the division in our society, between those who are over-busy, in even more demand than ever, and those who suddenly find that they’re not needed, that they’re surplus to requirements. That was always a great evil, and if it gets worse, it may end up creating a dangerous chasm through the middle of our communities to the extent that we are no longer aware of our unity.
It’s not just a question of having a break. We need to have a deeper sense of what it means to live a balanced life. I’d like us to be able to move beyond the idea of a ‘work-life balance’ – because it’s a false comparison, but one we’re often forced into when our paid work bears so little relationship to our own vocation and calling. I believe each of us has work to do which is both a unique contribution to society, and fulfilling for ourselves. Work should not be the opposite of life! What we need is a vision of life which includes both work and rest, for all of us. And the work we need is that which feels like life: work which connects with our own skills and abilities and not just endless and repetitive toil.
Kindling a light in the night; death and life touch each other
This is my take on one of the most difficult of Heraclitus’ sayings. One word stood out for me: the word which I have rendered in English as both ‘kindling’ and ‘touch’.
The absence of touch has only occasionally been spoken of, but I am sure that it has been one of the most painful and demoralising aspects of the pandemic for very many. Touch is intimate and powerful, which is why inappropriate forms of touch can be so damaging. But equally, touch which affirms and expresses love is an extraordinarily important way of maintaining our health, psychologically, physically and spiritually.
Too many people live without touch already; it has been the experience of far more of us over the last few months. We manage, but our sense of our selves is under gradual, almost imperceptible, but continual attack. Reaching out in the night to make a light in the darkness feels to me a bit like reaching out to touch or be touched: it’s about feeling less alone, making a connection which reduces our isolation.
Recognising the depth of need is an important first step, because in Western culture at least touch is regarded with great caution, or even fear: the phrase ‘close but not touching’ is interestingly common. To know what it is that one is missing – and to know that it’s a genuine loss, not something in one’s own head – can be one small step towards living with the loss. But only one small step: for many of us, reaching out to touch will have to continue to be virtual, and this is one area in which digital connection is a very poor substitute. We are grieving for touch.
You won’t find the boundaries of the soul, however many ways you travel – its depth is beyond discovery
Heraclitus may well have been the first person to use the word ‘soul’ (psyche) as a way of describing the centre of human personality – the first person who could think of ‘psychology’ (literally, the science of the soul). It’s much less certain what he meant by it, and that hasn’t changed much over the last two and a half thousand years. The word ‘soul’ is used all the time, in many different ways: the Oxford English Dictionary has 26 categories of meaning for the word, many with sub-sections.
I hope Heraclitus would be pleased. The Greek word he used has in its English counterpart exactly the point he was making. When we start to explore the concept of ‘soul’, even at a literal dictionary level, it’s impossible to hold all the definitions in your head at once. Still more is it impossible to grasp the wholeness of a human being in their manifold complexity. Yes, we can understand some parts pretty well, and Western science has come an extraordinarily long way in understanding how bodies work, but each individual’s uniqueness means that even where we know the most, there is a vast amount more to discover. Faiths and philosophies around the world have explored the deep spiritual waters of the human soul, without any signs as yet of plumbing the depths. And to understand the whole self – in all its manifold dimensions at the same time – that is a task beyond us, whether in regard to ourselves or anyone else.
‘Soul’ is a word which points at a mystery, the mystery of our humanity, as self-conscious animals who can wonder about our own existence.
The sea is both pure and polluted: a happy home for fish, for us undrinkable and deadly
Or as the old English proverb goes (with its traditional gendered language), ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’.
As I’m writing, in several European countries cases of coronavirus are rising again, apparently led by a sharp increase among young people. The suspicion going around is that many young people have firstly, got completely fed up with having their social life curtailed and secondly, realised that the risks to people of their age group from COVID-19 are pretty low – and so they are taking less and less care about the precautions against spreading the virus.
Whatever may be really happening, it’s become clear that COVID-19 is far more dangerous for those who are in any case more vulnerable, through age or illness – even more so than one might have expected. So there is a question about how those who are least likely to be affected, and those most at risk, live together in one society.
It’s not possible for society to remain in lockdown indefinitely, either economically or psychologically, even if that might be the perfect solution for protecting the most vulnerable. But neither is it in the least OK to write off those who will be most at risk for the benefit of the economy and those who want to get back to normal and take the risk. It’s an unenviable task for governments and those who have to take the decisions, because there’s not a solution which will work for everyone. But I’m thinking more about how we as individuals shape our behaviour and our thinking around a wider perspective than our own interests. Maintaining social coherence and mutuality in a pandemic has to involve sacrifice for everyone, if it is to be perceived as fair by everyone (or at least by most). For ourselves as individuals, that involves living with the question, ‘What am I prepared to sacrifice?’ alongside the other question, ‘What do I need?
Let’s not agree too easily about things that really matter
Those are the conversations I find most frustrating – when the person who’s talking to you is just looking for backup. You’re not there to contribute, and certainly not to suggest an alternative way of looking at things. Just nod, or express suitable words of agreement, commiseration, celebration, or whatever it is the other person’s looking for. And if you break the contract and actually express an opinion, you’re really in trouble.
I’ve never been any good in those sort of encounters. I just can’t resist saying something which doesn’t quite fit with what’s expected. Sometimes I really should keep my mouth shut – but not always. There are times when the contract needs breaking, because what’s being said is not something you can just let pass.
That’s been especially important, and especially difficult, these last few months. In uncertain times, emotions have run high, and people have tried to make sense of what’s happening in and around them, sometimes by listening to conspiracy theories, or by blaming the victims.
It’s a tricky balancing act: offering the emotional support that others need, without colluding with opinions which are untrue or unkind. I wouldn’t claim to have got it right. But Heraclitus encourages me that the effort is worth making. Searching for truth will always involve disagreement, and especially in turbulent times. And with so much falsehood around, it’s all the more important.