Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 22

For an introduction to this series, look here

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard         

  Are sweeter

That’s Keats of course, appropriately from the Ode on a Grecian Urn, but it expresses nearly perfectly a fragment from Heraclitus. His idea is that there is a deep structure, a profound harmony to all things, which we may not be able to perceive but which holds the whole cosmos together.

The problem is that all too often the evidence doesn’t seem to support the theory. Keats was not writing to back up Heraclitus, but expressing the Romantic longing for the sublime, the experience beyond the normal range in which the normal limitations of human life feel as if they have been transcended. But one might criticise Heraclitus by saying that he has no more objective evidence than Keats: maybe this idea of cosmic harmony is just something from his own subjective experience, with no purchase on external reality.

There is no lack of people, now and throughout history, who have argued the case each way with equal conviction. In the end, I suspect that alongside listening to the evidence, each one of us will be swayed in adopting the position we take by less tangible factors. Personal experience, the views we hear around us, recent events – all of those and others have a huge effect on how we feel about the world in which we live.

It may be worth taking a moment to reflect on how your worldview has changed during 2020. I doubt if many people have decided on the basis of this year that the world is more ordered and harmonious than they had thought. Many will probably have moved in the opposite direction. If your view has changed, and you think rightly, it’s probably worth recognising explicitly that it has, and what has caused it. Or if you feel you have been pushed away from what you truly believe by the pandemic and its effects, it’s all the more important to rediscover what you truly believe.

Evidence is important, experience likewise, but there is also an element of will, and of faith, in each of us which helps determine how we see the world. If we criticise Heraclitus for following his own instincts rather than sticking strictly to the evidence, we need to recognise that every human being, including ourselves, does the same.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark

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