Now is the time. The place in which we are living, this moment which is always passing away, this present is the time to make the choice. Not usually a significant or life-changing choice, but in every moment in which we are awake we are continually choosing how we will live our lives.
In particular, when the future is uncertain, it’s essential that we do not put off living for another day, whether in anxiety about what might happen next, or hope that it’ll all be back to normal. Life may feel as if it is in fragments, but each fragment is an opportunity to choose and to live one way or another.
In writing these fragments of my own, I have been trying to think through what sort of choices I can make to try to live as fruitfully as possible, caring for myself and for others, staying faithful to my principles while circumstances change. I hope that you will be able to make your own contribution to the conversation that we all need to be part of, as we find our way through unprecedented times.
They raise their voices to idols as if they were carrying on a conversation with a wall, they have understood so little of the gods
This is not the rudest of Heraclitus’ criticisms of his opponents, though it is in my view the funniest. What’s helpful for us is not the difference between his view of divinity, and the older Greek traditions he’s criticising. Much more relevant to our situation, he’s not at all impressed with those who mistake the image for the real thing.
Much of the contemporary world’s best energies are expended on getting us to do exactly that. The advertising industry is dedicated to creating an image of whatever they are selling which carries as many suggestions as possible that only this product will make us happier, healthier, more popular or richer – and if possible several of those. As we become more sensitive to the techniques of advertisers, they in turn become more subtle.
There are many problems with a world dominated by advertising, but I will mention here only one: there is a danger that everything becomes an advert, or at least that we start thinking as if that were the case. ‘What are they selling?’ becomes the question which is asked everywhere and of everyone, even of doctors warning us against a potentially lethal disease.
We have become so used to lies that it is difficult to believe that anything is the truth. Worse, we take for truth whatever is so well packaged that we can’t see its bias, and discount as a lie anything which makes an obvious, unvarnished appeal.
In a world full of lies, half-truths and spin, discerning the truth is hard work. None of us should believe we can do it on our own; multiple perspectives can reveal more than any one of us on our own. But if we can honestly bring into conversation what we see of the truth, and also bring in the possibility that we might need to change our own minds, we’ve got a good chance. Otherwise we might outsmart ourselves to death.
One of the distinctive things about Heraclitus was that he believed that understanding, self-knowledge and wisdom were equally accessible to everyone. That’s a radical thought, and not one commonly shared even in our present democratic era. But I think it’s a really important truth. It’s not a claim that all people are equally intelligent, in all the different ways intelligence manifests itself: that’s clearly not true. Abandoning intellectual or spiritual elitism is not about trying to make everyone the same: it’s about celebrating the diversity of each person’s gifts, and looking for the specific talent or skill that someone has.
The churches have, slowly in the case of mine, woken up to the fact that everyone is gifted, though we’re still not good at living out that belief. Too much tradition has built up around believing that certain groups of people were the only ones to listen to (bishops, sometimes). But that is not the root of the Christian tradition. It is fundamental to my faith that all people are equally loved by God, and that all those who are disciples of Christ are equally his brothers and sisters.
When I was a parish priest, I learned not to set boundaries on who I might learn from. I remember particularly one parishioner who usually just repeated the same sort of thing, whatever the conversation was supposed to be about. But every now and again, very simply they said something which was a pearl of wisdom. Whatever you may think of yourself, or of others, there is no-one so wise that they are always right, or so foolish that they can’t hit the nail on the head. If we’re going to work out what the signs of the time mean, we need each other.
Among all the words I have heard, none has yet attained this: to recognise wisdom, which is beyond all
It’s worth spending a little longer on wisdom, and not just because it’s so important to Heraclitus. Wouldn’t we all like to be wise? Well, as I write that I wonder whether everyone would: but it’s always been my aim. And I still feel glad to be aiming for it, even while also knowing that Heraclitus is right, that wisdom is not something anyone can attain to the full. The Bible incorporates wisdom into the scriptural view of God, especially in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is personified as working alongside God in creation:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world.
Wisdom is part of the divine, so it is beyond us, but also woven into the fabric of the world which God created. Because it is part of God’s created order, wisdom is not morally neutral: true wisdom is integrally linked with righteous living.
“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.”
Seeking wisdom is always worth doing, for all of us, because we can reach out to touch and share in that creative wisdom which is at work in the world. The challenge always lies ahead of us, inviting us into a relationship with the creating power of God.
The oracle neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign
Heraclitus is talking about the most famous oracle in ancient Greece, the shrine of Apollo at Delphi. The oracle famously demanded that the questioner did some work in interpreting the answer given: the answer pointed the way, but it would leave some ambiguity.
I feel like that’s something of what I’m doing in these fragments of mine. I don’t know any more than anyone else how and when this pandemic will end, and what the long-term costs will be. But I do know that there’s no point waiting for it all to be over before trying to work out how to respond. And I’m looking for people to guide me, as well as offering what wisdom I may have.
It feels at the moment as if we have partial maps, each showing something of the terrain and the way ahead. To add to the challenge, some of the maps are fake, showing ways that don’t exist or removing features from the landscape. Interpreting all that partial information, in order to plot a way ahead, can only be a shared task.
Denial is a perfectly natural human response to difficult situations. When a new fact is just too big and too painful to get our heads around, part of dealing with it is to deny it’s there. It gives the psyche some space and time to begin to accept what’s happened, and to start learning to live with it. It usually happens as one of the first stages of bereavement; at one level we know that the person we’re grieving has died, but other parts of our personality haven’t got there yet, so we still expect to see them doing the things they normally do, and even think we’ve heard them in another room. It can be scary, but it doesn’t signify madness! It’s just part of the process.
The problem comes when there’s no process: when it’s impossible to get beyond denial. The death of a loved one is too obvious a loss to be denied forever. When a threat is more diffuse, less graspable, it’s possible just to keep on denying it’s there, especially when the consequences of doing otherwise just feel too great to deal with.
That’s where we are, I think, in the current muddle and disarray, which we see most publicly in the USA, but it’s present everywhere. Especially when it hasn’t come close to you personally, it can be psychologically more straightforward to deny the reality of the pandemic than to have to make the changes to life that it involves. Particularly if you are one of those who tries to lead your life without too much reference to government rules and regulations, and someone who thinks of themselves as an individualist, the idea of conforming to the restrictive regulations being imposed can be more than an inconvenience: it can involve a major revision of your sense of your own identity. No wonder people would rather deny the reality of the pandemic.
And for those of us who are, with whatever difficulty, accepting that it exists? Well, it’s really important not to despise or denigrate those who can’t. Rather let’s remember what hard work it is to deal with challenges of the sort we’re facing.
Justice will catch up with those who invent lies and those who swear to them
I really hope this is true. The biblical message, as well as Heraclitus’, is clear: injustice and lies will not prevail, truth and justice will in the end be established. Many many writers have also lamented that it doesn’t seem much like that, from day to day. And they are right: every day, there are examples of the unjust triumphing. The rich hide their money away from making its contribution to our common needs; the planet continues to be destroyed to serve human greed; liars flourish and the honest are condemned.
President Obama often used a phrase of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But it appears that King was paraphrasing a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
A 21st century President quoting a 20th century civil rights leader, quoting a 19th century preacher. None of them claimed to have reached the other end of the arc of the moral universe, but all of them were sure that in the ultimate long term, justice was its end. To believe that justice will prevail is an act of faith and of conscience. The more of us believe it, the sooner it will become the truth of the world we live in.
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.