Philosopher on Fire
Darrell Sutton considers Heraclitus
Diogenes Laertius is a popular and reliable source for Heraclitus’ life: cf. Lives and Opinions, Book ix 1. Heraclitus, a native of Ephesus, lived around 500 BC. Too little is known of his life to conjecture with any specificity, but he was supposedly of good birth. However, Aristotle and Cicero both refer to philosophical statements of his as “obscure”. It was believed by some that he never completed a number of literary works because he allegedly suffered from melancholy. So he is mentioned as “the weeping philosopher”. The few remains that we possess of Heraclitus’ original compositions are succinct fragments. Since New Testament documents are tapestries of ancient ideas and proverbial wisdom, in this short note we defer to one snippet left by this pre-Socratic scholar. Patristic theologians sought to refute many of Heraclitus’ linguistic innovations, particularly the “logos” concept. Therefore a lively interpretation of his views may be helpful in situating one specific Greek image contained in the Greek New Testament. The following notes consider the logic of the sentence comprising fragment 55 and its transmutation in the first letter of the Apostle John.
ὅσων ὄψις ἀκοὴ μάθησις, ταῦτα ἐγὼ προτιμέω
“such things like sight, hearing, experiential learning, these I esteem highly.”
Some prefatory remarks are necessary before proceeding to a discussion of the above text. Ancient inscriptions, when legible, are useful for overcoming impediments which hinder the understanding of antiquity. The distant past throws up enough problems on its own. Trying to comprehend what a writer meant when only a fragmentary sentence is available might encourage debate but it tends to breed controversy. Still, even if what the writer intended to say is forever lost to posterity, the usage of a phrase or system of words may turn up afterward.
The obscurities of Heraclitus’ Greek language confront the reader immediately. His phrases typically seem to be encrypted codes: the mysterious meaning and message is there but it must be wrested from its complex syntactical scheme. At all points, even in short phrases, he employs imagery, and these extended definitions have implications for users of Greek idiom well into the period of Second Temple Judaism. With fragments comprising so many genres (e.g., wisdom-32,35,41,108; sleep-21,73,89; god(s)-15,67,92,93,102; sun-3,6,99; soul-12,45,115; Greek scholars-40,42,56,57), it is little surprise that Heraclitus’ verbiage, common to all in his day, resembles a potpourri of literary styles. His compact sentences have passed through later time periods like a steady stream, refreshing the minds of readers and conveying his beliefs through several ancient writers’ texts whose sources are not wholly known.
Turns of phrases are in some ways architectonic. In the sense that they are “creations”. They are monuments whose longevity relates to their construction. We continue to speak of the painted pictographs of Mesopotamia and beautifully illustrated hieroglyphs of Egypt. Their reputations are known worldwide. But translators yet struggle to transmit their ideas; any acknowledgement of the greatness of one when juxtaposed to another is a result of one’s arbitrary evaluation. Certainly, fame and lore may attach itself to carefully scripted words: their meanings may then be transmitted down the ages.
I agree with S.T. Coleridge’s (1772-1834) literary definitions of prose and poetry:
“prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” (my italics). The Greek caption heading this paper is a prose piece. All of what we have today of Heraclitus’s writings stems from the value placed on his aphorisms by later readers. Among his adages you find a broad data-base of wisdom, and none of the loaded prepositional baggage suffused in late Hellenistic idiom: Heraclitus’ verbal wit echoes the inflections of a much older Greek custom.
Language does not live on through static existence. Wherever on earth people abide, oral terms are used by residents in diverse ways. Native tongues and secondary dialects are controlled by the speakers’ use of them. Through the centuries, Greek concepts were embedded in Roman cultures. The Greco-Roman ethos, broadly speaking, engulfed Palestine. By the end of the first century AD, the Temple in Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed by Roman armies. After its destruction, people were dispersed far and wide. Among those early new immigrants to gentile cities were Greek writing Christians who found themselves living under the watchful eye of Roman authorities. Subversive literature could not be tolerated. So writers learned to incorporate avant-garde inscriptions of popular writers into their texts. In this way, literary subtexts were born. Ancient Greek comedians and Latin poets were experts in literary adaptations for satiric purposes. Sometimes an author merely wanted to signal his acquaintance with the prevailing writing styles of the district in which he or she resided. Ovid did so in his exilic letters from the Black Sea region.
Asia Minor was a popular place for Jews and for followers of Jesus. Christian legend asserts that after he had been saved from dying in a boiling substance, the Apostle John came to reside in Ephesus along with Andrew and Philip (Cf. Eus. H.E. iii. 31, v. 24). Not much stock can be placed in the verity of many transmitted traditions of Christian origin. But the tradition of his residence likely contains an element of truth. Readers may want to remember that Ephesus also was the former residence of Heraclitus, and that remnants of his dictums likely were still in circulation there. Pithy sayings tend to spread rapidly whether the wisdom contained therein is conventional or unorthodox. Heraclitus’ fame in later antiquity attracted the attention of religious persons. Some appraisals were less favorable. Bishop Hippolitus (170AD-236AD) condemned the doctrinal positions in Heraclitus’ maxims, considering them Pantheistic.
Nevertheless, John’s abode there in the city was of literary profit to him, and he took full advantage of how a Greek reader of ancient Asia Minor would have read and interpreted his sentences. When he composed I John 1.1-3, he highlighted the significance of the visual and auditory terms in the Greek texts above and below;
Ὃ ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱχεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν…
It was there from the beginning, we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it and felt it with our own hands [REB]
As for the text, excepting Tischendorf’s 8th edition, it essentially is the same in all extant Greek MSS. Hardly any variation of grammatical forms exists in the readings. Latin (Itala) and Syriac (Peshitta) translations both convey the physical sentiments of the earlier Greek formulae. John’s interests were didactic and unconventional, seeing that he stressed hearing, seeing and feeling. He was an adept wordsmith, and he exploited an ancient Greek leitmotif regarding one’s capacity to receive impressions through sensory organs: i.e., the power of the visual sense, the eyes being the primary organs for discerning (cf. Aristotle, Met. 1. 980(a),who writes that men regard sight as the best of all sensory perceptions). The euphony embedded in the Heraclitus’ text suggests a thought, extant in John’s day, but retrieved from its semantic past. [If] Heraclitus magnified (above all else) “seeing, hearing and learning” through autopsis or direct experience, John then elevated a similar nuance, and expanded its rhetorical meanings by linking them to an eyewitness account of what he ‘saw and heard’ in Jesus’ presence: the type of μάθησις/discipleship that he believed he received was a sort of applied learning, but of divine origin.
John’s first epistle lacks the usual opening salutation often found in New Testament letters, and there are no epistolary closing remarks. John’s opening statements are a series of parallelisms written in Heraclitus’ style. The absence of connectives demonstrates his mastery of inflections and of the older classifications of grammatical codes. He wrote with ancient nuances in mind. With respect to John’s employment of προτιμέω (to prefer), various forms of the Greek word <τιμέω> appear 71 times in the New Testament. As a common language property of Greeks around the Roman Empire, when one is not focused on Palestinian Semiticisms, certain Hellenistic applications are extant in each of the synoptic Gospels, as well as in the Gospel of John, and in as wide a range of literary output as that found in Paul, Peter, James and John. This idea of showing ‘preference’: esteeming/valuing and dignifying (a thing’s worth) is consonant with semantic presentations in Greek Epic and tragedy; it can also be found in the corpora of writings of the Church Fathers.
 Homer, Sophocles and Pindar develop this use of “estimation” in regard to judgments made on persons, places and things
Pastor Darrell Sutton publishes papers on ancient texts and reviews biblical and classical literature