A Secular Age:

Immortal mortal

posted by Patrick Lee Miller

The first of the four posts in this series argued that if we seek a philosophy that encourages us to love this world, we must look for one that is both transcendent and immanent. Noting that such a philosophy would be contradictory, and thus forbidden by the way of reasoning for which the principle of non-contradiction is the firmest of all, the second post sought to humble this principle. The goal was not to reject it, for without it nonsense quickly follows; the goal was instead to demote it, by showing how inadequate it was to the task of contemplating this world of becoming. The third post next articulated a superior principle, the principle of chiasmus, which includes the principle of non-contradiction, and its characteristic activity, analysis, but harmonizes it with synthesis in a crosswise logic that reveals the concealed and eternal structure of our temporal world. This structure, the Heraclitean logos, turns out to be the encouraging philosophy we set out to find.

If we are to love the world ourselves, or at least understand the “calling and mode of inspiration” of someone who has been supposed to do so pre-eminently (Jesus), we should join the great German philosophers of the nineteenth century in their effort to revive this paradoxical logos. Not only Nietzsche, but also Hegel made this a goal: “There is no aphorism of Heraclitus,” he wrote, “that I have not adopted in my Logic.” Becoming God joins this effort, recounting how the clash between Heraclitus and Parmenides over the correct way to think about the world made its way into the dialogues of Plato, who decided in favor of Parmenides and his logic of consistency, thereby occluding Heraclitus and his superior logic of chiasmus. The early Christian theologians were primarily Platonists, however, and so the crosswise interpretation of Jesus available to the Heraclitean tradition was overshadowed by the logic of consistency that would strive but fail to understand a human god. This fourth post aims in the end to present this interpretation.

More immediately, its purpose is to show how evenly Heraclitus straddles the distinction between transcendence and immanence. Before adducing the relevant aphorisms, let us recall the necessary conditions of a philosophy that is as immanent as it is transcendent: (i) it must teach that the highest good is human flourishing, but also something transcending the human; (ii) it must teach that the natural and temporal world is all there is, but also that this world is transcended by the supernatural and eternal divine; and (iii) it must teach that we humans are mortal, but also somehow immortal. Two words for each of the three conditions will recall their contradictory concerns: for the first, these are virtue and the good; for the second, the cosmos and god; for the third, life and death. Accordingly, we shall organize a few of the Heraclitean aphorisms around these three concerns. But we shall take them in a different order, starting with the second about cosmos and god. Connecting this fundamental contradiction to the other two will be the self we discover whenever we go in search of ourselves.

First, then, the natural and temporal cosmos. That it is the ultimate reality—rather than being a product of an eternal realm, say of Platonic Forms, let alone some mythic time, such as Hesiod depicts—is the account of two aphorisms we considered in the previous post. One spoke explicitly of a world that “no god nor man has made,” adding that “it ever was and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures quenched.” Nothing superior to this temporal world could have created it, in fact, because for Heraclitus there is no vantage of eternity above time from which such a creation might occur. This is not to say that eternity does not exist for him—on the contrary, it does—but only that it holds no higher rank than time, the everliving fire, whose moments are simultaneously kindled and quenched. Nothing transcends fiery time, reports another aphorism we examined earlier, because “all things are a requital for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.”

So immanent is Heraclitean cosmology, in fact, that this requital and exchange of everything in the natural world is none other than “the god (theos): day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger.” The quoted list of nouns is the first half of the only aphorism that explicitly defines the Heraclitean god. As if its succession of natural states were not temporal enough, the second half says of this god that “it alters, as when mingled with perfumes it gets named according to the hēdonē (scent, pleasure) of each.” Approaching the altar fire of a god, Greek worshippers threw upon it various perfumes: myrrh, cyprus, rose, and so on. The names they gave this fire depended on the scents it consequently produced, just as the names worshippers gave the divine depended on the pleasures associated with it. Day and night, for example, are among the many gods named by Hesiod, as are others listed in the first half of this aphorism, no doubt because they affect human life, bringing us pleasures (and pains).

“The teacher of most is Hesiod,” Heraclitus wrote with scorn; “it is him they know as knowing most, who did not recognize day and night: they are one.” Naming according to superficial pleasures, or pains, Hesiod failed to recognize the concealed nature of the divine. The one god Heraclitus reveals may be defined by a list of these superficial names, but it is not any one of these pleasures or pains, nor all together in an indiscriminate mixture. Instead, it is the concealed structure of their values to mortals. Day and summer are safe, winter and night threaten; war and hunger are destructive, satiety and peace preserve. The chiastic pattern of mortal pleasures (+) and pains (-) in the first half of the aphorism is thus: + – – + | – + + – . This is another Heraclitean fugue, ingeniously weaving misunderstandings of the divine into a complex pattern that nevertheless reveals its concealed structure. This theo-logos, like so many other Heraclitean logoi, thereby exhibits what it reports—the divine logos itself.

Crosswise logic” argued that this logos is chiasmus, an eternal cross in the midst of time. “All things come to pass in accordance with this logos,” Heraclitus writes, yet “this logos holds forever.” God may be the alternation of “day night, winter summer, war peace, hunger satiety,” but also divine is the eternal structure of that very alternation. Both immanent (as the natural world in time) and transcendent (as the eternal logos of that world), Heraclitean theology is thus contradictory. But inconsistency is not the vice for this logos that it would be for other theologies and philosophies. Indeed, this particular contradiction is its chief virtue. This is not to say that everything is permitted to it, recall, because the principle of non-contradiction and its correlative activity of analysis remain essential to its harmonic structure. Whenever it turns upon itself, however, to contemplate the divine order (kosmos), it surpasses the inadequate logic of consistency with the synthetic activity of its own chiastic principle.

“The wise is one,” writes Heraclitus, “knowing the plan by which it steers all things through all.” Several other aphorisms attest in this way to the transcendence of god, but of them all the most paradoxical and richest with hidden meaning is the following: “The wise is one alone, unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus.” Set apart from all things, alone, this god should not be called by the name even of the most powerful Greek divinity—so perfectly does it transcend all things. And yet this god is no less within all imperfect things, so that it may be called by the name of Zeus among other things more mundane: day night, summer winter, etc. Named according to the pleasure of each worshipper, furthermore, the divine acquires an infinite variety of forms according to the infinitely various anxieties brought to the altar of time, this vale of tears. The Heraclitean god may reveal itself to us in time through these anxieties, but to know it fully we must also recognize it as the concealed and eternal structure of that perpetual revelation.

This proves also to be the structure of the self that we discover whenever we contemplate ourselves. “I went in search of myself,” reported Heraclitus, as though simply describing the beginning of his own philosophical quest. But the apparent simplicity of this aphorism conceals a deep philosophical contradiction, one that resides likewise in the Delphic imperative to know thyself, not to mention the appropriation of this imperative by Plato to characterize the beginning of philosophy. Here in brief is the puzzle it generates: if I am to search for myself, I must somehow be absent from myself; for anything to be absent from itself, though, it must both be and not be itself. (Here is a fuller account of the puzzle, which Becoming God elaborates further.) Thanks to this contradiction, the self appears opposed to itself, not-whole, divergent, and dissonant. Whatever unity it may appear to have before we consider its inner conflict, in other words, the self now fragments into an inconsistent plurality. Yet this is only one half of its inquiry, for the lesson of this puzzle turns out to be the same one learned earlier from the paradox of fire and the temporal cosmos it symbolizes.

Self-inquiry may be contradictory at each moment, according to our quick analysis, but as with fire the momentary opposition of a self in search of itself is united through the flow of time and our emotional engagement with it. After all, turning our contemplation outward to the relation of our self with others—the hope and fear, anger and lust, love and hate we experience in community—we appear to others and ourselves rather whole, convergent, and consonant. Whatever plurality may have been revealed by our analysis of inner conflict now achieves a consistent unity. No sooner is this fragmentation and opposition overcome, however, than our new unity generates a fresh opposition for self-inquiry: between opposition and unity, whole and not-whole, convergence and divergence, consonance and dissonance. Once this new synthesis is analyzed, in other words, it produces a further contradiction (between analysis and synthesis), until this fresh conflict is in turn reconciled by time and a fresh emotional engagement with it. And so on.

Or so it goes for the consummately reflective self, sharing with the temporal cosmos its eternal structure: “wholes and not wholes, convergent divergent, consonant dissonant, from all things one and from one all things.” Chiasmus is therefore the logos of the self as much as it is the logos of time. When self-inquiry directs this principle inward rather than outward, therefore, it discovers the activity of chiasmus to be the self sought. This surprising discovery—that the self is not only one and many, but the active principle that makes such a contradiction intelligible—is required by the logic of self-knowledge. For in self-knowledge, properly speaking, the knowing subject must be the same as the object known, otherwise the knowledge would not be of self but of other. Seeking self-knowledge, accordingly, we reveal our self to be this very same chiasmus. Far from the purely intellectual feat of navel-gazing it might at first appear to be, this activity of genuine self-inquiry would be as affective as cognitive, as loving as rational, as much about the world and its god as about oneself. Practiced well, crosswise logic reveals the concealed structure of all three.

“Thinking well,” Heraclitus thus writes, “is the greatest excellence.” Thinking crosswise, that is, we perfect the divine in our selves. Although its logos is already ubiquitous, it is only imperfectly realized whenever we become preoccupied with an immanent world of time, or for that matter a transcendent and eternal heaven. The typical result of such preoccupations, as “Love and reason” argued, is resentment. If we wish to love more purely, therefore, we should cultivate an impure devotion both to the divine immanent world and to the god who nonetheless transcends it. Living in time, we already participate in its chiasmus, just as a fire must do to burn. But some fires grow weak, whether by excess need or satiety, whereas other fires grow thanks to their more perfect synthesis of this characteristic conflict. A later Heraclitean, Marcus Aurelius, makes this analogy explicit, twice comparing the virtuous self to “a bright fire that appropriates whatever you throw into it and from it produces flame and light.” Such a light would shine in the dark, and no darkness could ever extinguish it. Heraclitean ethics enjoins us to become such a light to the world.

The perfect realization of this light would be a self who incarnates a cross of immanence and transcendence. Both the good sought and the life lived by such a self would thus reveal it. With divine conflict, his highest good would be the immanent flourishing of human excellence, the cardinal virtues celebrated in naturalistic philosophies from antiquity to the present; but his highest good would also be the superhuman life of god, the theological virtues, now understood as the chiasmus of love and reason. Distinct from this perfect divine activity, as human, he would nonetheless be identical with it, as god. Here, for instance, is how his dual and contradictory nature would manifest itself. Emotionally, his all-too-human weeping over our mortal limits would reside alongside his supernatural confidence in our transcendence of these limits. Intellectually, his surprise over the peccadilloes of his friends would reside alongside his knowledge of every hair on their heads.

Living these contradictions, he would likewise die them, because such a self would have to be mortal insofar as he was immanent. Dying in time with bodily corruption, then, he would nevertheless have to be immortal as well, living in eternity with divine activity. Heraclitus unites these opposing demands in his masterpiece of form and content: “Immortals mortals, mortals immortals, living the other’s death, in the others’ life having died.” Presenting a semantic chiasmus in the first half, then a syntactic chiasmus in the second, this logos replicates and thus recalls the complex chiastic structure of the aphorism that defined god (+ – – + | – + + -). Whereas that theo-logos reported a natural world of time that was ultimate but transcended by god, this bio-logos (or thanato-logos) consigns us to an irrevocable death in time that is superseded by eternal life. In other words, the corruptible shall put on incorruption, and the mortal shall put on immortality, but death cannot be swallowed up in victory. Fortunately. For if ever it were, along with it would go meaningful life.

The self incarnated in this way would be both fully immanent and fully transcendent. Thinking so, living truth in the midst of conflict, he would be free to love the world perfectly. Not resenting the temporal world as an obstacle to an eternal paradise, he might reveal the kingdom of god to be within you. Not resenting time as an inexorable thief of our beloveds, he might say today you will be with me in paradise. This twin revelation, his crosswise logos, would communicate the love’s knowledge he would himself embody. Such a logos, or word of god, would be the Heraclitean Christ. Whoever confesses him would try to imitate him, living a Christian life, with most of the anxieties this paradoxical vocation has always provoked. Is this genuine prayer or sophisticated idolatry? Is this authentic meditation or simply self-help? Is this chastity or repression, courage or pride, charity or vanity? Heraclitean Christianity offers the anxious believer no special solace but one.

Since the first Pentecost, and no doubt before that, Christians have struggled with contradictions. All religions must, of course, but the religion that confesses a human god assumes a unique burden in this regard. Tertullian famously shrugged it off with these words: certum est, quia impossible; it is certain, the immortality of mortals, because it is impossible. Such fideism has always tempted Christians, and it is arguably more tempting now—in an age even more diffident about philosophical truth than it is about religious doctrine. Theologians who have put aside the Thomistic synthesis of faith and reason, ironically for good reasons, reach instead for Kierkegaard or some more recent iteration of the fideist position. Yet this choice, between consistent or irrational faith, preserves the false dichotomy that has bedeviled Christian theology from its earliest Platonic forms: either Christian doctrines can be rendered non-contradictory and thus acceptable to reason, or their irrationality must be admitted, sometimes with a smug contempt of reason.

Heraclitean Christianity escapes this false dichotomy by denying its implicit assumption that reason is consistency. If the highest form of reason is instead crosswise, as this series of posts has argued, then Christian confession would be reasonable despite its contradictions. Not every contradiction is allowed; this cannot be emphasized enough; only those required by careful meditation upon this world are permitted. But according to the Heraclitean meditation of these posts, these permissible contradictions are the three just canvassed—between time and eternity, nature and god, mortality and immortality. As it happens, moreover, these are the same three contradictions which the Christian confesses in one person: Jesus Christ. Far from irrational, confessing him would instead be the summit of reason.

Many Christians worry less about irrationality than they do about orthodoxy, so a few words are in order about the fidelity of this interpretation to Christian tradition. Is it heretical to confess Christ crosswise? Here a philosopher must hand the baton to theologians, but only after quickly acknowledging important differences between this Christ and the one so deeply indebted to Platonism and its logic of consistency. As already mentioned, neither his death nor ours is swallowed up in victory. On the contrary, death remains as invincible as the natural and temporal world it presupposes. As a result, no final resurrection will erase death forever, no pure eschaton will put an end to this impure world, nor will any future time witness the separation of wheat from tares. Yet this is already happening now, so to speak, in eternity. Here in time, following the crosswise confession, we foresee no ultimate reconciliation of all contradiction. Conflict is everliving, just as the cosmic fire.

Nevertheless—and this is the only solace crosswise logic offers the anxious Christian—there is truth in conflict. Heraclitean philosophy permits us to speak this truth intelligibly, to think it reasonably, and thereby to feel it most maturely. The crosswise Christian, in sum, could sing this Polish Christmas carol (Bóg się rodzi) with not only the lips, but also the mind as much as the heart:

God is born, great powers tremble,
Lord of Heaven lies forsaken.
Fire is frozen, splendor darkens,
feeble nature God has taken.
Lowly born, yet Lord to Praises,
Mortal yet the King of Ages.
Now indeed the Word made Flesh has
come on earth to dwell among us.

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5 Responses to “Immortal mortal”

  1. avatar Evan says:

    Well my understanding of logic is that it says that: things can’t be contradictory in the same manner and respect. Whether this means that very few real contradictions exist (and if so logic might be pretty useless) is another topic.

    The problem I have with Heraclitean stuff (it is common in ‘new age,’ usually from advaita or taoism) is ethics. The line that we can’t have good without bad leads to problems with attributing goodness to god. (I think it leads to Manicheism, roughly speaking.)

  2. I am grateful for this. Patrick when I solicit work from bloggers I insist on their staying within 700 words. My argument is that’s as far as readers’ attention span goes, and it’s a worthy exercise to say it quickly. Your work here shows the poverty of that policy however. As ever I’m impressed by your encyclopedic knowledge and more than that, by your wisdom.

    I’m also impressed by the degree to which you do orthodox Christian thinking a great favor here. Yet I want to concur with Jeff McCurry’s comment on your third post: Christian faith has never seemed particularly vexed by holding seemingly contradictory points in tension, such as the threefold personhood of the one God, the two natures of the one Christ, the goodness of creation with the surpassing goodness of deathless life, and so on. I don’t think this is always fideistic, though of course it is sometimes (and I don’t think Tertullian’s adage is common wisdom in the church–if it was, what would it even mean?). It can rather be that scripture’s revelation of divine wisdom presses us to hold affirmations that cannot be fully reconciled by our logic. That doesn’t mean they’re contradictory, they’re just not fully integratable by us, but rather are, we presume, by God. The danger here can be resentment of the world, I agree with you and Jeff both, but it need not, in fact Christians who insist on holding to a mystery we can contemplate but not fathom are often among the most generous spirits we have, open to a variety of opposing sources of wisdom and also committed to the truth we see in the face of Christ most fully.

    Patrick I’m most grateful for the Polish hymn. The work you put forth here mostly doesn’t attend to the Christian confession, handed on to us by the Jews, that God is known most fully in the flesh he takes first in Israel and then in Jesus and now in piecemeal form in the church. I don’t understand it, I can talk about it a little in ways I hope aren’t simply silly, but for it I do offer praise, above all in these pregnant days.

  3. avatar Jeff McCurry says:

    Miller is doing something too rare these days: not just talking about philosophy and philosophers but doing philosophy. My question is this: would an even more radical chiasmus somehow be able to have eternity as classical Christianity construed it (e.g. in Augustine) and mortality that was truly mortality (e.g. in Nietzsche/Heidegger)? Is there a way to have heaven as eternal life, as life that was victorious over death, without having such a heaven? I truly don’t know the answer, but it is something I’ve been thinking about. So I guess my question, for Miller and all of us, is whether we can’t go even further, whether an even more radical contradiction might be possible? But many thanks to Miller for these posts.

  4. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    I am familiar with the usage of “chiasm” in the work of Merleau-Ponty, but the term I would have expected be applied to Heraclitus is “polemos.” I’d find the latter term much harder to understand, were it not for the world of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He does not do a lot with it, as he is not a systematic thinker. M-P’s use of chiasm relates, insofar as I am able to understand him, to part and whole or mutually implicated wholes more than to immanent and transcendent. Is it not true that Heraclitus uses the concept of polemos?

  5. avatar Chris says:

    This was a very insightful post, and I find its thesis engaging. My minor complaint is that I have a feeling the version of Christianity that this post is directing itself towards is Western Christianity, which is Roman Catholicism and Reformation era churches and their descendants. Eastern Christianity as espoused in the Eastern, Oriental, and Nestorian Churches doesn’t really work with the same foundational understandings of Western Christianity. I can speak more for the Eastern Orthodox on this issue, though, and the Eastern Church never really adopted the Thomistic formula and to some extent were opposed to it. Granted Thomas Aquinas came much later than the Great Schism, the issues that divided East and West were already there, if not growing, due to St. Augustine’s inheritance and Frankish dominance of the Papacy and Europe to some extent, but when it came about it was generally opposed. The idea that reason and revelation are not contradictory, but not determined in a hierarchy, stems not from intellectual speculation or direct spiritual experience, but by the interdependence of the two. I would say the Heraclitean perspective assumes a certain nature of the material universe and human experience as much as a Christian one does, because whatever is “reasonable” can only be considered “reasonable” in context. Reason does not exist on it’s own, like any other abstraction, so when we assume that the world is both, say, good and bad, and they make for a fulfilling life in their finitude, the person is assuming all sorts of metaphysical truths from that which otherwise, in a different context, would be foolish. The Christian in the East at least does not believe Heaven is some sort of uninterrupted happiness or “fun,” but an alignment of Creation itself with God which is joyous. Think of a person in a marriage—it is not always fun, happy, or interesting, but it is fulfilling, as husband and wife in their respective roles, and fun, happiness or interest would have no meaning outside these “determined” relations. Heaven and meaning in general are like that. The goal is not stagnation but dynamic growth even after death.

    Secondly, part of the problem of immanence and transcendence in Western Christianity arose specifically because of divine simplicity and Western Trinitarianism. If God’s essence is identified as his actions, then the source of all the sacredness becomes only in a God existentially beyond our reach, and the world becomes profane, or, at best, neutral, ripe for nihilism. So the world suddenly becomes profane and God sacred—a Manichean dualism appears. So it seems St. Augustine never really left his Manichean past behind completely. Even if the Western Christian irrationally tries to affirm the grace of God in all things, he runs into systemic problems relating to how God interacts with people and all Creation, e.g. is something good because God says it is, or because it is in-itself, the need to speculate on how to “prove” God, etc. Basically, Western Christianity could not say that God’s essence was His being without limiting God to a transcendent sphere according to the system, but tried to irrationally claim this was not the case. The Trinity became a relation of persons towards an abstract essence and reduced God to a substance equally held by three separate persons and then subordinated the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son and made His origin dependent on both Father and Son—maintaing more “dualism” by reducing the Holy Spirit to a by-product of two—maybe this is a source of the “dialectic”? In the East, the belief is basically the opposite. God’s essence is not identifiable with what He does. It is substantially God, of course, but what makes God god is beyond human reason, so the only way to close the gap is a relationship of Uncreated Grace that transforms the material—that reveals its intrinsic value. In this sense there is no structural dichotomy between essence and energies nor one with the world. The Trinity, furthermore, is not reduced to an abstract unifying substance called “God,” but the very Person of the Father. This makes the ontological relations dependent on Persons and does not subordinate the Holy Spirit. In this way transcendence is maintained in an immanence. So rather than assuming the everything is just flawless, Christian salvation and life should be about orientation.

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