Interviews:

Greedy time: An interview with Patrick Lee Miller

posted by Nathan Schneider

Patrick Lee Miller is an assistant professor of philosophy at Duquesne University and the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Continuum). His work focuses primarily on ancient Greek philosophy, albeit in constant conversation with modern thinkers. Becoming God examines the early conflict between Heraclitean philosophy and the Parmenidean metaphysics that was to become the cornerstone of Plato’s thought, and hence of the tradition of Western philosophy that followed in his wake.

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NS: What is at stake in the questions of time and consistency that you’re probing through your inquiries into ancient philosophy?

PLM: If you’ve ever lost someone you loved, or ever deeply regretted something you’ve done, then time is a problem for you. We’ve all longed for the past, whether to be with someone or to be without some deed. Nietzsche expressed this very clearly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where his hero says that our impotence before “greedy time” makes us resentful of it. To cope with this resentment, we dream of hinterworlds outside of time, eternities that promise to redeem us from its greed. There, everything will be made whole, every beloved will live again. So goes the dream. The sort of rationality pioneered by Parmenides—consistency—makes time impossible, and so when Plato combined it with the philosophical religion of Pythagoreanism, the result was a moralized rejection of time. We can cope with greedy time, for Plato, by seeing it as not only unreal, but evil. Our real life is not here, but there, among the Forms in eternity. If that’s so, however, why not commit suicide and get there immediately? This is a serious problem for Platonism. To avoid its nihilism and affirm our life in this world, we need a way to understand time as fully real. I argue in the book that Heraclitus offers this way.

NS: To what extent do you consider your work constructive philosophy, and to what extent is it of what I’ve sometimes heard philosophers call “antiquarian interest”?

PLM: That dismissive attitude you’ve noticed toward “antiquarian interest” stems from several sources, but the main one nowadays, it seems to me, is the confusion of philosophy’s method with that of natural science. In the sciences, after all, there is a genuine distinction between those who do experimental science and those who study its history. Thinking of philosophy as a sort of natural science, some analytic philosophers make a similar distinction between those who try to solve philosophical problems directly and those who merely study the solutions of predecessors. But that has always seemed to me to be a false dichotomy. I was fortunate to have two teachers early on—first Charles Taylor, then Alasdair MacIntyre—who expose it as such by philosophizing in a way that solves philosophical problems by recounting philosophical history.

NS: How have you applied the method you learned from them in Becoming God?

PLM: The book tells a history of ideas, explaining how certain philosophical theses came to seem inevitable after Plato. There’s some purely antiquarian stuff in there, particularly in the sections on the Pythagoreans, whose numerological views are pretty weird. But I found it crucial to include that weird stuff in order to understand how the history of early Greek philosophy turned out as it did. I tried to show how entangled Plato’s philosophy is with Pythagoreanism, but more importantly the Parmenidean notion of reason—that is, consistency. This notion of reason is still the dominant one among philosophers, so my effort to present and defend the Heraclitean alternative was constructive, or at least tried to be. That said, I doubt the significance of this alternative could be appreciated without a historical approach. I myself couldn’t appreciate Heraclitus until I saw, first, how consistent reason failed to accommodate time, and then how the Heraclitean alternative both succeeded and put its rival’s failure into clear focus.

NS: Could you say more about why time leads to inconsistency? Philosophers today find ways of upholding consistency as well as time, don’t they?

PLM: Time is inconsistent if it is composed of moments. Thanks to the paradoxes of Zeno, Parmenides’ student, Aristotle saw this very clearly. If time is composed of moments, each one must come into being and then pass away. But when? A moment cannot be born in itself, nor can it die in itself, without violating the principle of non-contradiction. Neither can a moment be born or die in another moment, for that, too, would be contradictory. So, the principle of non-contradiction forbids moments, as Aristotle saw, yet it also requires them—a consequence he did not recognize. “The same thing,” he writes, “cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time.” Now, referring to fire’s relation to its fuel, Heraclitus called it “need and satiety.” Consistency demands that we analyze this apparent contradiction by distinguishing the duration of fire’s burning into different times. But no matter how finely we do so—ultimately, to the point of moments without duration—the contradiction persists. And likewise for other temporal processes; fire is just a particularly vivid illustration of the problem.

Although philosophers today overlook it, Hegel thought this problem serious enough to develop a new logic. British Hegelians were thus also worried about it. Bertrand Russell began in this tradition, but later rebelled against it to found analytic philosophy—which would venerate, not coincidentally, a logic without tense.

NS: In the ancient world, who won the debate, Heraclitus or Parmenides and Plato?

PLM: The stock answer is that the winner was Plato. This was Nietzsche’s point in his clever parody of Marx: “Christianity is Platonism for the masses.” But that’s too simple. Christianity blends the eternity of Platonism with the temporality of the Hebrew Bible. Time can be holy. Think of the liturgical calendar: there is a whole Week called Holy. That’s a departure from Platonism wide enough to have prompted Augustine, otherwise so deeply indebted to this philosophical tradition, to devote a whole book of his Confessions to rehabilitating time. Like all subsequent Christian theologians, moreover, he had to depart from Platonism’s logic of consistency in order to make sense of the Incarnation, among other paradoxical mysteries. So, in a way rarely recognized, Christianity preserved Heraclitean reasoning about time and its relation to eternity.

To answer your question, then, I don’t think anyone won out exclusively. There are quarters of our culture—analytic philosophy comes to mind, as do mathematics and the natural sciences—where the principle of non-contradiction is a shibboleth. But there are other quarters—continental philosophy, as well as Christian theology—where tolerance, and even celebration of contradiction persists. Come to think of it, that’s what a Heraclitean should expect: conflict about truth, yet truth in that conflict.

NS: Does Heraclitus represent, somehow, a more modern—even secular—view in his affirmation of time?

PLM: Well, it depends what you mean by “modern” and “secular.” No easy task, as The Immanent Frame makes clear! If “secular” means the separation of the divine from ordinary time, then Heraclitus is far from secular—the operation of time is for him the divine itself. “Modern” is a very difficult notion to apply here, which isn’t to say we should give up trying. After all, there are Greek philosophers who seem eerily modern. Many historians of philosophy locate the beginning of the modern era in philosophy with Descartes and Hobbes, who self-consciously revived the ideas of ancient Greek Atomists, Sophists, and Skeptics. But if you locate the high modern in the nineteenth century, as some others do, then it’s significant that the great German philosophers of this period spoke of Heraclitus reverently, presenting him as the inspiration for their own philosophies. “There is not a single aphorism of Heraclitus,” wrote Hegel, “that does not appear in my Logic.” Nietzsche added, “The world will always need the truth, hence the world will always need Heraclitus.” This is an influence historians of philosophy are only now beginning to appreciate. Heraclitus’s best days may be ahead.

NS: Is Heraclitus reminding us—as some might chastise—that secularity carries in it the arrogant, even dangerous aspiration to become a god?

PLM: If he is reminding us of this, then so too is nearly every other pagan Greek philosopher. Many of them saw philosophy as a quest for divinity. First, though, we have to be clear what we mean by “secularity,” as before, reminding ourselves of the threat of anachronism when we’re using it to discuss ancient Greeks. With that proviso, though, we can ask something like this: Was Reason untethered to traditional religion liable to promote megalomania? There were certainly advocates of traditional Greek piety who said so. Pindar, for example, wrote: “Do not, my soul, strive for the life of the immortals.” Such a warning could explain the story of Bellerophon, who plummeted to his death after attempting to reach the dwelling of the gods on his winged horse.

The Greek philosophers largely ignored the warnings of the poets. Their arrogance—which we see reflected in modern philosophers such as Nietzsche or Heidegger—makes us nervous, and rightly so. We become still more nervous when we detect it in our political leaders. The French revolutionaries substituted a statue of Reason for the altar in Notre Dame, right around the time that heads started to roll. That said, there was a parallel arrogance in the Divine Right of Kings, which arguably caused as much suffering as did the revolutionary zeal, so I’m not so sure the secular version is any worse than its religious counterpart.

NS: Couldn’t there also be dangers in embracing contradiction, as you do? How can one be both rational and, when necessary, contradictory?

PLM: Carefully! For one thing, we should not ignore the principle of non-contradiction and accept contradictions whenever we like. Aristotle was right that such logical insouciance would forfeit rationality. But neither should we revere this principle as “the firmest of all things,” as he called it, anticipating many philosophers who have since shared his reverence. Paying close attention to time and any process in time, we have to acknowledge that it is contradictory at every moment. There should therefore be a higher-order logic that accounts for the operation of reason whenever it thinks about time or itself. This is what I call chiasmus. Consistency and analysis are still important components of this higher-order logic, but they must be united with their opposites, synthesis and inconsistency, to complete accurate thinking. For most practical purposes, this higher-order logic isn’t necessary; the limited logic of consistency often suffices. Analogously, for most engineering purposes, Einsteinian relativity theory is not necessary; the limited mechanics of Newton will do. But there are occasions when physicists need Einstein, just as there are occasions when philosophers need Heraclitus. Whenever we wish to understand anything as temporal, including ourselves, chiasmus is needed.

NS: What does Heraclitus tell us about chiasmus?

PLM: The short answer is that it is how we should think and speak, because it’s the way the world is. Many of his best aphorisms have the structure of this literary figure (A : B :: B : A). For Heraclitus, this crosswise structure is shared by accurate thinking and the world contemplated by our thought. All three of these domains—speech, thought, and world—come condensed in one difficult and obscure aphorism that stands at the summit of Heraclitean philosophy. In my book, I call it the “principle of chiasmus”: “wholes and not-wholes, convergent divergent, consonant dissonant, from all things one and from one all things.” Focusing on thinking, we can see in this aphorism two movements of thought: one brings the objects of thought together (wholes, convergent, consonant, from all things one), the other takes them apart (not-wholes, divergent, dissonant, from one all things). In cognition, taking things apart is the activity of analysis, whereas bringing them together is the activity of synthesis.

NS: What is the significance of chiasmus for you?

PLM: Chiasmus, for me, is a way of thinking, as it is for Heraclitus, but I’ve tried to broaden this to include emotional intelligence as well as logical rigor. The emotions perform the activity of synthesis, whereas consistent reason performs the activity of analysis. The higher-order activity of chiasmus, then, is the joint performance of both. That’s a sketch of the ethics I have in mind: not the separate excellence of reason on one hand and emotion on the other, but their joint activity.

NS: Why did you decide to open the book with a poem which has that as its title?

PLM: The poem was my first effort—unconscious though it was—to communicate this chiasmus. That wasn’t its title when I wrote it in 2008. In fact, until I decided to include it in the book, just before sending in the manuscript in 2010, I called it “Sic et Non.” It’s full of oppositions—starting with a No, for example, and ending with a Yes—inviting you to analyze them rationally as inconsistent. Stepping back from those basic oppositions—between thinking the difference in time and feeling the summons of eternal unity—you might even experience the higher-order unity that is chiasmus itself. But I didn’t see this when I wrote the poem. To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing then, beyond procrastinating on the book I was supposed to be writing! Later, though, it helped me to structure the book’s contents and, finally, to distill its conclusion. It’s no exaggeration to say that the poem expressed the idea of the book long before I knew consciously what that idea would be.

NS: You often refer to Nietzsche as a faithful Heraclitean. But, considering how much changed in the millennia between the two, how faithful could he be?

PLM: Nietzsche shared Heraclitus’s most distinctive feature: a respect for time that refused to denigrate it as an inferior derivative of eternity. Moreover, Nietzsche’s most famous doctrine, the eternal return (or eternal recurrence of the same), first appears in Greek philosophy with Heraclitus. The meaning of this doctrine is not at all clear, neither for Nietzsche nor for Heraclitus, but I believe they share the same interpretation of it: each thinks that eternity is present at every moment of time; there is “eternity in an hour,” as Blake put it. There are other doctrines shared between these two philosophers; also, Nietzsche uses Heraclitus’s aphoristic style.

With these similarities in mind, you are nonetheless right that much changed in the millennia between them. The biggest philosophical rupture, in my view, was Christianity. Of the many novelties it introduced into the Greek philosophical tradition, I find the deepest to be this set: the value it places on the emotion of love, the insoluble individuality it grants to every human being, and the injunction to direct this love toward a human individual (who is also divine). Both Heraclitus and Parmenides—who together pose the most basic conflict of early Greek philosophy—agree that the best life is purely rational, and that whoever achieves it surpasses individuality to become divine reason itself. Christianity changes that. Augustine funnels these novel ideas into the subsequent tradition of European philosophy. His revolution is so successful that even anti-clerical philosophers, such as Nietzsche, who openly despises Augustine, are unimaginable without him.

NS: The Immanent Frame is mentioned in your acknowledgements. Can you tell me about what part the site had in the development of your thinking?

PLM: It was essential. The book was not originally even going to include Heraclitus. But after I’d finished the poem you asked about, I found a better way to procrastinate on the book: I wrote some posts for The Immanent Frame. The first was on psychoanalysis and took issue with Taylor’s denial that it is a spirituality. This led to another, contesting his assertion that death frustrates our quest for meaningful lives. Lurking in the background of both of these posts was Heraclitus. I wasn’t sure that readers of this site would be interested in him, but the kind editors here gave me the chance to present his spirituality nonetheless. William Connolly read these posts, and he wrote to thank me for them, adding that he’d decided to incorporate some Heraclitus into his forthcoming book, A World of Becoming. This got me thinking afresh about my own book. Why not include Heraclitus in it too? He didn’t fit into the story it was supposed to tell, but maybe I could change the story. Whereas, before, I was recounting a uniform tradition of pure reason from Parmenides through Plotinus, I decided instead to present a rivalry between two main traditions, showing that there was an early alternative to Platonism in Heraclitus.

Thanks no doubt to my immersion in The Immanent Frame, I saw this rivalry as one between transcendence and immanence, a rivalry that characterizes much of the writing here, just as it frames the narrative of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. But as I reworked the Heraclitean spirituality posts into a Heraclitus chapter, and thus came to understand this obscure philosopher better, I saw that his notion of reason—chiasmus, again—managed to synthesize immanence and transcendence. In this way, the book was no longer just about a rivalry between two irreconcilable options; it now argued for the superiority of the Heraclitean option because it sublated these antitheses. In the terms of your earlier question, the book went from largely antiquarian interest to offering some constructive philosophy as well.

NS: It was only after finishing Becoming God—and here on The Immanent Frame—that you explicitly go into the Christian theological consequences of these ideas: the “Crosswise Christ.” How much were these concerns in your mind all along?

PLM: Not one bit—that is, not until I edited the final proofs. A friend who had read a draft of the Heraclitus chapter pointed out that, although I discussed chiasmus throughout, and even made it the main idea of the book, I never once explained what the literary figure was. Not every reader would be familiar with it, so I decided to illustrate it with some canonical examples from English literature. The ones I found were from Shakespeare and Milton. Gradually, I came to appreciate that Milton’s example has theological significance. It’s about the Incarnation: “Love without end and without measure Grace.” The literary figure of chiasmus got its name from the Greeks, whose letter “Chi” is shaped like our letter X, and thus exhibits the crosswise pattern of the figure itself. For Christians, this was a potent symbol not only because of the crucifixion but also because the first letter of “Christos” is “Chi” (which appears in the venerable English abbreviation for Christmas, “Xmas”). From antiquity, then, chiasmus has been used as a symbol of Christ.

As I put it in my introduction—with gratitude to my indulgent typesetter, who allowed me to make the comparison explicit after the proofs were already done—Milton uses chiasmus to communicate his God. But that’s exactly what Heraclitus is doing with his aphorisms! Could the God be the same? I decided to write a series of posts here, “Crosswise Christ,” to test the possibility. So, what began as a convenient way to explain a literary figure evolved into the idea that Heraclitean philosophy could underwrite a new Christology. It’s new for me, at least, and I’m eager to see how it’s received by readers of The Immanent Frame. That’s one of the great things about this site—scholars can test ideas, getting instant feedback from a much wider readership than we could hope for from our specialized journals.

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One Response to “Greedy time: An interview with Patrick Lee Miller”

  1. avatar Steve Gabor says:

    In the Republic, Plato placed *axiomatic* restrictions on Heraclitus’ 4-dimensional model of reality, forbidding both the flow of time and shifting relations in perspective in or between objects. This permitted him to say that it is true that a coin must be either heads or tails at a given time. But it also left him looking at the world in only two dimensions, as if watching the horses and charioteers on the frieze of the Parthenon forever frozen in battle!

    However, both of these are immanent in the sense that their dimensionality is the same as, or lower than, that of experience. To have transcendence, wouldn’t we need to have more than four dimensions?

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