— PLASMA, PYR TEKNIKON, HERAKLEITIAN FIRE —
So said Herakleitos. You usually see his name in its Romanized form — Heraclitus. But he was Greek, not Roman. And I like the spikiness of the K and the more complex vowel. I don’t know, it just suits my conception of him.
Herakleitos the Ephesian, who lived around 500 years before Christ: foremost of the pre-Socratic philosophers, whose book was lost to posterity, but whose voice somehow survived. His work was accessible at least until the time of Plutarch, but now it is only known through fragments quoted by other authors.
Maybe that’s why I like him: because all we have of him consists of quotations, many of which have an intriguing counterintuitive quality, like a kind of pre-Socratic Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s method of provocation — he described his own writing as ‘probe, not package’ — describes the fragments we have left of Herakleitos rather well. He was known, among other things, the as ‘The Riddler’, and ‘the Obscure’, so it appears a counterintuitive quality was always considered inherent to his thought.
This is the man who told us that ‘You can’t step twice into the same river.’
In our own times this paradox has gained a certain popularity, becoming a new age cliché, like those zen riddles about trees falling in woods and one-handed rounds of applause.
If the quotations are correct, Herakleitos used the river metaphor a number of times, phrasing it slightly differently each time:
Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei:
“Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.”
Again: Panta chōrei kai ouden menei kai dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies:
“Everything changes and nothing remains still … you cannot step twice into the same stream.”
And at its most zen-like: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”
It’s metaphor. He’s not only talking about rivers, he’s talking about everything. Everything is a river.
In Herakleitos there are no things, no fixed, separate entities or objects — only processes. Perceived objects are tensions of opposite forces. The cosmos, and everything within it, exists in a harmony of creation and destruction. His shorthand for this is hodos ano kato, ‘the upward-downward path’.
Panta rhei. Everything flows, hey?
We are rivers, too.
We step, and do not step.
Everything flows around here, that’s for sure.
When it rains, everything moves downhill.
Only the rocks are holding this whole hillside together.
The sea pounds against them, smashing up high into the air, overflowing the big slab that lies like a bulwark at the bottom of this little valley.
The breeze is coming off the sea again, like it did when I was first here.
Smoke from my fire flows uphill, hugging the slope.
My hut tilts more and more. I don’t think I can chock my bed up any higher then I already have. Not without blocking the window.
I love it though. Just going with the flow, for now.
To say that everything is subject to change is not enough. Even to start with the concept of a ‘thing’ is putting it backwards. Continual change — flux, flow— is the medium from which things emerge in the first place. Nothing is, said Herakleitos, everything becomes.
Change is subject to things, you might say.
Herakleitos uses the example of a river. Is a river an object or a process?A thing, or an event?
A river has its quasi-permanent aspects: its course, its banks, its bed. These are how we define river, as opposed to sea, lake, marshes or swamp. But within these (shifting) confines, a river is defined by pure movement — current, eddy, vortex, constant flux — which is the force that carves out the course of the river, the banks to confine the force. A river is neither its banks nor its water, but a tension between the two; it is not an object but the confinement of a flow — a self-confining flow.
A thing is the confinement of a flow.
A tension of opposing forces, like a tautly strung bow.
It’s easy to think of living things as verbs, not nouns, as Herakleitos would like us to. (The snake is not a snake, it is the universe snaking.)
But how could the river metaphor apply to a rock, say? A sword. A skull.
Of course, rocks erode and swords corrode, and skulls crumble to dust, but this isn’t the usual human lament over time and mutability, and it’s more than a ‘doctrine of impermanence’. That kind of language only captures half the point. We all know that all material objects decay; the mystery is how they exist in the first place.
For Herakleitos, all matter is tensile, harmonic, resonant. So what is the upward path, the creative force that causes things to exist and sustains them from moment to moment?
He calls it fire.
“This world, which is the same for all, not one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an everlasting fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.”
It’s a beautiful image, the ultimate image of evanescence and flow, but it is not meant as poetry. Whereas the river metaphor is illustrative, a well-chosen analogy used to explain a concept, Herakleitos’ use of ‘fire’ alludes to the four ‘elements’ of the Greek schema: earth, water, air and fire. It’s not a literary device but a term in natural philosophy.
“All things are an interchange for fire,” he writes, “and fire for all things, just like goods for gold and gold for goods.”
How to solve this riddle? You can exchange something for fire by burning it. But how can you buy something with this gold? How can fire create?
The death of fire is the birth of air, the death of air the birth of water.
I’ve thought about that as I stare into my glowing, flickering lava-beds of charcoal.
The death of water is the birth of earth. The death of earth, the birth of fire.
That’s what I do at night. I make fires. I feed my fire like a temple flame.
I watch its electric, elastic, ecstatic dance.
I read a tortuous academic paper on the question of why the philosopher chose ‘fire’ rather than ‘earth, ‘water’, or ‘air’ to be the foundation of all matter. The authors eschew the word ‘element’, preferring ‘substance’, but this merely perpetuates the confusion.
As a school kid I remember laughing about the ancient Greeks believing that everything was made from four elements. Such is our modernist hubris, inculcated in us from birth.
Until you realize that earth, water, air, and fire are not elements. The correct term is ‘phases of matter’.
Earth, water and air: solid, liquid, and gas.
Does matter have a fourth phase?
Now we know that it does — but only, scientifically speaking, since Crookes and Tesla started playing with vacuum tubes. We didn’t even have a name for it until the 1920s. We called it plasma, the term Irving Langmuir selected by analogy with blood plasma, because he was struck by its ‘self-organizing, life-like’ qualities.
A plasma is an ionized medium — not a gas, but a unstructured state of matter in which molecular bonds are dissolved and protons and electrons move freely. It is extremely energetic. Plasma conducts electricity, responding to electric current with extraordinarily complex, unpredictable and, indeed, life-like behaviours. Plasmas are said to be so complex as sometimes to beggar description and confound theory and analysis.
We can see plasma only when it is in glow-mode or incandescent arc-mode. When we see it in Nature, it has an otherworldly beauty, like a glimpse of the divine.
We see it in lightning, and in the polar Aurorae, Borealis and Australis.
And we see it in fire.
A flame is a plasma.
Each phase is given a metonym by the Greeks. Earth for solid, water for liquid, air for gas, and flame for plasma.
We now know that more than 99 percent of the matter in the universe exists in the form of plasma. Like Herakleitos, plasma physicists tend to see the fourth phase of matter as fundamental: the base of the pyramid of matter.
The death of earth is the birth of fire.
I’m not saying Herakleitos ‘discovered plasma’. A scientific understanding of plasma would not become possible until the generation of electricity had been achieved.
But there is a striking consonance with our own knowledge. Four phases of matter. The realization that the fourth is in some sense the first.
Is this just raw intuition?
It’s possible. Maybe he saw it in visions. In the course of some Eleusinian initiation, perhaps…
Another possibility is that it’s a degraded survival, a remnant of earlier knowledge.
Earth flows to the sea, staining the water in great sand-colored patches along the coast.
A thin green snake flows like bindweed along a branch.
Bindweed spirals like the orbit of Mercury.
Ideas flow. They conquer and are conquered, they die and are reborn, clothing themselves according to the fashion of the time.
Herakleitos’ book was deposited at the Temple of Artemis and was accessible for hundreds of years before disappearing forever. Perhaps this can be explained by his listing as a heretic by the Roman Church.
Whatever the reasons, we have his words only in fragments. But Herakleitos was a major influence on the philosophical movement of Stoicism, which dominated Graeco-Roman thought for fully 600 years, until the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Founded by Zeno of Citius, who taught publicly at the Stoa Poikile, the Painted Portico in Athens, Stoicism is Socratic in ethics, Herakleitian in natural philosophy.
As in Buddhism, there is no anthropomorphic, personal God. Stoicism is pantheistic, conceiving of the Universe as a single entity, alive, conscious and intelligent. Everything — the Universe — is God.
The creative fire, pyr teknikon, is an intelligent aether, vehicle of the Logos.
The Logos: divine reason.
The way things are.
The only way it can be.
‘In the beginning was the Logic’ — now that would have got my attention.
In late Stoicism, the period beginning a little before the birth of Christ, the expression of the concept evolved, pyr teknikon morphing into pneuma or breath — though still often with the epithet ‘firey’ — and in this form the concept was absorbed into Christianity as ‘the Holy Spirit’, and removed from the realm of natural philosophy.
But not forever. The concept of a fourth phase of matter lay dormant for fifteen hundred years. Then it burst into flame again in the spectacular new science of plasma physics.
Plasma: pyr teknikon; Herakleitian fire.