Panta Rhei

Panta Rhei

“The philosophy we principally received from the Greeks must be acknowledged puerile, or rather talkative than generative – as being fruitful in controversies, but barren of effects.”
– Francis Bacon, Preface to De Augmentis Scientiarum

“With regard to philosophy, there are half a dozen things, good and bad, that in this country are so nick-named, but in the only accurate sense of the term, there neither are, have been, or ever will be but two essentially different schools of philosophy, the Platonic, and the Aristotelian. To the latter but with a somewhat nearer approach to the Platonic, Emanuel Kant belonged; to the former Bacon and Leibnitz, and, in his riper and better years, Berkeley….Lord Bacon, who never read Plato’s works, taught pure Platonism in his great work, the Novum Organum, and abuses his divine predecessor for fantastic nonsense, which he had been the first to explode.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 14 Jan. 1814. Highgate.

Alfred North Whitehead famously remarked that all of Western Philosophy was only a series of footnotes to Plato. Bernard Williams opened his essay on Greek Philosophy in a volume called “The Legacy of Greece” by saying: “The Legacy of Greek Philosophy to Western Philosophy is Western Philosophy.”

Heidegger would hardly have demurred. George Steiner in his book “Antigones” develops at some length the argument that for Heidegger it is literally impossible to philosophize in any other language than Greek. (And in his Fontana Modern Masters study of Heidegger, Steiner argues that for this philosopher there could strictly speaking have been no possibility of translating his works out of German – for example, into English. He seems to have regarded any such project as bizarre and quixotic: certainly forlorn.)

But Heidegger had been sufficiently warned by Nietzsche that Plato was above all a master of rhetoric. He is indeed, it seems to me, much more than Euripides, the father of modern European drama, just as Herodotus is the father of the novel. And Plato cannot be understood without reference to his antipode, Homer, the father of European poetry. One has to start getting very Freudian indeed, with all this talk of fathers and sons and rivalry and the anxiety of influence… And then along comes Aristotle to try to sober them all up.

Eric Havelock wrote a “Preface to Plato” which examines the transition from Homer to Plato. He ended up with a volume called “The Muse Learns to Write”. He became a pariah in academic circles, a Professor of Classics in Toronto whose chief influence was on Marshall McLuhan who went on to write “The Gutenberg Galaxy” and “Understanding Media” and a popular bestseller: “The Medium is the Message”. McLuhan’s dictum – “The world is now an electronic village” – enraged Gwydion M. Williams, who believes in real (rather than virtual) villages. But it is hard to gainsay McLuhan’s point, made long before the Internet. (Should we not now abandon BC and AD or CE, and simply write BI and AI, before and after the Internet, for our epoch?)

Karl Popper fatuously castigated Aristotle for his supposedly captious criticisms of Plato. The truth is that Aristotle was desperately trying to break free, as we all do, from the constrictions of his Master. And the result, as Coleridge remarked, is that we are all Platonists or Aristotelians. Which is Heidegger?

Rather than dive in medias res, i.e. into the body of “Being and Time” – a procedure which I consider to be appropriate for poetry but not philosophy – I would prefer to look at Heidegger’s Lectures during the War Emergency Semester 1919.

They are the earliest extant lecture-courses by Heidegger, delivered at the University of Freiburg in 1919. They were not intended for publication and only appeared posthumously in 1987 in Volume 56/57 Heideggers Gesamtausgabe. They are conveniently translated in “Towards the Definitionof Philosophy”, Ted Sadler. (Continuum, London, 2008.)

Niall Cusack
(To be continued.)


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