Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

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Heraclitus and the Odyssey

My favorite saying of Heraclitus is “Strife is justice.” It makes sense, that we will gain our piece of the world through our toil, perseverance and battle. We will get what we earn, what we deserve, even if it may not be what we originally set out to achieve, and even if the results are not what we expected. If we want more, we must strive more.

The sticking point, though, comes in jealousy. In working so hard, enduring so much strife, it can aggravate us to see someone else gain what we desire through seemingly no strife at all. It can make the end result of our strife seem unfair, unjust.

The Odyssey contains an excellent example of this:

As Odysseus comes home to Ithaca after his hard ten years’ journey, he arrives at his house disguised as an old beggar. He wishes to observe all the men that have feasted upon his wealth and lived in his home, courting his wife, while he has been away. It is time to take retribution and to reclaim what is rightfully his. He takes a spot at the threshold.

But Irus, another beggar, considers the threshold to be his property. All of it. He is the king beggar of the house. Running errands and doing chores for the suitors, he has earned this spot, and he does not wish to share it with some newcomer who just waltzes in and wants the same rewards that he had to toil to achieve.

To Irus, the threshold is his just reward for all his strife, for all that he has had to endure at the hands of the suitors. He warns Odysseus that he will fight him if the old man doesn’t get out of his threshold.

From Irus’ perspective, he has fought already for what he has, and the stranger hasn’t striven at all. But he can’t see that it is the stranger’s house of which he is trying to proclaim a portion. He doesn’t realize that he is trying to claim another man’s rightful share, even if Irus thinks he is the one that has truly earned it.

He hollers at Odysseus, telling him he better get up and move on, or else he will haul him out by the foot.

Odysseus replies that neither in deed nor word does he harm the beggar, nor does he begrudge the men giving him food and goods, even if they give him lots of it–enough to cause envy. “This threshold will hold us both, and thou hast no need to be jealous for the sake of other men’s goods,” the disguised Odysseus tells Irus.

For Odysseus, he too believes that strife is justice, and justice is about to rain down hard upon all the suitors and unfaithful maids of his household. But the justice he is searching for is not affected by the beggar’s gains. Odysseus is focused on his own, and offers the man a chance to coexist in their own strifes.

Irus refuses, however, and the suitors use the fight as a source of entertainment, guaranteeing a reward for the victor. When Irus falters at the sight of Odysseus’ muscular thighs, the suitors push him forward, and the two men come to blows. Well, two blows. Irus lashes out at Odysseus’ shoulder, and Odysseus, consciously choosing not to kill Irus with one powerful blow and thus reveal his identity, gives him one strike beneath his ear, knocks him out, and hauls the bloody beggar out of the house…by the foot.

Therefore, the next time you fear someone is encroaching on your justice, take a moment to consider whether the threshold would hold you both. If so, it may be best to devote your energies to your other battles.

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Meditation on Heraclitus: Strife Is Justice

Many months ago, as I was working my way through the pre-Socratic philosophers, I was reading my Heraclitus, loving him. Then suddenly, I came across this concept of his:

Strife is justice.

Those three little words socked me in the chest and took my breath away. It seemed to contain truths on so many levels.

I started one essay on it, but couldn’t find an ending. I started another, and couldn’t end that one either. So I just began avoiding Heraclitus. And then because I hadn’t finished Heraclitus, I, in my perfectionistic obsessive way, felt I couldn’t move on to the next pre-Socratic in line. I was stymied.

The reason I couldn’t finish the essays was because there was a nagging hole in my “Strife is justice” belief—and i didn’t want to face it and have another belief crumble without something to replace it.

See, I’ve always believed that if you work hard, you will prevail. Hard work (strife) doesn’t mean you won’t fail. It just means you will eventually get your reward (justice) if you keep trying. It may not be the justice you expected, but it will come.

That belief has pushed me through hard times and rallied me when I was tiring, lagging behind. And it’s given me courage to set off on new paths, take risks, because I felt confident I would get my reward.

It works on metaphysical and material levels, on personal and communal levels, except for one nagging thing: Some people seem to win their reward without having much or any strife. Some people just waltz up to the front of the line.

Doesn’t that punch a big hole in the whole “strife is justice” thing if that can happen?

In writing my other essays, going into the various applicable levels of it, I came up with myriad excuses to justify my clinging to the concept while watching some escape it:

Maybe they had already striven and have fully earned it. Maybe they will have to strive to hang on to it, without having the tools all the strivers have already learned and practiced. Perhaps they won’t meet their justice in this life, but it will still come.

All true, but also all unsatisfactory in closing the mammoth believability gap that question opened.

So lo these many months I have seen and quietly noted instances proving that “strife is justice” indeed, but with no explanation for the exceptions coming to me, to allow me to complete my essays.

But today I found that a new friend was also struggling with the concept of justice. It upset her that, in a certain instance, justice was not swift nor assured. I could sympathize, but something in me still made me confident that it would come, although maybe she would never learn of it or know the full extent of it.

With those thoughts rambling around my brain, still feeling silly I was trying to keep the nagging question at bay, I popped in a good old country CD, Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance, and click! A little light turned on.

I’ve always listened to the title song and imagined sending its lyrics out into the ether to dear ones, and today was no different…until I thought, wait, what about me? Why don’t *I* try to more actively live that way? Why can’t I sing that song to myself? (in a non-narcissistic way, of course!)

Read the simple lyrics. Listen to them. See if you can guess where I’m going with this:

It’s all about strife, striving and doing it in the most beautiful, challenging, purposeful, gratifying, graceful manner you can. The joy, satisfaction and pride of that kind of strife is its own justice.

Listening to those lyrics it occurred to me that I was looking at it all the wrong way. If I live my life according to the “Strife Is Justice” precept, going along, working hard—or not working hard and knowing I have only myself to blame for not getting any reward—does it change things for *me* if someone else gets a freebie tossed their way? Does it give me an excuse not to strive? Or, should I be like some others who mainly strive to get in with the people that always get let into the club while everyone else waits behind the rope?

Does it affect my justice? No. Because nothing is owed to me, and life is not a zero-sum game. Just because one person gets their justice doesn’t mean there’s no justice left for me.

It’s the age-old liberal trap that I was falling into. That it’s unfair, gosh golly! I could try to game the system, get some freebies, arrange my life choices so that I can continue to receive those freebies. Or I can get out there and strive like hell. I can fall on my face, but I can pick myself back up. I can open up my world, my opportunities by getting out there.

It doesn’t change things for my life if I worry about what’s happening with other people’s lives, whether they are getting the harsh justice they sorely deserve.

Instead I need to wake up each morning, and strive. I need to go for the gusto and live like the lyrics in Womack’s beautiful song.

If I attack each day in that manner, I shape my own justice. I control my frame of mind. I can love, I can forgive, I can live. I don’t have to permit others to drag me down. I can exercise my hope and optimism and courage, and gain the strength to hang on tight in times of trouble—and maybe have a little extra left over to help pull others along when they need a hand.

All the others that appear to be getting strife-free rewards won’t be waltzing by me in line, because I won’t be in any line waiting for my justice. I’ll be dancing to it myself.

P.S. In searching for a suitable YouTube copy of I Hope You Dance with the lyrics shown, I came across this video that some guy put up his own thoughts instead of the lyrics. He has some nice things to say, some of them relevant to “Strife Is Justice.”

Strive on.

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Meditation on Heraclitus and Theory of Flux

On the theory of flux, Plato wrote in Cratylus:

Heraclitus says somewhere that everything moves and nothing rests; and comparing what exists to a river, he says that you would not step in the same river twice.

18th century sculpture of Heraclitus by Marinali

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

While Heraclitus was theorizing more about the essence of physical things being unstable, transitory, in a constant state of flux, it seems to carry through to more gossamer elements, such as moments in time, as well. Every moment is different. Moments of the past can never be recreated again in their totality. Something, many things (everything technically), will have changed, and thus alter the total experience of the moment. New obstacles will have tumbled into our path; old ravines will have been bridged.

As such, we must temper our assumptions and not expect to be able to recreate the perfect moment or dodge the speeding train again. Instead, each recurring event will be something different, perhaps even entirely unique. Resistance to change is futile, because everything is in a constant state of flux. At most we can try to manage the change, attempt to limit or control it as best we can.

The holidays often are a time when we depend on tradition and ritual to restrict changes to our celebrations. We can get our hopes up that the best moments of the past will happen again (and that experience will allow us to avoid the worst), if we just try hard enough. So we make all the right preparations, have everything in its place, and somehow it doesn’t seem quite the same again.

That’s a moment when we can become disappointed and sulk, or we can enjoy the new energy and let each new moment surprise and thrill us. We can make it a moment that we will want to try to recreate again.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q7. In the tradition of the earlier pre-Socratics, such as Anaximander and Anaximenes, Heraclitus believed the world was composed of one primary element? What is it?


Up Next: Even More Heraclitus!

If you are just joining the Daily Tread Society and would like to see where we started and where we are headed, click on the Daily Tread tab above and scroll down to our first postings.

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Meditation on Heraclitus, Knowledge and Truth

On finding the truth of things, Heraclitus said:

If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored.

Raphael's Michelangelo as Heraclitus in the School of Athens

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

In the macro sense, Heraclitus’ words go beyond the Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared.” They say to me, “Go seek.” I need to hear his words on the lazy days, when ennui tinges my going through the motions of daily chores and duties. If I’m in a rut, I’m merely treading over my own footsteps. What can I hope to find there, going over the same old ground? On those days especially, I need to take a chance, intentionally go in search of something new, no matter how small or insignificant, to cultivate my sense of anticipation, to create new paths and explore them.

In the micro sense, Heraclitus’ words also prod me to expand my horizons in my quest for information. If I always return to the same sources, I have limited my scope willingly, expecting them to provide me with the unexpected and defining the truth according to their views and principles–again being lazy. Instead, I need to venture into unknown and opposing realms, to make my own discoveries and verify (or adjust) my own truths.

Then I can carry these discoveries and truths back here to report on the new frontiers, paths and oddities I have found—or to simply provide material for those days when someone else feels too lazy to explore.


Related Bonus Quote

On knowledge, Clement wrote in Miscellanies V:

For philosophical men must be versed in many things, according to Heraclitus, and it is in truth necessary to “wander in the search to be good.”

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

This seems to reiterate much of what the first quote said, just from a slightly different vantage point. I leave it for you to ponder, and even comment on here, if you dare.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q6. in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius writes that Heraclitus wrote a book…

And he deposited this book in the temple of Diana…having written it intentionally in an obscure style, in order that only those who were able men might comprehend it, and that it might not be exposed to ridicule at the hand of the common people.

What is the book about generally, and what are its three discourses?


The Daily Apologia:

I am sorry once more, for abandoning the daily postings for so long. I’ve fired up the philosophical treadmill once more, and hope to get back to regular postings. Perhaps not daily, but certainly more frequently.

I also apologize for the last Daily Tread posting: Heraclitus’ Aphorism Bonanza. It was entirely incomplete, and certainly no bonanza because I’d barely begun it. Unfortunately, I must have accidentally published it instead of keeping it in draft mode. Oops. (Can you be an absent-minded philosopher?) Once I discovered my error, I thought it better to leave it than to confuse those that had already read it.


Up Next: More Heraclitus!

If you are just joining the Daily Tread Society and would like to see where we started and where we are headed, click on the Daily Tread tab above and scroll down to our first postings.

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Heraclitus' Aphorism Bonanza

Part of the allure of Heraclitus for me is his wordsmithery, which earned him the nicknames of “The Obscure” and “The Riddler.” He is described variously as producing fragments that are “cursed by their enigmatic obscurity, which was already notorious in ancient times….” If these fragments were dense in meaning back then, translation into English and into modern usages fogs their clarity all the more.  Another expert writes: “The Riddler delights in puns and word-play—most of which are lost in translation.”

In introducing Heraclitus in The First Philosophers, Robin Waterfield says:

It is even possible that Heraclitus did not write a coherent treatise, but a series of longer and shorter aphorisms, suitable for an oral culture, which frequently rely on metaphor and paradox.

As quoted by Sextus Empiricus in Against the Professors:

But the general run of people are as unaware of their actions while awake as they are of what they do while asleep.

On opposites being one:

The sea is most pure and most polluted water: for fish, drinkable and life-preserving; for me, undrinkable and death-dealing.

On immortality:

Immortals are mortals, mortals immortal: living their death, dying their life.