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Burnt Norton: epigrams of Heraclitus - The Ex-Communicator

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March 27th, 2011


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12:16 pm - Burnt Norton: epigrams of Heraclitus
So, the first 18 lines of Burnt Norton present two hypotheses about time. Either we live in a deterministic universe, in which all times exist like places, or in a Universe in which only the present exists. Eliot bases the whole poem sequence on the second of these views. We live in time, and time is a process of constant destruction. All that remains of the past are its leavings.

The first philosopher to explicitly state this view of time was Heraclitus. He said for example 'you never step into the same river twice' - because everything that exists is always being destroyed. Burnt Norton begins with two quotes from Heraclitus.

The way up and the way down are the same

Though the logos is common to all, most people live as if they had a wisdom of their own possession


Only fragments of Heraclitus remain. He saw the whole Universe as a place of creative destruction and warfare, of which we are all components. Also, alas, in common with Eliot, he thought the mass of people were inferior and unable to grasp the nature of reality.

Here is another quote from Heraclitus, not used by Eliot:

Things whole and not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant.
The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.


Ironically Heraclitus is a thinker who has almost disappeared, only the slightest traces of him remain in the present, burnt up by the very processes he describes.

Dionysus and Hades are the same god.


And his thought was about the identity of destruction and creation.

This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made.
But it always was, is, and will be: an ever-living Fire, partly coming to flame, and partly going out.

So, Eliot used the two quotes I have bolded above, rather than the ones I have italicised. I think the ones he chose are about ways of responding to the problem of time, rather than descriptions of the state of the Universe. And so, most of Burnt Norton is about how to live in time. The two methods recommended by Heraclitus in the two quotes are to give up one's separation from The Logos, and to take the low route in order to ascend. This is the motion of Burnt Norton.

However, I think there are two problems. One is that Heraclitus and Eliot are quite elitist, so while they talk about submerging the self, they recoil from the masses. The other is that there is a divergence between them: Heraclitus does not conceive of a god or Logos standing aloof from the universe, so his view of joining with the Logos is not as much about renouncing the world as Eliot's is.

ETA - incidentally the statement 'the logos is common to all but people act under their own wisdom' is almost a translation of the first line of the Dao De Jing: 'the way that can be followed is not the chang way' where 'chang' means 'common to all'. I often wonder whether these ideas were in some way communicated, for example by traders, or arose spontaneously in many places.

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