You are here

Listening to the logos: harmonia and syntax in Heraclitus

Luke Parker

Ever since it became accepted that Heraclitus’ texts suggest an analogy between language and logos (“account”), treatments of Heraclitus' style have tended to see in these ever obscure texts an effort to use features of language – semantic ambiguity as well as rhetorical tropes like antithesis and chiasmus – to represent their claims about the world. (Hussey 1983; Vieira 2013).  Yet these have failed to appreciate a longstanding claim by James Lesher (1983, 167) that Heraclitus finds meaning arising through syntactical structures rather than the accretion of individual words. Using Lesher’s claim as a point of departure, this paper will show that each of Heraclitus' statements on ἁρμονίη (“fitting-together”) present syntactical relationships within the statement as exemplary of the concept they name.  These statements suggest the fitting-together of words in syntax as a model for ἁρμονίη.  Syntactical relationships are also significant in Heraclitus' statement on 'listening to the logos' (DK B 50), where I claim that comprehension of meaning in implicit syntactical relationships suggests itself as a model for the apprehension of logos.

In each of Heraclitus’ authentic statements on ἁρμονίη, the term is presented with a predicate that expresses a syntactic relation operating there. B 51 reads thus: οὐ ξυνιᾶσιν ὅκως διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῶι ὁμολογέει· παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη ὅκωσπερ τόξου καὶ λύρης (“They do not comprehend how in differing with itself it agrees: backward-turning fitting-together, just as of a bow and lyre”).  I argue that παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη may be read as expressive of the way in which the reflexive pronoun “ἑωυτῶι” serves as dative complement to both verbal forms: … διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῶι ὁμολογέει (“… differing with itself it agrees [with itself]”).  A reader must resupply the pronoun with ὁμολογέει, so the sense involves a 'turning back' to the earlier word.  This relationship in the syntax of the statement thus provides an instance of παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη, a thing both differing and agreeing with itself.  A similar phenomenon occurs in B 54:  ἁρμονίη ἀφανὴς φανερῆς κρείττων (“Invisible fitting-together is stronger than the visible”). Here ἀφανὴς (“invisible”) must be discerned from φανερῆς (“visible”) as the proper predicate of ἁρμονίη despite the fact that both adjectives share endings which would have appeared identical in a text written without diacritics.  Thus the detection of the key grammatical difference, ἀφανὴς as predicate nominative and φανερῆς as genitive of comparison, turns out to be an instance of ἁρμονίη ἀφανὴς, “invisible fitting-together.”  Taken together, these statements suggest syntactical relationships as a model for Heraclitus’ notion of harmonia more broadly.

Syntax also plays a role in DK B 50: οὐκ ἐμοῦ ἀλλὰ τοῦ λόγου ἀκούσαντας ὁμολογεῖν σοφόν ἐστιν ἓν πάντα εἶναι (“Listening not to me but to the account it is wise to agree that all things are one,” [trans. Kahn]).  Here I take 'listening to the logos' to allude to a feature of the statement's accusative and infinitive constructions: they make it incumbent upon a reader to activate her own intuition of syntactic relations, since these are not made explicit in morphology.  In this way the statement provides an instance of finding meaning not in simply hearing Heraclitus’ words, but through recognizing the production of meaning in the statement's implicit structure. This is similar to the discovery of hidden "fitting-together," and serves as an exemplary instance of recognizing how implicit structure produces meaning in all phenomena.

Heraclitus’ statements on harmonia and B 50 draw attention to features of their own syntax in order to use the structure of language to model the claims they make about the structure of reality.  Understanding the texts in this light helps us appreciate how deeply Heraclitus draws on the analogy between language and logos.  In addition, we can see that the texts mobilize Heraclitus' insight into linguistic structure and meaning.  In doing so they offer the fitting-together of language as exemplary of harmonia, and our access to its meaning as both an example and an instance of “listening to the logos.”

Session/Panel Title

Language and Linguistics: Lexical, Syntactical, and Philosophical Aspects

Session/Paper Number

79.4

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy