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Αἰών as Virtual Multiplicity: Durational Thinking in Heraclitus and Empedocles

Richard Ellis

University of California, Los Angeles

Gilles Deleuze’s longstanding engagement with Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time as duration (e.g. Bergsonism, Difference and Repetition, Cinema I and II) is well-acknowledged. This paper evaluates the benefits of using Deleuze’s Bergsonian affiliations to explore Heraclitus’ own thinking on time, as well as its consequent effect upon Empedocles. It will employ Deleuze’s use of Bergsonian concepts such as duration and virtuality, as well as chart how Deleuze’s own ideas of time as a “crystal-image” and as “event” can help elucidate the ways Heraclitus and Empedocles explore the valences of αἰών (from eternity to relativity) and the implications for their ontological and epistemological theories.

Heraclitus employs the term αἰών in a key fragment (DK B.52) that provides an image for the world-process: Αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων πεσσεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληί (“Life/Time is a child playing, moving pessoi. Kingship is of the child”). It is the contention of this paper that Heraclitus’ use of αἰών does not ascribe a passivity to time, but conceptualizes it as a force that awaits actualization in a series of divergent directions. Moreover, Heraclitus’ repeated engagement with the activity of children at play grounds his understanding of time’s virtuality as a creative force of differentiation and as an elaboration of the new.

For Deleuze, the value in durational thinking lies in its possibility to disclose other durations beyond our own: it allows us to think beyond the human condition. Heraclitus’ powerful, yet vulnerable child, functions across his work precisely as one such vector, prompting a conception of time beyond a spatialized and chronological succession as seen from the human - read “sleepwalking adult” (DK B.1) - perspective. Furthermore, Deleuze’s understanding of Bergsonian duration noted how the concept developed across Bergson’s thinking from its original denotation of a psychological state (a subjectivity of duration) to an expansive ontology of the complex whereby things themselves possessed duration and have movement. This insight helps frame the meaning of material objects in Heraclitus’ world that provide the occasion for the actualization of the virtual, be it a bow, lice or the sea.

Empedocles’ use of αἰών can also be situated within the terms of Bergson’s critique of the assumption of a mere difference in degree between spatialized time and a primary eternity. In one fragment, the αἰών of his kosmos oscillating under the dynamic powers of Love and Strife is said to possess "no steady foundation to its becomings" (τῇ γίγνονταί τε καὶ οὔ σφισιν ἔμπεδος αἰών, DK.B.17) as beings come together and are torn apart. Yet from a Parmenidean global perspective, αἰών also serves as an eternal container that can never be emptied of these two powers: ἧι γὰρ καὶ πάρος ἔσκε, καὶ ἔσσεται, οὐδέ ποτ᾽, οἴω, τούτων ἄμφοτέτων κενεώσεται ἄσπετος αἰών (“As they were formerly, so also will they be, and never, I think, shall infinite aion be voided of these two,” DK.B.16). 

This seeming stasis can be unlocked, however, through adopting a Deleuzian approach to two other uses of αἰών that link it to i) a mode of enlarged perception that marks the ability of the wise man to reach through time, and across generations (DK B.129) and ii) the concomitant durational force of objects and ideas that have a life and movement of their own (DK. B. 120). Thus, even as Empedocles appears to lay the groundwork for a Platonic metaphysics of eternity and degraded becomings, his durational thinking with regard to epistemology points toward time as a virtuality where planes of the past, present and an unactualized future overlap.

In conclusion, this paper will explore how Deleuze’s concepts of the open whole and the plane of immanence tie Heraclitus and Empedocles’ thought together, allowing us to break down the distinction between macrocosmic physics and microcosmic epistemology.

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Deterritorializing Classics

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