127. Heraclitus on Justice and Strife

Consider an aphorism attributed to Heraclitus of Epheseus (active circa 500 BC):

“They do not understand how, while being at variance, it is in agreement with itself. There is a back-turning connection, like that of a bow or lyre” (frag. 51; translated by T.M. Robinson).

One way to interpret this saying is that forms of agreement – like the well-tuned strings of a lyre in tension with its neck and the functional excellence of a taut bow – are made possible because of their variance. It is not that agreement emerges after variance is overcome; rather, variance is agreement.

Another interpretation comes from Plato’s dialogue Symposium in which the character Eryximachus give a speech in praise of love. According to Eryximachus, a doctor must make it possible for the things that are most hateful in the body to be friends and love one another. The medical profession is under the guidance of the god of love: by imposing love upon the antagonistic elements of the body the doctor is able to “…replace one desire with another, and produce the requisite desire when it is absent, or, if necessary, remove it when it is present”. He then speaks about music, and, to illustrate his point, alludes to Heraclitus and is critical of him (187c):

“That the same is true of music is plain to anyone who gives the smallest attention to the subject, and this is presumably what Heraclitus means to say, though he is not very happy in his choice of words, when he speaks of a unity which agrees with itself by being at variance, as in the stringing of a bow or lyre. It is, of course, quite illogical to speak of a concord being in discord, or of its consisting of factors which are still in discord at the time when they compose it, but probably what he meant to say was that the art of music produces a harmony out of factors which are first in discord but subsequently in concord, namely treble and bass notes.”

Thus Eryximachus takes the simultaneous conflict present in a spatial object like a bow or lyre and transforms this conflict into a temporal process that, with the aid of love, can come to a resolution.

We can apply these two insights to justice. Heraclitus observes that justice is strife rather than something that emerges from the overcoming of strife: “One must realize that war is common, and justice strife, and that all things come to be through strife”(frag. 80). This is a radical and troubling insight. Could it be true? Most of us think justice is the end point of a process in which strife is resolved. This sensible view is consistent with Eryximachus’ insight about concord being the resolution of discord. But we can also think about justice structurally and observe that there are certain social relations, like the balance of political powers within a country and between competing countries, that are made possible because various antagonistic forces are balanced like a functional bow or lyre. If so, we should be wary of attempts to remove strife from them since doing so can only bring forth injustice.

For my post on Heraclitus’ views of barking humans, go here.

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