Heraclitus was one of the very first philosophers, active around 500BC. What survives of his writings are quotations and comments in other authors, hence the title ‘Fragments’ given to them when they were collected together. Reading them this summer, I found that they provided a starting point for me to express my own fragmentary thoughts and reflections on the coronavirus pandemic through which we have all been living.
These ‘Fragments on Fragments’ are offered as little morsels for reflection; I hope you will find them useful at least as jumping off points, as I found Heraclitus, for you to make of them something for yourself. You may well go in other directions from mine, and that’s just fine. My own versions of Heraclitus’ sayings are sometimes more paraphrase than translation, unashamedly pointing in the direction I wanted to go. So please feel free to pick up the baton and run the race.
2 Most people do not understand what they have seen, nor do they learn from what they have experienced, but believe their own opinions
Heraclitus would not have been surprised by the epidemic of rumour and conspiracy theories, which has only spread faster during the pandemic. He had quite a low opinion of human beings’ ability really to learn from what was in front of their faces, compared to what intuitively seems right, which is often very different.
The facts are complicated, boring and difficult to disentangle. Stories are compelling, engaging and easy to believe. Taking a less judgemental line than Heraclitus, I think we should forgive ourselves and others for our desire to believe a good story which re-establishes us in our world. Knowing the story, knowing what’s really going on, even when it’s a story of conspiracy and of evil, is better than uncertainty.
The American journalist H L Mencken had it right: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” The only way in which I would differ is that there is not just one solution to our confusion and distress. A whole supermarket of theories is available, tailored to our existing fears and expectations. Professional quality videos on Facebook or Youtube, Twitter memes, Whatsapp ‘inside information’, or whatever other means we use to know ‘what’s really going on’: it’s there for us.
We need to forgive ourselves the desire to believe a good story; but that doesn’t mean we should give in to it. Switching off from the complexity will do us no good in the long run. For those who choose not to believe that COVID-19 really exists, it may well have fatal consequences in the short run, too. Reality is always messy, and especially so now. Living well in the midst of this time is about finding stories to tell that can give us strength to live as well as we can now, in the situation we’re really in.
Fragments on Fragments are written by the Right Reverend Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon in the Church of England. He introduces the whole series here. Alongside the words is an image by Alison Clark of a broken sand dollar, gilded in reference to the Japanese practice of kintsugi: you can find more of her work here.