Before becoming a student of Socrates, Plato had studied with Cratylus, a student of Heraclitus. Later, Plato wrote a dialogue in which he imagines Socrates trying to explain to Cratylus why Heraclitus is wrong and he, Socrates, is right. In this dialogue, titled Cratylus or Of the Uprightness of Words, Socrates and Cratylus discuss the meaning of words. Socrates thinks that words have a meaning, or that at least certain words like goodness or beauty have a precise meaning, that is not immediately accessible to comprehension but can be discovered. Plato’s Socrates attacks the idea that Heraclitus expresses when he writes that we can never bathe twice in the same river. If everything changes and is in a perpetual flux, it is impossible to have words that have a meaning:
Socrates: Nor can we reasonably say, Cratylus, that there is knowledge at all, if everything is in a state of transition and there is nothing abiding; for knowledge too cannot continue to be knowledge unless continuing always to abide and exist. But if the very nature of knowledge changes, at the time when the change occurs there will be no knowledge; and if the transition is always going on, there will always be no knowledge, and, according to this view, there will be no one to know and nothing to be known. (Plato, 1937, Cratylus, 440a and b, p. 229)
This is the dilemma. Eryximachus certainly speaks of dialectics, but of dialectics that envisage only two types of organizations: harmonious and disharmonious. Harmonious organizations favor the emergence of a state of health, happiness, pleasure, and love that leads to the most sacred dimensions of life. Disharmonious organizations lead to hatred, illness, chaos, and the destruction of all that humans have tried to create. In other words, Eryximachus relates harmony to goodâ and discord to evil.â Heraclitus, on the other hand, supposes that the same elements can be organized in multiple ways, notably harmonious and conflicted, and that from each type of organization can emerge creative and destructive dialectics:
1. A conflicting organization can be creative.
2. A creative organization is not necessarily constructive (an illness also constructs itself).
3. This implies that a harmonious and creative organization can be destructive.
Even though by temperament I find myself more at ease with the thinking of Heraclitus than that of Plato, my experience does not permit me to eliminate an approach to the detriment of another. They both have their utility and their limits. In music, for example, I adore the seeking for harmony that I hear in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, and I am fascinated by Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that contains nothing other than dissonance.