NS: What is at stake in the questions of time and consistency that you’re probing through your inquiries into ancient philosophy?
PLM: If you’ve ever lost someone you loved, or ever deeply regretted something you’ve done, then time is a problem for you. We’ve all longed for the past, whether to be with someone or to be without some deed. Nietzsche expressed this very clearly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where his hero says that our impotence before “greedy time” makes us resentful of it. To cope with this resentment, we dream of hinterworlds outside of time, eternities that promise to redeem us from its greed. There, everything will be made whole, every beloved will live again. So goes the dream. The sort of rationality pioneered by Parmenides—consistency—makes time impossible, and so when Plato combined it with the philosophical religion of Pythagoreanism, the result was a moralized rejection of time. We can cope with greedy time, for Plato, by seeing it as not only unreal, but evil. Our real life is not here, but there, among the Forms in eternity. If that’s so, however, why not commit suicide and get there immediately? This is a serious problem for Platonism. To avoid its nihilism and affirm our life in this world, we need a way to understand time as fully real. I argue in the book that Heraclitus offers this way.
Time is inconsistent if it is composed of moments. Thanks to the paradoxes of Zeno, Parmenides’ student, Aristotle saw this very clearly. If time is composed of moments, each one must come into being and then pass away. But when? A moment cannot be born in itself, nor can it die in itself, without violating the principle of non-contradiction. Neither can a moment be born or die in another moment, for that, too, would be contradictory. So, the principle of non-contradiction forbids moments, as Aristotle saw, yet it also requires them—a consequence he did not recognize. “The same thing,” he writes, “cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time.” Now, referring to fire’s relation to its fuel, Heraclitus called it “need and satiety.” Consistency demands that we analyze this apparent contradiction by distinguishing the duration of fire’s burning into different times. But no matter how finely we do so—ultimately, to the point of moments without duration—the contradiction persists. And likewise for other temporal processes; fire is just a particularly vivid illustration of the problem.
Although philosophers today overlook it, Hegel thought this problem serious enough to develop a new logic. British Hegelians were thus also worried about it. Bertrand Russell began in this tradition, but later rebelled against it to found analytic philosophy—which would venerate, not coincidentally, a logic without tense.
Parmenides's consistent reason fails to accommodate time, whereas the Heraclitean alternative succeeds. Heraclitus was the ancient alternative to Platonism. Where Platonism, indebted as it is to the Pythagorean devotion to reason as consistency / non-contradiction, sees an unquenchable rivalry between transcendence and immanence, Heraclitus synthesizes the two. He can do this because his understanding of reason included analysis—the separating out of things to understand them—and synthesis—putting things together. Heraclitus thus sublated the antithesis between time and eternity. Paying close attention to time and any process in time, we have to acknowledge that it is contradictory at every moment. There should therefore be a higher-order logic that accounts for the operation of reason whenever it thinks about time or itself. This is what I call chiasmus.
Chiasmus is a way of thinking. Whenever we wish to understand anything as temporal, including ourselves, chiasmus is needed. Using chiasmus we can see the difference in time and feel the summons of eternal unity; eternity is present at every moment of time.
Christianity blends the eternity of Platonism with the temporality of the Hebrew bible. Time can be holy. Think of the liturgical calendar. Augustine wrestles with this in the Confessions in order to make sense of the Incarnation. From antiquity, chiasmus has been used as a symbol for Christ.