What is “The Human” – Part One – Rational Animal or Zoon Logon Echon


The two Greek definitions of “the human”, and therefore the Self insofar as my Self is a human Self, have to be understood not as alternates but as interdependent. The first, ζῷον or νθρωπον λόγοϛ ἔχων (zoon or anthropon logon echon) , is usually translated as “animal rationale”, although there is something correct in the translation, it is hopelessly inadequate. The second, βροτός, or “mortal” intends mortal as not merely subject to death in a general sense but in a specifically human sense, i.e. we are always subject to death via our awareness of it, an awareness not found in animals or plants, to our knowledge.

Although ζῷον λόγοϛ ἔχων is best known as the definition of Aristotle, found in various forms in the Ethics and Politics, it did not originate with Aristotle. Indeed its other formulation as νθρωπον λόγοϛ ἔχων which appears at first glance to deal more directly with the human (as anthropos) was not even a definition of the human but of φύσιϛ or physis, itself a crucial term for Aristotle as another term for what is, as Being.

The notion of Logos is dealt with in two fragments of Heracleitas, often seen as exceedlingly obscure.

The idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos and “the Logos is common,” is expressed in two famous but obscure fragments:

This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is. But other people fail to notice what they do when awake, just as they forget what they do while asleep. (DK 22B1)

For this reason it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding. (DK 22B2)

The meaning of Logos also is subject to interpretation: “word”, “account”, “principle”, “plan”, “formula”, “measure”, “proportion”, “reckoning.”

Though Heraclitus “quite deliberately plays on the various meanings of logos“, there is no compelling reason to suppose that he used it in a special technical sense, significantly different from the way it was used in ordinary Greek of his time.[31]

The later Stoics understood it as “the account which governs everything,” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraclitus#Logos

Heracleitas words are significant in that, while the Greeks certainly already thought conceptually, that is, rational-historically, at the time of his writings, the conceptual had not yet itself been conceptualized in the culmination of the first beginning of Western thinking, i.e. in Plato as the Eternal Ideas.

Private understanding” can also be translated as “opinion”, which is opposed to understanding, and Heracleitas disdain for it is clear in other fragments.

Heracleitas‘ thought must be thought together with his contemporary Parmenides, not least because, while they appear to be contraries, it is Heracleitas himself that is insistent that contraries are the selfsame, or one, looked at appropriately.

Parmenides famous statement το γαρ αυτό νοεΐν εστίν τε καί είναι, Fragm. Β1.3 (usually translated as “For Thinking and Being are the same.”) by no means implies that subjectivity determines reality, as some modern commentators would have it, since neither subjectivity nor reality in the modern sense had been thought. The relation between Heracleitas and Parmenides is focused in the terms νοεΐν and εστίν. The latter term does not mean “thinking” as an activity but understanding as a mode of being, delimited by νοεΐν. είναι is translated usually simply as the infinitive of “being” ( το γαρ αυτό is assumed to be nominative and not accusative, more literally, “for they are the same”).

The relation between Heracleitas thinking of Logos and Parmenides statement about understanding and being arises from Logos always being foundationally the Logos of Being for Heracleitas, epitomized but not exhausted by natural language as a correspondence to Being, itself thought as what presences. Thus the Logos of Being is a sense both the understanding of Being (as what is, or presences) and the Being of understanding as what responds, is “had” by Being. What is, as what presences, is thought as the unstructured in Parmenides, as the change of what changes in Heracleitas, and these also in a sense are the selfsame, as what is unstructured is is process of change, thought in a pre-Platonic way.

What then does ζῷον signify here? If we think of the definition of physis, where ζῷον is substituted by ἄνθρωπον, it becomes more obvious that ζῷον is used in its earlier meaning, not as “animal” but as “life” (azoic means nonliving, not nonanimal). But “life” is difficult enough to define in English (look at the philosophies of “life” from Nietzsche to Dilthey for examples of the difficulty), never mind to understand how it was thought in a Greek manner. Yet in this term we find the root of the necessesity of the other definition: βροτός, mortal, as life aware of its mortality or finitude.

Είναι is already a specific interpretation of Being. Being as “that which is”, or entities, is ὄντα, from the root ὄν, as used in the phrase ὄντα ὡς ὄντα (Being as Being). That the Greeks used many terms for intepretations of Being goes with Aristotle’s famous statement that “Being is said in many ways”. Yet Aristotle’s well known dealings with Being in the Metaphysics are based on a not well noticed oddity in thinking about the topic. Unwilling to ascribe actuality to Being, Aristotle treats it as a concept, yet as a concept it cannot be some sort of being, nor some sort of genus, even the highest, but is figurative, non-conceptual. That Plato’s Ideas are the concept of the conceptual itself reaches the limit of its reflexive power in Aristotle’s treatment of Being. Aristotle is unwilling to sacrifice experience for the purely mathematical as Plato, following Parmenides, did. Yet Being as understood by the earlier “natural” philosophers (the pre pre-Socratics such as Empedocles) defies conceptualization precisely because it is not thinkable within rational-historical conceptual thinking. This incidentally points to the concealed provenance of the rational-historical, conceptual mode of thinking in the pre-rational as figurative, metaphorical. How the rational-historical arose from the pre-rational, pre-historical, figurative thinking that preceded (and always supplements) it is a matter for another time.

The relation between φύσιϛ and the definition of man is the last clue in attempting to reconstruct the original Greek thinking of the human being in the West, which is crucial as in being pre-Roman, human had not been reduced to the “roman”, or “citizen”, nor had it been reduced (a la Descartes) to some sort of “psyche” attached to a “body” in some mutated manner.

Φύσιϛ, physis or phusis, is obviously an important word for Aristotle. It is generally translated as “movement” but in the sense of what generates movement, rather than the result. It is in this sense that Φύσιϛ also meant a thing’s inner mode of being, its whatness, and thus is an early form of both substantia and quidditas. Φύσιϛ was derived from the verb φύω (the nominalization of what was originally verbal is common in the change from pre-rational to rational-historical thinking). Φύω, for its part, means to bring-forth in the sense of a self bringing-forth as growth. While it thus is a kind of production, it is strictly differentiated from human production as τέχνη (techne). Thus in opposition to modern notions where growth is a form of movement, indeed all change is reduced to essentially spatial movement, initially movement and change were thought from the idea of growth as a kind of self-production.

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