The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Stephanie Holton
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
It’s not quite as neatly packaged as one text, but the fragments of the philosopher Heraclitus are a firm favourite – the fact that they aren’t one straightforward book is part of the fun, though!
When did you first come across these fragments?
As an undergraduate in Edinburgh – one of my final Greek modules was on Presocratic philosophy, and I just loved it. We were quite a small class (so small our lecturer made us fresh coffee for each session!), and we’d meet every week to read our way through everything from Thales to Democritus. It was a lot of fun, and just so different to any of the texts I’d studied before – and as someone who had started Greek from scratch at university, it was probably also a little more forgiving than translating books upon books of epic poetry. It’s something I really enjoy being able to share with my undergraduates now – I snuck some Presocratics into one of our first year survey modules, and was delighted when more than half the students chose a commentary on Xenophanes over Homer in their final exam (Xenophanes would be pleased, too!).
Can you tell me a bit about Heraclitus and his context?
Heraclitus is one of the “Presocratics”, which is an umbrella term for the various early Greek philosophers who are busy with their inquiry into nature throughout the 6th and 5th centuries BC (making a few of them, then, actually contemporary with Socrates). We can’t date Heraclitus precisely, but he seems to have been active around 500BC. He comes from Ephesus, and allegedly wrote one book which he left in the Temple of Artemis there. We don’t have a nice, neatly preserved version of his work – instead, it survives through bits and pieces (or, more formally, fragments and testimonia) which appear in later writings. He has a reputation for being quite misanthrophic, and openly criticises his predecessors – including Homer and Hesiod – as not really actually understanding anything about the world. He also writes in a sort of enigmatic style: lots of playing around with language and intricate layers of meaning. Like the other Presocratics, Heraclitus is interested in explaining nature and the natural world, but he is the first to really explicitly turn his attention to questions about human life and experience, too. He’s probably most well-known for his theory of universal flux – whether through the catchy panta rhei – ‘everything flows’, or his river fragments, which seem to enjoy a renewed life online as inspirational quotes.
What is it about this material that appeals to you most?
The challenge of working with it! I like the sense that you are dealing with a quite complex puzzle, not just because of the state it survives in but also because it is written in this deliberately riddling style. It’s tricky, and it’s sort of weird, and it can be very frustrating – but when you finally start to unpack it and see how it fits together, it is really rewarding. Heraclitus’ ideas also pop up a lot in the work of one of my favourite non-classical writers, Philip K Dick: anything that joins together Classics and sci-fi is always a winner.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I have a very energetic three year old son, so usually something messy and muddy! We’re lucky to be close to Jesmond Dene in Newcastle which is a huge Victorian landscaped park, full of magical nooks and crannies and ruins to explore. I’m also really enjoying Animal Crossing: New Horizons at the minute as an escape from the realities of lockdown. If all else fails, The Mountain Goats are my go-to source for cheering up: John Darnielle is an incredible songwriter (and there are plenty of classical references in his work!).
Dr Stephanie Holton is a Lecturer in Classics at Newcastle University. Her teaching and research explore early Greek thought – especially the interactions between literature, philosophy and medicine – and she’s also very interested in ancient language pedagogy. She is currently finishing her first monograph Sleep and Dreams in Early Greek Thought, in between teaching everything and anything. She can be found on Twitter as @drstephholton where she is probably just retweeting classics memes.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.