Nathan Manley on ekpyrōsis
“Fragment on [ekpyrōsis]” is one poem in a sequence of twenty eight so-called “fragments” that I wrote to mimic the format of scholarly translations of Pre-Socratic treatises on cosmology. With a handful of notable exceptions, these texts survive only in disjointed remnants and make up an unusual and tantalizing genre of ancient literature which unexpectedly obsessed my attention last year.
When antiquity transmits to us the partial remains of a text, we receive those remains in one of two ways. Very rarely, a piece of writing will materially endure the vicissitudes of history until it resurfaces, often under extraordinary or strange circumstances, many centuries after its initial production and final circulation in the ancient world; a piece of papyrus, for instance, or some other kind of proto-paper is recovered by archaeologists in such a state that it remains at least partially legible. More frequently than acquiring such an artifact through an exceedingly good fortune of historical circumstance, we retrieve fragments of lost texts from ancient or medieval commentators who quoted them. The Cilician commentator Simplicius, writing in the sixth century AD at the last Neoplatonist school in Athens, was undoubtedly one of the modern historian’s best unwitting collaborators in this respect. Simplicius’ commentaries are copious, rich, tedious, and utterly indispensable to restoring our knowledge of pre-scientific cosmological perspectives of the distant past.
Ekpyrōsis, to turn now to the matter at hand, was a cosmological belief in the periodic conflagration of the universe and an idea which greatly influenced the philosophers of the Hellenic age, namely Plato, Aristotle, and the Platonist and Peripatetic schools that succeeded them. The doctrine of ekpyrōsis, however, is sometimes attributed by historians to the Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus, whose fragmentary work survives in the quotations of later writers and commentators (including Aristotle, who cites him in Rhetoric as an example of bad style). Even among his contemporaries in the sixth century BC Heraclitus’ was often hailed with a telling epithet: “the Obscure.” Given the consequent difficulty of interpreting what remains of his only book, On Nature, the attribution of the ekpyrotic cycle to Heraclitus’ school of natural philosophy can be made only hesitantly, despite the apparent emphasis of Heraclitean cosmology on the primacy of fire among the elements. Nevertheless, the notion of some recurring, fiery, and total consumption of the earth utterly captivated the ideological descendants of Pre-Socratic Greece. Plato, in a bizarre treatise on the creation of the world called the Timaeus (a work which curiously lapses into a kind of medical text in its final pages), writes of a cyclical destruction of the earth by fire occurring at a periodicity of once every 36,000 years, an interval which scholars have since termed the “Platonic” or “Great Year.” Though the Stoic philosophers of the late Hellenic period were undoubtedly the first to popularize this particular dream of destruction and renewal, such fantasies have by turns enchanted and haunted human beings down the long centuries since. There is what might be called an ekpyrotic or eschatological impulse throbbing beneath many of our most potent visions of the future.
Insofar as the historical record is sufficient to indicate, humanity’s every generation has imagined that the times in which it was living might be the very last. Proceeding from our fears about the horrific capacities of the future is a phantasmagoric stream of apocalyptic literature, peopled with the risen dead, with creatures alternately grotesque and sublime, with dire angelic beings flexing wing-stalks inlaid with eyes. I have often suffered to fester in me, if not exactly these monstrous visions, then certainly the dark apprehensions which underlie them. I look out on the increasingly nightmarish implication of humanity’s presence on this planet with nothing less than a vague sense of apocalypse. If it be true 1) that mankind, being uniquely capable of stewarding the environs of its own activity (living space it necessarily shares with other living beings), is charged thus with the moral imperative of stewardship; 2) that our species’ best efforts at stewardship have precipitated the desperate realities of floral and faunal collapse, of the disruption of biogeochemical cycles which only a century and a half ago seemed intractable, timeless, fundamental; and 3) that humanity has swelled to such a stage that it has now taken up the mantle of a geologic force, tending inalterably toward extinction— If all this be true, then the only possible vision of a better world that presents itself to me is a world empty of human beings, a world over which some lost divinity drifts in bereavement, silent and alone, above the cockroaches and dandelions—whatever pertinacious forms of life still scuttle and bloom among our cities’ cinders.
In both the routines of daily life and the habits of mind by which they are accompanied, we must reject this vision.
What fascinates me in the end about the literary fragments of classical antiquity is not merely the prospect of contact with some little shard of thought which time has rendered beautiful and strange in its illegibility, but the stark and fecund emptiness of the missing text around the fragments. In that void, one longs to touch something like the spirit of a god, hovering over deep, primordial water.