Heraclitus was warming himself by a stove when a group of visitors arrived hoping to meet the great philosopher and was surprised to see him in such mundane circumstances. Responding to their obvious disappointment, Heraclitus famously announces, “here too the gods dwell.” His simple statement locates meaning…..”here”…….by the stove, by the fire, where we feed and warm our bodies. Heraclitus, reminds his visitors and us that the philosophical self-examined life is not lead apart from everyday needs. In doing so, he shatters the ideality and the celebrity of the tranquil philosopher. Heraclitus’ statement has been closely examined by many scholars, most notably by Martin Heidegger.
I simply invoke this statement as an ancient recognition that the “mundane” is the un-thought, unexamined, unattended, unfelt and that everything, everyone, everyplace harbors the meaningful. A philosophical life is not one of removed, meditative, tranquility apart from human struggle. On the contrary, a philosophical life begins with the simple gesture of warming oneself and attending to the warmth, the fire, the pleasure, the heat, the glow, the light that makes us see, ourselves among and against things in the world.
We can find moments of self-examination and awareness even when we buy a blender or when we boil a pot of pasta. It is ordinary and mundane when I buy the cheapest or most expensive blender with no thought to how it affects my life, it is philosophical when I consider where the blender will live in my home when not in use, why I need it, how often will I use it. Boiling a pot of pasta is ordinary if it becomes an mechanical exercise of producing an efficient dinner. It becomes a human moment when I consider the heat, the water, the pot, the family, the pasta itself, dinner time, the host of variables that converge when I make dinner. This attention doesn’t mean, I’m pausing to ponder….it just means that when I’m boiling pasta, I’m boiling pasta…..I’m attentive and in the moment. Food can be easily be relegated to mundane meaninglessness. That’s why, to me, Heraclitus’ statement that “here too (by the stove) gods dwell” seems so poignant.
Counting calories, intellectualizing, carefully designing menus to meet allergies, nutrition, brand etc, is not the attention I’m talking about. Anthony Bourdain describes the moment of awareness and successful eating in Medium Raw (2011), as follows,
If cooking professionally is about control, eating successfully should be about submission, about easily and without thinking giving yourself over to whatever dream they’d like you to share. In the best-case scenario, you shouldn’t be intellectualizing what you’re eating while you’re eating it. You shouldn’t be noticing things at all. You should be pleasingly oblivious to the movements of the servers in the dining area and bus stations, only dimly aware of the passage of time. Taking pictures of your food as it arrives — or, worse, jotting down brief descriptions for your blog entry later — is missing the point entirely. You shouldn’t be forced to think at all. Only feel.
I am guilty of taking pictures and blogging…..but I also remember many moments, the best moments when I completely forgot to do so and just enjoyed what was placed before me. Philosophical self-awareness includes the Bourdain receptive sense of giving yourself over to your needs and wants as it meets what is given. It may seem like a contradiction, how can one be both self-aware and self-negating? But that edge between thinking and feeling, control and reception is the philosophical moment of living of life of meaning, whether buying a blender or boiling a pot of pasta. Think and feel. Heraclitus, wasn’t just thinking. He was feeling the heat.