The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

My concern here is not with presenting an encyclopedic understanding of philosophy and its history; I am in no way qualified even to attempt that. Instead, I will look at selected examples of philosophical ideas as manifestations of what I see the ouroboros as symbolizing.

As I’ve explained in a number of posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent, coiled in a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum whose extreme opposites meet and phase into each other, the biting head being one extreme, and the bitten tail being its opposite. The coiled middle of the serpent represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate points between the extremes.

The dialectic, often being a dialogue of two disagreeing philosophers presenting their opposing opinions in a back-and-forth debate, has been the basis of so much of the history of Western philosophy that I find it illustrative to use my ouroboros symbolism to systematize the dialectic. Such a systematization is what I will attempt here.

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

Thales, interestingly, conceived of the universe as having originated in water. He believed this origin to be literally true, as Aristotle explained it in his Metaphysics:

“Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing…There must be some nature–either one or more than one–from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water). He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (for that from which anything comes into being is its first principle)–he came to this belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6–11, 17-27…Barnes, page 63)

I, on the other hand–and as anyone who has read enough of my blog knows–interpret the water origin metaphorically, hence the name of my blog, Infinite Ocean. The rising and falling of the waves symbolize the opposing sides of the dialectic, the movements up and down each being a sublation of thesis (crest) and negation (trough).

It is from this notion of water that we move on to Heraclitus and his notion of endless movement. I discussed his ideas here. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, had this to say about the beliefs of Heraclitus: “All things come about through opposition, and the universe flows like a river. The universe is finite, and there is one world.” (Barnes, page 107)

To make a temporary digression from ancient Greece to ancient India, the endless, watery flow of everything in the universe has been used to describe Brahman, Atman being but a drop of this water. Furthermore, this universal Oneness, this monism that has been attributed to Thales, Heraclitus, and the Hindus is described as flowing and moving; yet this monism, pushed to its extreme, from its flowing to its extreme opposite, a Oneness of motionless stasis, is found in the philosophy of Parmenides and Zeno.

Parmenides insisted that notions of motion and plurality are illusions, the maya of the Hindus. All is one according to him; the universe has always been, is now, and always will be, an unmoving, unchangeable sphere. This Oneness is a reaction against Heraclitus (or vice versa) and against the philosophical pluralists, movements from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, shifts from one extreme to their dialectical opposites.

In fact, Parmenides’ young pupil (and lover), Zeno, went so far as to defend his teacher’s rigid monism by devising a number of paradoxes to show the illusory nature of motion, change, and divisibility. His paradoxes, again, were a reaction, a dialectical shift from bitten tail to biting head, against the pluralists. Zeno’s point, as understood by Plato, was that if his paradoxes–for example, of infinitesimally divided walking distances precluding the possibility of getting anywhere, or Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, or a never-moving arrow in flight–are absurd, so much more absurd are the pluralists’ ideas.

As Plato expressed Zeno’s meaning: “My book attacks those who say that several things exist, aiming to show that their hypothesis, that several things exist, leads to even more ridiculous results, if you examine it properly, than the hypothesis that only one thing exists.” (Plato, Parmenides…Barnes, page 152) It isn’t about the ideas in themselves; it’s about ideas in dialectical opposition to others.

Parmenides’ and Zeno’s unchanging monism can, in a way, be compared to the eternal soul of Atman in Brahman, which in turn was reacted against in Buddhism’s adoption of the doctrines of anattā (or anātman) and impermanence. Again we see the dialectical movement of one doctrine, felt to have been pushed too far (e.g., Atman is believed to exist despite a lack of empirical evidence), over to its opposite (no soul or permanent self), a shift from the biting head to the bitten tail of the ouroboros.

The dialectical relationship between opposites, as I symbolize with the serpent’s head and tail, can also be seen in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism. The white dot in yin, and the black dot in yang, are like the teeth of the head stabbed into the tail. One opposite is experienced in the other.

III: From Doubt to Certainty

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy can be found in the radical doubts of René Descartes. His doubting of the certainty of any kind of existence, including his own, found him passing beyond the bitten tail of extreme doubt to the biting head of cogito, ergo sum, which given more fully is dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

His very doubting, brought to such an extreme of doubts of existence, becomes the very existence, his own existence since he’s the one doing the doubting, that gives him a certain foundation for knowledge on which he can at least hope to build further certainties.

IV: Hegel and Marx

A few centuries later, we come to Hegel, who systematized the dialectic as a confrontation of, and resolution of, contradictions simplified in Fichte‘s triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” a formula Hegel neither used nor liked. For my part, I prefer the terms thesis, negation, and sublation, which instead of being in the simplified form of a triad, go round and round in a circle of endless manifestations of contradictions to be clashed together and sublated, over and over again.

A simple but convenient example of Hegel’s dialectic can be found in his Science of Logic. He opposes being and nothing, which I would represent respectively as the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail. Then, his sublation of these contradictions, becoming, I’d represent as the coiled middle of the ouroboros.

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy, as seen in Hegelian thought, can be found in his master/slave dialectic. Two men confront each other: a struggle ensues, and one attains mastery over the other. In my ouroboros symbolism, the master is the serpent’s biting head, and the slave is its bitten tail.

Over time, the slave’s creative efforts build up his sense of worth and usefulness to his master, as well as his own recognition of self-consciousness, a moving along the coiled body of the serpent from its tail to its head, to the point where his master finds himself utterly dependent on the slave for recognition of the master’s existence, and for the products the slave makes. Now the slave reaches the serpent’s biting head, and he trades places with his master. The other way to see this trading of places is to imagine the slave going in the opposite direction: right from the bitten tail over to the biting head, an excess of servitude phasing into its dialectical opposite, mastery.

The master/slave dialectic was a great inspiration for Karl Marx, who saw the Labour Theory of Value as the mechanism whereby the proletariat would one day overthrow the bourgeoisie. The workers need to know how it’s the total amount of their socially necessary labour time, not their bosses’ management, that creates value in commodities; and armed with this knowledge, they will be inspired to get organized and bring on a proletarian revolution.

Now, another dialectical shift from the biting head to the bitten tail can be found in Marx’s materialist reaction to Hegel’s philosophical idealism. Marx’s reversal of the notion that the world of ideas, of the spirit, brings about the physical world–typical of religious thinking–and making it instead that it’s the physical (i.e., having a brain) that creates the world of ideas (thinking), was him turning Hegel upside-down, standing him “on his head.” Though as Marx would have had it, Hegel’s dialectic was already “standing on its head,” and Marx simply put the dialectic back on its feet (Marx, pages 19, 102-103).

For Marx, the dialectic presents itself in physical manifestations throughout history, going from the ancient master/slave contradiction to that of the feudal landlord vs. the poor peasant. Within feudalism, though, a growing mercantile class, the first capitalists, would eventually overthrow their feudal lords and become the next ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

The suffering and struggling of those held down by the feudal lord, those including the rising capitalists, are thus symbolized in my system as those moving from the bitten tail of the ouroboros, along its coiled body in the middle, up to its biting head, where they would replace feudalism with capitalism. Such a bourgeois revolution was vividly depicted in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

The bourgeoisie, now the head biting the tail of the proletariat, are no longer revolutionary. The working class has attempted revolution in, for example, the Paris Commune, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Afghanistan‘s attempts at modernization in the late 1970s, but counterrevolution ruined all their hopes. We’ll have to see if a new socialist movement will rescue us all from late stage capitalism, and will sustain itself by repelling all future attempts at counterrevolution.

V: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer‘s pessimism was inspired by the reading of translations of ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts. Interestingly, his idea of the thing-in-itself, the essence of everything as understood without the deceiving senses, is will, the striving to be alive (“On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” 1; Schopenhauer, page 55). This conception is in contrast to the Eastern idea that the Oneness of everything, Brahman, Tao, etc., is the source of peace and bliss.

Now, this contrast I speak of is a dialectical one, for Atman, the soul of the willing individual, is to be identified with Brahman, the peaceful Oneness of the universe. The world is will, but it’s also representation, maya, a deception of the senses that, in its illusory nature, causes suffering. One ends suffering by negating the will-to-life, and thus tranquilizing it. When one understands Atman to be the same as Brahman, and to see plurality as an illusion, the ego is neutralized, the selfish desires of the will are extinguished, and one attains nirvana.

So life, for Schopenhauer, is essentially not worth living; being trapped in a body, with all its aches, pains, and ageing, is like being in a penal colony (“On the Suffering of the World,” 9, Schopenhauer, page 49). The extreme sadness such a realization engenders, though–the reaching of the serpent’s bitten tail–isn’t necessarily so bleak. One can pass the tail to the biting head of bliss by, paradoxically, extending one’s suffering, by suffering not all alone, but with other sufferers. Compassion is the basis of moral edification, according to Schopenhauer, and in compassion we find liberation from suffering, since compassion will drive us to end our suffering by ending that of those others we identify with in our pity for them.

The dialectical reaction against Schopenhauer’s pessimism can be seen in Nietzsche’s affirmation of the will-to-life, and his existentialism leads us to the next topic.

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

In existentialism, one confronts the meaninglessness of life, the bitten tail of the ouroboros, by giving life meaning, one’s own personal purpose, a shift over to the serpent’s biting head. In Kierkegaard‘s Christian existentialism, this giving of meaning to life, as an escape from meaninglessness, is in the form of a leap of faith in God, believing in Him despite a lack of proof of His existence.

With the atheistic existentialism of such writers as Nietzsche and Sartre, though, one lacks the crutch of a leap of faith in God, so one must create one’s own, personal meaning in life. This, after Kierkegaard’s counsel has failed us, means a revolution around the body of the ouroboros, from the biting head after our leap of faith from the tail, going all the way back to that tail the long way, then to go past to the biting head again.

With Camus‘s absurdism, though, even the making of one’s own meaning rests on flimsy ground, since the contradiction between unescapable meaninglessness and man’s need to find meaning is equally unescapable. Camus’s advice, therefore, is to act in defiance against meaninglessness, to strive for flashes of meaning, however evanescent such flashes may be, since one must accept meaninglessness along with our defiance of it.

Just as Sisyphus must endlessly roll that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down and to have to roll it up again…and again, and again, and again, so must we go in endless cycles along the coiled body of the ouroboros, shifting past the biting head to the bitten tail, and back around the body to the head again…and again, and again, and again…

Small wonder the ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal recurrence.

VII: Conclusion

So this absurdist advice can be seen as a variation on much of what I reviewed before: Zeno’s paradoxes of walking and getting nowhere, of swift Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, and of a flying, yet motionless arrow. Similarly, one is only certain of one’s existence through one’s extreme doubting; the sublation of two contradictions leads only to a new thesis to be negated and sublated, again and again and again. Will a socialist revolution lead to a classless, stateless, and money-less society? I continue to hope for it, in spite of the miserable state the world is in right now.

In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the way to blessedness is through compassion, or suffering on a larger, more magnanimous scale; this in a way is strikingly similar to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (i.e., a faith coupled with deeds of Christian charity), which is odd given Schopenhauer’s atheism…an atheism coupled with the inspiration of Eastern religion! And finding meaning is the solution to the impossibility of ever finding meaning? Again, it sounds like the bitten tail of atheism shifting over to the biting head of theism!

Reflecting on these observations, I find that the unchanging unity of all that Parmenides and Zeno insisted on is actually the ever-changing fluidity of Heraclitus. Parmenides’ stony sphere is really Thales’ water.

Atman = Brahman = anātman

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