Football, Soccer, and Heraclitus


After writing about experiencing reality through art, I talked to a friend of mine about common emotions. She thought that it was not important how I made sense intellectually of an emotion, but rather that through my questioning I sent this emotion her way, making her present in the moment, experiencing that which I experienced. “It is more than a madeleine,” she said. I answered saying something along these lines: perhaps what was there gave birth in me to an emotion; in fact, it somehow brought to surface that with which I was already pregnant; her witnessing to this birth occasioned her own giving birth to that with which she was already pregnant. Being there (in this town at that hour of the morning) was not required for this; the only thing that was required was presence, genuine presence, which connects one with oneself, for in oneself one already has the beauty of the entire world. I wrote more about this in Pregnant with the Beautiful.

My friend and I continued to discuss whether we needed a common language in order to have thiscommon” experience. In a sense, I think we do not. In another sense, we do. And I think Heraclitus has already told us about this.

In B107, he says,  κακοὶμάρτυρες ἀνθρώποισιν ὀφθαλμοὶ καὶ ὦτα βαρβάρους ψυχὰς ἐχόντων: poor witnesses for people are the eyes and ears of those who have barbarian souls. I will not proceed to an exhaustive analysis of the paragraph, but I will say a few things that have to do with soccer and football.

B107 says something about the fact that experience does not inform us; it must be something beyond that, a deep structure of the world—let’s call this structure logos, since we discuss Heraclitus, but I would name it Beauty—which speaks to us by means of all the things we experience with our senses. People with barbarian souls (Martha Nussbaum says that Heraclitus means here non-speakers of Greek), although they see and hear, do not understand this deep structure; there is something that these souls lack, perhaps some training, and that causes them to have private understandings. What they perceive are private things, the happenings in the world. They are like children who do not understand the jokes of their parents even if they understand the phrases. Barbarous souls perceive phrases (the events they experience), but only in a private manner, without understanding the meaning.

Consider two people, John and Peter, watching a football game together. John was brought up in the US, and so he grew up playing and watching football. He knows the rules of the game and judges each play according to these laws. Peter just arrived in the US from Europe. His whole life he played and watched what he has also called football—John calls this game soccer. For Peter, it is his first time watching a “football” game. He sees the same game John sees, but the events on the screen do not make sense to him. The moving of the ball does not seem to have a purpose. Peter’s untrained psychē (soul) makes his eyes and ears poor witnesses. He does not react to John’s moments of joy, nor to his despairs. He is absent, although his body is present (those who know Heraclitus will recognize the allusions to other fragments). John explains to Peter the rules, and little by little he begins to make sense of what he sees on the field. Of course, he still does not understand everything, and many of the players’ decisions do not make sense, although he has listened to John’s explanation. But John’s speech itself has not yet sunk in. He heard John, but he has not heard yet the rule of the game. In other words, he has not listened to the deep structure of the game, to its logos, to its beauty. It may be that, little by little, after experiencing several games, Peter begins to understand what these different utterings (the games) express—the rule of the game. At the end, he succeeds in distinguishing each play according to its nature (fragment B1, of course) precisely because they are what they are according to the rule of the game.


Heraclitus’ logos is certainly much more than the rules of a game. But for him, a barbarian soul is one that cannot connect with this logos that it should find within. Because of this inability, a barbarian soul perceives particular events and interprets them in a particular fashion, as if it had a private understanding. Such a thing takes place when there is no connection between this soul and the logos. But only a soul which has connection with the logos can read each event according to its nature. There is just one step from this yet unqualified connection between psychē and logos to the idea that the forms must be present within psychē in order for there to be genuine understanding. And maybe just another one to saying that people do not need a common language in order to communicate to one another, even if they still need a common Language: Beauty.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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One Response to Football, Soccer, and Heraclitus

  1. Bruce says:

    A “madeleine” in this context must refer to a famous passage in Proust's first novel of “Regaining lost time” which is translated “Remembrance of Things Past” (a line from a beautiful sonnet by Shakespeare). The occasion of eating a madeleine summons up memories of youth in a passage that proves critical in French Literature (and literate Psychologists) as it proposes memory being based as much on images as sensibility or “consciousness/conscience.”

    The reference to Heraclitus should properly refer to one's interpretation of the whole universe as being [either] fundamentally flux or as something organized rationally, as I think we know more about Heraclitus' doctrine from Plato than from Heraclitus himself. I'm sure there was no concept of the “emotional” in Heraclitus' time, nor of “feeling” as Proust affected our understanding of it. There is action and passion, with reason being proposed as the intellectual moderator, perhaps as “thought” occurs to the modern mind.

    The idea that we become “immediate” for one another simply in sharing the same circumstances is not easily justified. I daresay Shakespeare is closer to the mark.


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