“The fire and the Logos are one.” — Heraclitus
When I was a child, my mother would prepare lunchtime sandwiches for the family — tuna fish, baloney, turkey, fried salami with ketchup, and my favorite, which was peanut butter and jelly. She would always cut the square sandwich in half prior to serving it, transforming the original square into two smaller rectangles. But when I turned four or five, I was introduced to a very different type of sandwich, one pregnant with meaning and mystery.
I remember that fateful day when my father, mother, sister and I hopped into our Buick and drove to a luncheonette, just a few blocks from our apartment, in Brooklyn. My parents perused the menu and decided to order for me something that I’d never tasted before, a BLT sandwich (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato). When the waitress arrived with our order, I was shocked — my sandwich was cut diagonally! Wow, I’d never seen anything like this before! The square sandwich been transformed into two triangles! I stared at it in ecstatic wonderment.
My father, smiling, awoke me from my trance, “Mark… Mark! Aren’t you going to eat your sandwich?” Finally, I raised one of the triangular halves to my lips and bit into it. The delectable taste — the powerful contrast of the bacon with the lettuce and the tomato — was ecstasy, and proved to be congruent with the sandwich’s magical triangularity.
I had experienced, at that auspicious moment, a revelation, an insight into the nature of ultimate reality. But I wasn’t able to discern what had been revealed to me, for I lacked the categories needed to translate a symbol, i.e., triangular sandwich, into conceptual language. Needless to say, I requested that my mother cut all future sandwiches for me diagonally.
My childhood experience at the Brooklyn luncheonette was long ago and far away. For I now reside in Louisville, Kentucky, and I’d all but forgot about it. But this past April something unexpected evoked that childhood memory, and plunged me back into the mystery. I attended a combination networking event and Celtic festival, held outdoors, at an Irish bar and restaurant, here in Louisville. I was wearing, among other things, a blue blazer. In my blazer’s top front pocket, I had placed a multicolored silk pocket square. I folded it, as I am wont to do, into two or three triangles, so that it resembled the sails of a sailboat. That intuitively seemed to me the right way to fold a handkerchief.
As it turned out, there was another fellow at the event, also wearing a blazer with a pocket square. He had folded his, though, tidily into the shape of a rectangle, which protruded out of his pocket only about half an inch. I went over to him and complimented him on how neat his pocket square looked, and classy too. I was being cordial, but insincere, for I found its square shape to be boring, oppressively so. Indeed, it cut to the core of my alienation, my sense of being “a stranger in a strange land,” a bongo-playing beatnik amidst 1950’s “squares,” i.e., those who have never experienced Kant’s “Copernican Revolution,” his reversal of values, whereupon the object is but a category of the subject. They are the benighted who regard customs, values and beliefs as objectively valid.
There was a time, of course, when “square” was an honorific term. FDR promised America a “Square Deal,” suggesting equality, fairness, and justice; no crooked angles. But that symbolism, in regard to square, was long ago. Perhaps, it was a better time, long before people spun round and round, as postmodern people often do today, in a maelstrom of groundless subjectivity. And so which is better: a claustrophobic objectivity or a vertiginous subjectivity? Neither is better, for they are both hellish. There is, though, a way beyond both dead ends in life’s labyrinth, but that is another story.
In any case, it was then — amidst the noisy chatter of the networkers, the bagpipers and the fiddle players, too much Guinness, and my serendipitous encounter with fellow with the square pocket square — that the memory of my epiphany in the Brooklyn luncheonette, that illuminating moment when I ate my first diagonally shaped BLT sandwich, was aroused after a decades old slumber. Yes, my revulsion at the pocket square offers an important clue. Let us see what further insights philosophy might bring to bear on this mystery…
The Symbolism of Square and Triangle
Symbolically, a square is a symbol of order, identity, coherence and being. It’s the fact that it has four equal sides that makes it so. Thus, there are the four seasons, the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and the four directions (North, South, East, and West). Windows and doors are of course rectangles rather than squares, but they too represent orientation and order.
But at the heart of a square lies two triangles. A triangle, lacking the stability of a square — is in motion. Philosophical dialectics are three terms — like Fichte’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — and so are dances, like the Tango. Thus, if a square symbolizes Being, a triangle symbolizes Becoming. And if Sartre discerned a secret liquidity — symbolizing the consciousness of the “for-itself” — at the core of Being, I have discerned a secret triangularity at the heart of the square, i.e., a dynamism at the heart of order, stability, and identity. Apparently, that dynamism energizes me and finds multiple expressions in my interests and activities. For example, it’s not surprising that I’ve always been intrigued by those dynamics that act as the catalyst for a person’s inner-development, during a life transition.
Heraclitus — who contended that the arche, or first principle from which everything has its origin, is fire — is the philosopher of change and transformation. Although it might not appear to be so, everything is continually changing such that we aren’t able to step in the same river twice, as Heraclitus contended. Alas, Heraclitus has been misunderstood. People remember the part about reality being fire, but Heraclitus didn’t leave it at that. Rather he stated, quite paradoxically, “The fire and the Logos are one.”
I.E., although change is king, the changes that we perceive are lawful. But this lawfulness is not anything like scientific laws — such as Newton’s Laws of Motion or the laws of thermodynamics — which are intelligible, i.e., graspable by the mind. Rather Heraclitus’ “Logos” is akin to another cosmic law, Lao Tzu’s “Tao.” It’s the inscrutable nature of the Logos and its identity with the fire that requires the mind to ascend to a higher level of cognition, known as “the mystical.”
It’s not correct, then, to say that a square is nothing more than two triangles, for that would amount to reductionism. Rather we might say that Being (the square) and Becoming (the triangle) are two modalities of reality, and are ultimately the same. By analogy, quantum physicists tell us that light can be viewed as traveling in discreet packets of energy or it can be viewed as continuous waves. What appears to be a contradiction is — to those who are hip to the epistemological limits of reason — a paradox.
And so that is the intuition that I had grasped “through a glass darkly” at the Coney Island Brooklyn luncheonette and many years latter at the Celtic networking festival. It has been a rabbit hole that has taken me on a journey into the depths of a question.
Commerical: Besides being a mystic, Mark is a business advisor: www.sherlockzen.com