The thoughts of two famous Pre-Socratic philosophers may offer insight into the philosophical foundation of mediation: “You cannot step twice into the same river,” attributed to Heraclitus, and “Of all things the measure is man,” attributed to Protagoras.
“You cannot step twice into the same river.”
Heraclitus (535– 475 BC) lived in Ephesus, an important city on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor, not far from Miletus, the birthplace of Greek philosophy. He was of distinguished parentage. Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. From the solitary life he led, and still more from the riddling nature of his philosophy, he was called “The Obscure” and “The Weeping Philosopher.”
He used prose that predisposed him to obscurity. He criticized conventional opinions and attacked the authority of poets and others reputed to be wise. Many consider Heraclitus a partial precursor of skepticism.
Heraclitus was the philosopher of the eternal change. Unlike the Milesian philosophers whose subject was the material beginning of the world, Heraclitus focused instead on the internal rhythm of nature which moves and regulates things. He expressed the notion of eternal change in terms of the continuous flow of the river which always renews itself.
One interpretation of the metaphor of the changing river is that all things are changing so we cannot encounter them twice.
Another interpretation, much more subtle, is that some things remain the same only by changing. One kind of lasting material reality exists by virtue of the constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here, constancy and change are not opposed, but inextricably connected.
This framework may enlighten our understanding of a human being from birth to death. Flux appears not as the destruction of constancy; rather, it is a necessary condition. Change and conflict are fundamental, normal aspects of human existence. To resist change is to resist life.
“Of all things, the measure is man.”
Protagoras (490 – 420 BC) was born in Abdera, in Ancient Greece. He died close to the age of 70 after 40 years as a practicing Sophist. He was the first known Sophist to be paid for teaching rhetoric (the science of oratory) and related subjects. His teaching was so valued that Plato said he earned more than the combined earnings of Phidias and ten other sculptors.
He was well-known in Athens and became a friend of Pericles. Plutarch relates a story in which the two spent an entire day discussing an interesting point of legal responsibility that probably involved the philosophical question of causation. In an athletic contest a man was accidentally hit and killed by a javelin. Was his death to be attributed to the javelin, to the man who threw it, or to the authorities responsible for the conduct of the games?
The Athens society in which Protagoras lived was extremely litigious. Various political and personal rivalries were customarily carried forward through lawsuits. Since Athenians were required to represent themselves in court, it was essential that wealthy men learn to speak well in order to defend their property. Not doing so would put them at the mercy of anyone who wanted to extort their money. This made the teachings of Protagoras extremely valuable. He taught his students about the relationship between the speakers’ intent and the meanings of their words.
Protagoras was a teacher who addressed themes connected to virtue and political life. “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not” is his most famous adage.
Accordingly, abstractions like truth and justice are relative to the individual speaker and listener. Good and bad is merely what seems good and bad to the individuals involved. Laws evolve gradually by agreement brought about through debate in democratic assemblies and thus can be changed by further debate.
For many conservative Athenians Protagoras’ teachings held dangerous social consequences as the oratorical skills he taught could potentially promote what some Athenians considered injustice or immorality.
The consequences of the skepticism in Sophistic enlightenment appeared far from benign. Furthermore, Protagoras’ techniques were adopted by various wily characters the following generation giving sophistry the bad name it still has for clever (but deceptive) verbal trickery.
In response to Protagoras and his fellow Sophists’ views, Plato (427– 348 BC) and his followers searched for transcendent forms or knowledge which could somehow anchor moral judgment.
The Judicial System and Mediation
If we overlay the teachings of Heraclitus and Protagoras with the current legal system wherein a third party decides the outcome of a conflict, and mediation, wherein the parties decide themselves the outcome of their conflict, we can make the following observations:
As a conflict resolution system, the Judiciary is founded on the premises that transcendent realities and values exist, and that the world is composed of facts (Plato and his followers). Judges and tribunals consequently determine the correct application of those realities and values in concrete cases.
In other terms, the decisions of judges and tribunals are interpretations through transcendent realities and values (contrary to Protagoras’ view) of immutable facts (contrary to Heraclitus’ view).
On the contrary, mediation is an alternative dispute resolution practice founded on the understanding that 1) solving personal conflicts is nothing less or more than unraveling the personal views of the parties (Protagoras’ view) and 2) everything is always changing (Heraclitus’ view).
Given the emergent role of mediation in the solution of conflicts, one may ask whether we are returning to the Pre-Socratic times.
What do you think?
Leslie Brown generously edited and improved this text.