Ethics 4 – Greek Ethics: Heraclitus

For this lecture, please read the Fragments of Heraclitus.

Heraclitus (535 – 475 BCE), my favorite ancient Greek philosopher, is so similar to the Buddha that some German scholars in the 1800s argued that Heraclitus was actually the Buddha in India and others that Buddha was actually Heraclitus in Greece.  Hegel disagreed, but claimed that Heraclitus was the first true philosopher in human history for recognizing that opposites such as good and bad change with perspective over time, just like day and night.  Heraclitus may not have been the first philosopher ever, but he was one of the first thinkers in Greece who spoke words about what life means that many others passed on, with fragments of his text and teachings in the work of many who quoted him such as Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Ephesus Library of Celsus

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus, which was part of the Persian empire for most of Heraclitus’ life, on what is today the West coast of Turkey, around the same time that Pythagoras and Parmenides, two of the other famous first philosophers, lived in what is today Italy.  Pythagoras and Parmenides argued that true Being is unchanging, with Pythagoras focused on the harmony of mathematics and Parmenides the impossibility of non-being and thus change.  Heraclitus argued that the only constant is change, all things are in continuous flux, and so we can never step in the same river twice, his most famous statement.

Heraclitus said that Pythagoras had more knowledge than anyone, but was still a fool who believed that he had been a sardine in one previous life and a cucumber in another.  Because Parmenides warned his followers about those who confuse being and not-being as one and the same thing, which sounds more like Heraclitus than any other candidate, Pythagoras seems to have come first, Heraclitus slightly after, and Parmenides slightly after that, having heard of each other in the years before their schools of thought were popular.  These three then had a powerful impact on later philosophers in the golden age of Athens such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who dominated Christian European understandings of Greek philosophy before Germans such as Hegel and Nietzsche got increasingly into Heraclitus and other Presocratics in the 1800s.

The Fragments of Heraclitus are actually the 22nd of 88 parts of a modern German work, Diels’ The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics (1903) which standardized the quotes of Greek philosophers before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  Diels and then later Kranz give us the Diels-Kranz number system, which standardized the Presocratic texts as an academic resource, such that Heraclitus fragment 12 is “You can never step in the same river twice,” even though they did no job at all of thematizing the quotes of Heraclitus or anyone else into a philosophical position or argument, which anyone who reads the text can see.

The first quote, however, is supposed to be the opening of the single work that Heraclitus wrote, On Nature, the title of far too many philosophical texts of the Greeks, effectively “How Stuff Works” at a time when physicians would look to the stars to understand your personal health.  Heraclitus left his single written work as an offering at the Temple of Artemis, one of the legendary wonders of the ancient world. Before we read the first fragment and others, however, it is important to understand what Heraclitus means when he says the word ‘word’.

The word that Heraclitus used for ‘word’ is logos, the Greek origin of our word logic.  While modern people sometimes understand logic as a mathematical or computer language, for ancient Greek thinkers such as Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle, logic is arguing, explaining and understanding things, a human practice that seeks agreement with others about what is common in things through argument, much as philosophers debating in India and China were doing, who are also often called “logicians”.  It is clear from the first fragment and others that Heraclitus believes there is a single mind and logic to the Cosmos, a plan that intelligently designs all things continuously, not at a single point in the past but as the ongoing, evolving truth, but he also uses the word “logic” or “word” (logos) to refer to his own reasoning, as well as the reasonings of philosophers he opposes and common fools.

Experts, the sort of people Heraclitus warns us about who spout tricky, lying words, argue that Heraclitus identified consciousness with the element air, the breath of life.  When Heraclitus uses the word ‘word’, he is referring to the stuff of air, breath, speech and life, such that talking cosmology and philosophy is kindling our minds and civilization.  Our mind fires see things in visions and mean things with words, heating air with fire to talk to each other, so when Heraclitus opens his text saying “This Word” is eternal but hard to understand, with ‘Word’ often capitalized and sounding biblical, he means his word and explanation of how the Universe works, as well as the plan of the Universe which causes everything to continuously happen, including Heraclitus himself speaking, a small tongue of flame that spouts air about the endless fire.

apostle-paul-liturgicalLater Christian and other Abrahamic thinkers speak of the Greek logos as “The Word of the Lord”, as a plan and command of a king. Like Heraclitus, they do not mean the Bible or any other text, but rather life itself, which inhales cool air and exhales warm breath and words just as winter turns to summer and then back to winter again.  Scholars generally agree that whoever wrote the Gospel of John in Greek was influenced by Stoicism, which was influenced by Heraclitus, which is why the beginning says the Word was with God, before God uses the word to order day and night to separate and create the order of the cosmos.  A person’s word is their opinion, what they understand about things with their mind using their words.  Heraclitus argues that human words are baby talk to the gods, so the best that his words can do is point us beyond human words to the unending mind of the Universe.

Heraclitus does not argue that all things are made of air, as Anaximenes had argued in nearby Miletus, nor that all things are made of water, as Thales had argued, also in Miletus.  Like the Persian Zoroastrians, Heraclitus’ arche, his primary element, is fire, which turns into the other three elements and these recombine with fire to form everything complex.  Heraclitus sounds like a Greek polytheist wrestling with the fire-centered monotheism of the Persian Zoroastrians.

This world, made by neither gods nor humanity, was, is and always will be ever-living fire, kindling and extinguishing all things. (30)

Each particular thing is one temporary tongue of flame that rises out of and falls back into the eternal fire which is the living mind of the cosmos.  Fire is the judge of all things (66) and it is both desire and satisfaction, love and hate. (65)  Heraclitus says that one thunderbolt strikes through and steers all things. (64)  While we think of lightning as electricity, which is the form of energy moderns use most, fire was the element identified with energy in ancient cultures such as India, Greece and China, such that lightning was understood as a form of fire branching downward from one into many.  Heraclitus mocks human ignorance of the oneness of things, saying that all things are traded in for fire just as we trade good in for gold and then turn around and trade gold in for goods. (90)

Intriguingly, Heraclitus argued that desire and pleasure make the mind soggy and wet, (77) while wisdom and wise living dry the soul out, and a dry mind is wisest and best, (118) a logical step from ancient cosmology that puts fire above with mind and reason, and water below with desire, the stomach and other lower parts.  He notes that a drunken adult with a “moist mind” sometimes must be led home by a mere “beardless” child. (117) . Rather than make our minds drunk with pleasures, it is best to gain tranquility which brings true lasting joy, a teaching Heraclitus shares with Buddha and the Stoics.  That way we kindle ourselves the way the cosmic fire kindles all things, and serve as a light for us and others to see through the long dangerous night of individual existence. (26)

The text Heraclitus wrote opens with the words:

This wisdom (word, logos) is forever true, but we are unable to understand it before we hear it and are still unable to understand it even after we have hear it, even though all of existence follows from it.  Some foolishly try to explain what I put in front of you by dividing things and saying how each thing truly is by itself, while the rest of humanity makes no attempt at all to understand, and do not see what they do while awake anymore than they remember what they did when asleep.

There are three levels of understanding that Heraclitus lays out for us, which in ways resemble Plato’s Republic: common people who are asleep, those who achieve fame, such as philosophers, poets and heroes, who try to distinguish things and thus gain glory, and the few who gain some wisdom, who share the vision of the gods, who rule the cosmos through us as an ever-evolving dialog.  Our minds are a part of the thoughts of the cosmos, just as our words are a part of its speaking back and forth to itself.

Unfortunately, Heraclitus thinks that most people are fools and effectively asleep, saying when we dig we find far more earth than gold (22) and the best are worth ten thousand. (49)  Even though thought is common to all (113) and everyone has the capacity to dive into themselves to better know and rule themselves, (116) gaining wisdom to see, speak and act more in concert with everything and everyone outside of themselves by doing so, (112) most people do not understand the people and things they see everyday, but think that they do. (17)

Heraclitus says that most people don’t know how to listen or how to speak, (19) how to give and how to take, balancing self and other.  We have the disease of pride, (46) which is more important to extinguish than our house when it catches fire. (43)  We have trouble listening to what our own eyes and ears are telling us (107) and are often “absent when present”, hearing others as well as the deaf (34) and acting as if we are asleep, (73) dreaming things about the world that are delusional because we cut ourselves off from other things with our desires, separating our small fire from the big one.  Thus, most people are “fluttered with every word,” (87) shaken because they seek permanence in isolation rather than integration, bringing not safety but rather anxiety.

If we don’t seek and expect the unexpected beyond what is familiar to us, what we think we understand but don’t because we don’t see the larger situation, we don’t kindle ourselves and grow our minds outward beyond what we only partly see. (18)  Sadly, at the second level above the sleeping commoners who simply feed like beasts, most of those who achieve greatness and fame beyond common expectations become drunk on this and seek immortal glory in mortal opinions. (29)  Many follow the famous because many follow the crowd rather than the few who have kindled wisdom to see beyond desires and glory, (104) the pull of the mind beyond the pull of the stomach and pull of the heart.  Heraclitus says that all the power of emperors is merely time playing like a child building sandcastles. (52)

Some follow the mind beyond the mortal world, seeking knowledge and wisdom about the cosmos overall, which you would think would set you in the right direction, but Heraclitus ridiculed the famous poets and philosophers of his day, saying that after listening to the words of many, he had heard not one who realized wisdom is beyond all other things. (108)  Heraclitus says the poets Homer, Hesiod and Archilochos, who wove the stories of the gods into their traditional form, creating Greek culture, should be publicly beaten and stricken from history. (42)  He says that Hesiod taught many the names of gods and monsters, but neither Hesiod nor they understand that day and night are one, (57) so we can see that much knowledge does not necessarily bring wisdom.  Heraclitus is particularly upset that poets tell people the gods behave like a terrible drunken family rather than our ideal betters.

As for philosophers, Heraclitus says they also have little wisdom, because the Cosmos likes to hide and keep secrets, (123) and we shouldn’t speculate wildly about the nature of things far beyond our understandings. (47)  Like the blind men and the elephant of the Jains, experts are like those who know the way, but then forget and get lost, becoming unfamiliar with familiar things just like the common folks. (71, 72)  It is wise to remember that rhetoric is the prince of liars, (81) we all seem like babies and apes to the gods who don’t see any of us as beautiful or hear anything we say as wise. (79, 82, 83)  Heraclitus said, “In everything we have achieved the excellence of apes,” which should be framed and put over the front gates of civilization.  Often, the question arises: Why listen to Heraclitus if he’s another philosopher playing expert, saying toys like a smart baby for us?  He says it is wise to listen not to him but rather to what he says and admit that all things are one beyond words, his or anyone else’s. (50)

That covers the common and famous, those who don’t change and most of those who do, the ways of humanity that have no wisdom, unlike the gods. (78)  Thankfully, we do sometimes recognize wisdom, because mere belief in the familiar does not satisfy us entirely. (86)  Heraclitus speaks as if being wise is being super-human, transcending our species to the degree that we do it, becoming like gods.  Given how asleep he thinks we are, this is much like the Buddha having the incredible psychic powers that paying attention to what is happening right in front of our eyes for a change gives us.  Heraclitus says that to the gods, one day is like any other, (105) all things are fair, good and right rather than only some here and some there, (102) and thus the gods, who don’t wander around committing foolish, evil acts like the lying poets say they do, speak with justice and harmony that sounds true beyond all human lies and false testimony, (28) the wisdom Heraclitus hopes but doesn’t say that he speaks with.

Rather than listen to Heraclitus, Heraclitus says we should listen to the Universe and realize that it is not a plan or one-sided command that was given at the beginning, but a living conversation of all things with all other things, a harmony that even includes back-and-forths with all forms of chaos, evil and injustice, much as the Babylonian friends discussed in the dialog.  In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says that people are trapped in a burning house, that some break out and are confused and fascinated by the back-and-forth transformations of impermanence, but in the third and final stage the wise simply shine on all, without judgement or discrimination, seeing that all the endless changings of things into things is actually changeless.  The individual follows the cosmic law, which is not the legal dictates of a king but the advice of the gods, as a two-way exchange rather than one-way command. (33) To continue along with the cosmos in its ever-evolving multi-sided wisdom that is the real single rule, rather than learn unbreakable rules from our parents or other mortal royalty. (74)

Like the Zoroastrians, Heraclitus suggests that the gods are actually one god as well as many, a single conversation of many amongst themselves, (15) which seems to have the form of a circle, with the entire length being the beginning as well as the end of itself and all things from it. (103) This would make the Cosmos a ring of fire, as Johnny Cash sang about the line from the Book of Revelations, which seems to many to have been influenced by Zoroastrianism, Heraclitus and Stoicism.  Zhuangzi, the Chinese Daoist philosopher who also sounds in many ways like Heraclitus, says that what a wise sage sees as right and wrong is a single endless thing with rights in wrongs and wrongs in rights, with the cosmos working like circles in circles.  Heraclitus says seasons, which are rather circular, bring all things, (100) with the single god of the gods being day, night, winter, summer, warm, cold, wet, dry, war, peace, hunger and satisfaction, (67, 126) continuously dying in one way to begin living in another. (76) . Everything we see when awake is death, which is also the same thing as life, just as everything we see when asleep is dreams. (21) . When we die, we will live, but in a way we can’t dream of. (27)

We come back now to the same river twice.  Heraclitus says that being and non-being are the two opposed and complementary sides of becoming, a thought found in the Jains and Buddhists of India and the Daoists of China.  In the fragments, Heraclitus says we cannot step in the same river twice, (91) as new waters are always flowing in on us, (12) but also that we do and do not step into the same rivers, (49a) just as we are and are not, exist and lack fixed existence.  This idea became important for later German and French philosophers, and it can be traced from Heraclitus through Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger to French Existentialism and Postmodernism.

The wisdom of the gods can see that the every day is the same as the last, but also that the Sun is new each day. (6) . Heraclitus suggests that the strange puzzling utterances of the oracles, who tell humans things they can only understand afterward, are the gods dad-joking us, telling us terrible puns to wisen us up to how things appear differently when we take the larger perspective, as if looking down on civilization from up high. (92, 93) . Heraclitus says that if the Sun himself goes to far, the handmaidens of Justice will find him and sort things out, with handmaidens ruling over the king of the skies. (94)

Awake, we share one world in common, but asleep we each turn aside into a world of our own. (89)

We should listen and be guided by what we share, but wisdom, reasoning and speaking are common to all, yet many live as if they alone have reason, unlike others. (2)

Wisdom is one unlimited thing, the thunderbolt that steers all things and the one mind that lights what we see, (41) which Heraclitus claims likes and dislikes being called by the name Zeus, having mixed opinions. (32)  We will never find the limits of the mind we share with each other, not even if we track it down every possible path we can think of, as it’s source has no perceivable depth. (45)  As Zen master Zhaozhou said in Tang China, our questioning each other is the depth of the deep.  As Merleau-Ponty said in the 50s in France, we experience physical reality with our bodies as an open, boundless, and innumerable number of things, not as a thing with fixed walls and set limits, much like a horizon.

By seeking and then finding the familiar in the unfamiliar, the common vision of things that we share to some degree with all things, we can kindle our minds and lives.  We can speak with wisdom and true understanding, even though we are proud and foolish, but we have to hold on to what is common with others, even more than a city must defend the words of its mortal laws and the dirt and stone of its walls against the passing of time and armies of the Persians. (44, 114)  We foolishly like some things and dislike others rather than accept the circles of existence, not seeing that opposite things are the same and different, in harmony and tension with each other, (10) such as hot and cold being more like each other than three or green.  The good is the bad, and the bad is the good, like the many sharp ends of a thistle combing wool into a smooth uniform texture. (59)  The good becomes the bad, the bad becomes the good, and we can’t hide from this, as unlike the Sun existence never sets. (16)

Caspar Wanderer above the sea of fog (mountains hiker)

Our character is our fate. (119)  If we do not grow in wisdom, becoming familiar with many different things and seeing things increasingly in common, we and everything we cling to will fall apart into constituent elements and be recycled by the fire. (35)  As Heraclitus reminds us, goat cheese congeals in wine if not well stirred, (125) just as the constant change of our pulse and breathing keeps our form together.  Like dogs, we bark at the unfamiliar, (97) but we can gain the wisdom to see that it is not good to get everything we desire (110) and what fights us also helps us, with many never understanding that the harmony of the cosmos is good against bad like a bow on a string. (8, 51)  As Nietzsche famously said, seeing himself as a modern German Heraclitus, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”  Heraclitus says that hunger makes satisfaction pleasant, as sickness does health and tired does rest, (111) and jokes that surely good and bad are the same thing to doctors, who demand payments for torturing the sick. (58)  It is unclear whether or not Heraclitus thinks that horrible cures are useless, or proof that the cosmos works in contradictory ways.

War is the father of all particular things, (53) just as wisdom is their resolution together with all things again.  All beasts are driven to pasture with blows, (11) so it is better to be able to enjoy crossing a swamp than it is to enjoy crossing a clear river. (13)  We honor, foolishly and wisely, those who fight and rise to the challenge. (24)  Without ignorance, wisdom would have nothing to push against, and so Heraclitus says all of the many sleepers are our fellow coworkers, (75) which also sounds like some kind of joke.  Just as a pig does not know peace because a pig does not know war, we would not know the word ‘justice’ if the world was simply just. (23)  Change is refreshing, as it is tiring to work for the same masters and things again and again, always starting over the same old ways. (84)  Rather than keep corpses around to remind us of things, it would be better to keep our crap and use it as fertilizer. (95)

We can see our perspective is limited, and in our perspective the Sun is the width of a human foot. (3)  Just as our eyes are a higher sense that can see farther than our ears can hear or our nose can smell, (7, 98, 101a) we can see that “lowly” animals beneath us, such as the ape, have different likes and dislikes that seem strange and stupid to us, just as we look to the gods, which brings us wisdom and unity with the animals themselves, who share some degree of the fire, light and wisdom with us.  The sea is both good and bad to drink depending on whether or not you are a fish or a human. (61)  Oxen enjoy munching bitter thistles, (4) pigs bathe in mud, chickens bathe in dirt, (37) and donkeys prefer trash to gold, as at least they can eat it. (9) . All of this shows us that perspective is intelligent and unlimited in all of the ways it works and doesn’t.

One thought on “Ethics 4 – Greek Ethics: Heraclitus

  1. Moe Ron

    Talking about Nietzsche and Rand together reminds me of that old Gary Larson cartoon where the maestro is deftly shown to his lodgings in Hell, which he will share with a bunch of banjo players wearing overalls and floppy hats. Perhaps Ayn and Friedrich are arguing past each other while they share a padded cell together in some heavenly asylum, stopping occasionally to trade insults with Hitler and Steve Jobs in the next cell over.


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