Ethics 5 – Perspective: Heraclitus, Zhuangzi & Hegel

For this lecture, please read the Fragments of Heraclitus and as much of the inner chapters of Zhuangzi as you can as well.

tree sideways illusion

We see and understand many things, but not everything.  Even the things that we do see and understand are not entirely seen or understood.  We do not entirely understand when or how babies develop object permanence, that things and others exist even when we don’t see them, or theory of mind, that others have perspectives and understandings different from our own, but developmental psychologists have shown that we gain these in our earliest years, the foundation for thought and imagination to understand and represent our world with all of its open possibilities.

Perspective is individual in that we have eyes in the front of our heads that gaze outward in a particular direction, but also social in that we share the interests and beliefs of others.  Much as standing in the same spot where someone else once stood can show us what they saw, when we consider the ideas of others in context we take their position and understanding as our own, even if we then reject it or argue against it.  In the course so far we have been considering the wider, social perspective, even from the angle of self-interest, as we have discussed morals, ends and balance.  Ethics is the study of how we should live our lives and interact with others, which assumes that we are interested in ourselves and others alike.  When we largely agree and act without problems, there is little reason for critical talk or thought, but when we disagree with others, seeing things differently than they do, thinking and talking about human perspectives and how they work can help a great deal.

My favorite two ancient thinkers, Heraclitus of Greece and Zhuangzi of China, say remarkably similar things about perspective using remarkably similar examples.  First we will consider the insights of Heraclitus, then Zhuangzi, and then finally Hegel, a modern German philosopher who tried to understand perspective entirely.  Sadly Hegel did not know about Zhuangzi or much of anything from Chinese philosophy, but he thought that Heraclitus was the first genuine philosopher in human history for recognizing that opposite perspectives work together.  Hegel wanted to take the entire history of human thought, the history of philosophy, politics, science and art, and bring all opposed subjective perspectives into a single objective whole, a perspective of all possible perspectives that humanity has and can have.  If thought is a game like chess, if you know all of the possible moves you can know all of the ways that the game can be played.

Schopenhauer thought that Hegel was insane, and Nietzsche largely agreed.  Is a system of all perspectives possible, or is human thought an uncategorizable fire, an open-ended evolution that defies and opposes any attempt to understand it entirely?  Heraclitus taught that we and our world are made of fire, and that human beings only see a tiny piece of the light.  For Heraclitus, the more we see the more we can see that we can’t see everything, the wiser we are the more we know we don’t know, as Socrates would say after likely hearing of Heraclitus and wandering the streets of Athens.


heraclitus bustHeraclitus (535 – 475 BCE) is most famous for saying, “You can never step in the same river twice“, though as mentioned this was also uttered by Buddha and Confucius.  Reality is always changing, as are ourselves and our perspectives.  Just as a river is always flowing and changing, nothing stays exactly the same for any two moments.  You step in a river, then step out, then step back in the same river.  We could take the perspective that it is still the same river, but we could also take the perspective that it is no longer the same river.  Heraclitus says this is also true of ourselves, and that “we are and are not“, being and not-being together as a continuous becoming.  Heraclitus shares this idea with the Jains and Buddhists of ancient India, the Daoists of ancient China, and Hegel, who is a major influence on modern German and French thought.

Sinheungsa Bronze BuddhaAccording to one source, Heraclitus was a king who abandoned the title to become a philosopher, which is also said of the Buddha.  Whether or not this is true for either of them, it is a classic metaphor for putting the mind over the body, the heavenly over the earthly.  Some scholars have argued that Heraclitus was in fact the Buddha whose ideas were coming to Greece from India, while others have argued that the Buddha was in fact Heraclitus whose ideas were coming from Greece to India.  Both thinkers were mythologized as a king who left powerful king position and became a sage, and both believe in pursuing wisdom and enlightenment, but it is quite unlikely that the two were the same individual.  Rather, skeptical philosophers, like the Daoists, tend to argue against exclusive distinctions, and see shades of grey where others see black and white.

Heraclitus sad paintingHeraclitus is a very skeptical thinker.  This does not mean he saw all things as negative or pessimistic.  He was convinced that wisdom and inquiring within show us that all is one big cosmic fire, and things that unify the community and the individual bring wholeness and true happiness.  However, he believed that humans are often foolish and let their minds divide themselves from the whole and from each other such that their understandings are disjointed and ignorant.  In Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, Heraclitus is sitting by himself, just to the left of center at the bottom, looking rather depressed.

The School of Athens Raphael

Lobster Perspective

A more dogmatic thinker would say that there are specific truths that are certain and must be separated from the uncertain, specific goods that must be separated from the evil.  A more skeptical thinker would say, like Heraclitus, the Buddha, the Daoists and Nietzsche, that the truth and the good is the whole, and the tendency of the mind to divide the good from the bad and the true from the false is limiting and promotes ignorance rather than wisdom, giving us a partial view rather than the overall view.

camp fireHeraclitus was not a fan of experts and specialists, and he ridiculed the cultural leaders of his time.  He says that the common people are completely asleep, but far more dangerous are the experts who have a small piece of the puzzle and say that they know the entire truth.  He calls the poets Hesiod and Homer, the sources of central ancient Greek culture, and the followers of Pythagoras frauds, and says that there are no permanent truths or laws other than the constant formation of watery chaos by the cosmic fire.  Heraclitus argues that all things are merely temporary tongues of the great eternal cosmic fire, the primary element or arche.  Many often ask, “Why, then, should I listen to Heraclitus, since he is simply an expert?”.  Heraclitus replies as most skeptics do: don’t take my word for it, but look into the world and within yourself and you will find that it is true.

Temple of Artemis at EphesusHeraclitus did write a book which he entrusted to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, though we only have the very beginning today.  The beginning of his book, which we still have, reads:

The word proves those first hearing it as numb to understanding as the ones who have not heard, yet all things follow from the word.  Some, blundering with what I set before you, try in vain with empty talk to separate the essences of things and say how each thing truly is, and all the rest make no attempt.  They no more see how they behave broad waking than remember clearly what they did asleep.

For wisdom, listen not to me but to the word and know that all is one.  Those unmindful when they hear, for all they make of their intelligence, may be regarded as the walking dead.  People dull their wits with gibberish, and cannot use their ears and eyes.  Many fail to grasp what they have seen, and cannot judge what they have learned.  Although they tell themselves they know, they lack the skill to listen or to speak.  Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse.  Things keep their secrets.

hesiodNow that we can travel anywhere, we need no longer take the poets and myth-makers for sure witnesses over disputed facts…If learning were a path of wisdom, those most learned about myth would not believe, with Hesiod, that Pallas in her wisdom gloats over the noise of battle.  Pythagoras may well have been the deepest in his learning of all men, and still he claimed to recollect details of former lives, being in one a cucumber and one time a sardine.

Of all the words yet spoken, none comes quite as far as wisdom, which is the action of the mind beyond all things that may be said.  Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeates all things.

Many who have learned from Hesiod the countless names of gods and monsters never understand that night and day are one.

Time is a game played beautifully by children.  Applicants for wisdom do what I have done: inquire within.

Homer bustSince mindfulness, of all things, is the ground of being, to speak one’s true mind and to keep things known in common, serves all being, just as laws made clear uphold the city, yet with greater strength.  Of all pronouncements of the law the one source is the word whereby we choose what helps true mindfulness prevail.  Although we need the word to keep things known in common, people still treat specialists as if their nonsense were a form of wisdom.  Fools seek counsel from the ones they doubt.  People need not act and speak as if they were asleep.  The waking have one world in common.  Sleepers meanwhile turn aside, each into a darkness of his own.

Homer I deem worthy, in a trial by combat, of a good cudgeling…They raise their voices at stone idols as a man might argue with his doorpost.  They have understood so little of the gods.

logosOnly the All is permanent.  All the other things are wandering temporal forms.  The many beings arise from Being, and then fall back into the fire and disappear.  The cosmos resembles the chaos yet order of the human community centered on authority by spoken word.  The LOGOS, the word/plan/order/command, is the formative force in the cosmos, the force of fire and light in the watery chaotic world.  The cosmic fire speaks with its ever-present Logos (fire over air) and this brings about the firmament in the chaos (the earth rising out of the water).  This process, however, does not bring about eternal or stable beings, but chains of beings that are in flux and interdependent.

ancient city wallThis goes also for laws, which Heraclitus says have to be defended as if they were city walls.  This is sometimes read that Heraclitus thought human law was important and had to be defended, which he did, but in fact he is also telling us that human laws are impermanent like walls made out of earth.  They may seem eternal and permanent, but as any former citizen or city of the Persian empire knows, empires fall and impressive city states are overthrown and change hands.  The eternal word of the fire forever forms the cosmos, but human speech and walls are temporary, and therefore take force and effort to maintain.  As a skeptic, Heraclitus believes that the divisions made by the mind are mortal, not eternal, like the human body.  Our knowledge and laws are impermanent like mounds of dirt.  Heraclitus says many things to humble us, including pointing out our similarity to apes to put our achievements in perspective:

Orangutan TubThe language of a grown man, to the cosmic powers, sounds like baby-talk to men.  To a god the wisdom of the wisest man sounds apish.  Beauty in a human face looks apish too.  In everything we have attained the excellence of apes.  The ape apes find most beautiful looks apish to non-apes.

Similarly, Heraclitus wrote that salt water is deadly to humans, but healthy for fish that live in the sea, and that birds and pigs bathe in dirt and filth.  As Zhuangzi will soon ask, using similar opposite animal perspectives, each animal or perspective has what it takes as beautiful, deadly, or dirty.

Just as a river is always flowing and changing, fire, like water, flows in a consistent manner that is always self-similar but never exactly the same twice.  Heraclitus argued that the world is always in flux, and each changing thing is always in tension with its opposite, much as truth is always in tension with deception for Nietzsche.  Heraclitus wrote that a pig does not know peace, because a pig does not know war.  Paradoxically, changing constantly in the way that things do is the stability and being of things.  Heraclitus says, “Goat cheese congeals in wine if not well stirred”.  It is an example of a motion keeping a mixture what it is.  When the motion stops, the elements separate.  In the same way, if our hearts and lungs stopped their circular motions, we would disintegrate, and the elements that make us would separate.

Plato HeadHeraclitus was one of the most famous thinkers of the Greek and Roman world.  He was a major influence on Plato, though Plato, like Kant and Rand, sought absolute and eternal truth.  Both Heraclitus and Plato were major influences on early Christianity which initially flourished not in Israel but in Greece and Syria.  If a primal speaking of the Word or Logos sounds familiar, Heraclitus was a central influence on the Greek and Roman stoics, and the author of the Gospel of John was almost certainly a Greek stoic writing in Roman times.  The opening of the Gospel of John famously reads: the Logos/Word/Order was with God (Fire/Cosmos), and God spoke (“let there be light”) and light was separated from darkness.

Nietzsche 1882It was only in the late 1700s and  1800s that  German scholars rediscovered the Pre-Socratics and gave them attention and study.  Before this time, Greek Philosophy was considered to have originated with Socrates (hence, “Pre-Socratics”) and most scholars were only versed in the surviving writings of Plato and Aristotle.  Hegel, who we will study today, saw Heraclitus as a skeptic who is put in opposition with Plato by the course of history itself.  Nietzsche, the great skeptical philosopher who we studied last time, wrote that he felt closer to Heraclitus than any other thinker.  Nietzsche believed, like Heraclitus, that we are proud of our learning and achievement but we are in fact little better than apes if we do not have the courage to evolve as individuals.


Zhuangzi butterfly pine napZHUANGZI(370 to 301 BCE), the second patriarch of Daoism, lived during the Warring States period of ancient China, also known as the Period of the Hundred Philosophers.  As mentioned, thought tends to flourish in times of crisis.  We know little of his life other than his work.  Daoist tradition holds that Zhuangzi wrote much of the “inner chapters” of his work, and that the anecdotes about him and other stories were added later by his followers.

Deer RunningIn several places of the Zhuangzi, we see the idea of perspective presented the same way as we saw in Heraclitus.  We are told that Mao Quiang and Lady Li were legendary beautiful women, but minnows were frightened of them when they gazed into a stream, and birds and deer were frightened by them when they walked through the forest. Heraclitus said that all human beauty and achievement is nothing but apes to the gods. Who knows what is beautiful, humans, birds, fish, or deer? Zhuangzi asks which of them knows what tastes good.

Often, the heroes of Zhuangzi are common people, woodcutters, fishermen, butchers, carpenters, ex-cons, and others of low status.  In two places, Zhuangzi seems to exalt while mock Confucius who praises two sages who have had their legs cut off for committing crimes but have flocks of followers.  Confucius is made to say that his own teachings are the lowly ways of humans, but these sages know the way of heaven, the Dao, and he would become their student if he only had the time.  Confucius says to Wang Dai, who asks about one of the legless sages, “If you look at them from the point of view of their differences, then there is liver and gall (two organs in the body), Ch’u and Yueh (two warring kingdoms in China), but if you look at them from the point of view of their sameness, then the ten thousand things are all one.”

red antWhen Zhuangzi is asked by Dung Kuo where the way of heaven is, Zhuangzi says it is everywhere.  Dung Kuo asks him to be more specific, so Zhuangzi says it is in the ant, in grass, in tile shards, in piss and in shit, horrifying Dung Kuo progressively.  Like the Laozi text, the Zhuangzi continuously suggests that we see the lowest things as beautiful, and avoid striving for and hoarding the things people desire to be happy and free.  This is very much like the Egyptian wisdom passage which seeks wisdom even in the maidens at the grindstone.

peng bird paintingIn the first passage of the inner chapters of Zhuangzi, the mythical Peng bird is mocked by the dove and the cicada (a large grasshopper-like insect) for flying high and far in the sky. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act, as they die every winter and do not survive by migrating south.  Several times Zhuangzi is told by other sages that his wisdom is foolish and useless, but Zhuangzi replies, much like the Dao text, that there are no things which are not foolish or useless, but this does not stop them from also being serious and useful.

The philosopher and logician Huizi tells Zhuangzi that a king gave him seeds of a huge gourd, but when he planted the seeds and grew huge gourds they were so large that he could not use them as containers so he smashed them.  Zhuangzi tells him he should have used them as boats, and “Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!”  Huizi tells Zhuangzi that he has a large gnarled tree, which is as useless as Zhuangzi’s reasoning.  Zhuangzi replies that if no ax will cut it down, it makes a great shaded place for taking a nap.  These are each examples of reversal of perspective and judgement.

Tzu Ch’i tells Tzu Yu that when the wind blows you can hear many sounds made by many things, including the whistling of trees and the wailing of hollow logs, but there is only one wind.  He then says:

bamboo in the wind paintingWords are not just wind.  Words have something to say, but if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something, or do they say nothing?  People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there?  What does the Way rely upon, such that we have true and false?  What do words rely upon, such that we have right and wrong?

When the Way relies on little accomplishments and words rely on vain show, then we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Moists.  What one calls right the other calls wrong, and what one calls wrong the other calls right, but if we want to right their wrongs and wrong their rights, then the best thing to use is clarity.  Everything has its ‘that’, and everything has its ‘this’.  From the point of view of ‘that’, you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it, so I say, ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’, which is to say ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other.

Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way, but illuminates all in the light of heaven.  A sage too has a ‘this’ and a ‘that’, but a sage’s ‘that’ has a ‘this’, and a sage’s ‘this’ has a ‘that’.  A sage’s ‘that’ has both a right and a wrong in it, and a sage’s ‘this’ too has both a right and a wrong in it, so does a sage still have a ‘this’ and ‘that’?  A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way.  When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly.  Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness, so I say the best thing to use is clarity.

trained monkeyTo wear out your brain trying to make things into one without realizing that they are all the same is called “three in the morning”.  What do I mean by “three in the morning”?  When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.”  This made all the monkeys furious.  “Well then,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.”  The monkeys were all delighted.  There was no change in the reality behind the words, and yet the monkeys responded with joy and anger.  Let them, if they want to.  The sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in heaven, the equalizer.

Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured, and because the Way was injured, love became complete, but do such things as completion and injury really exist, or do they not?

Those who divide fail to divide.  Those who discriminate fail to discriminate.  What does this mean, you ask?  The sage embraces things.  Ordinary people discriminate among things and parade their discriminations in front of others.  So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.

Nieh Ch’ueh asks Wang Ni about something everyone can agree to.  Wang Ni replies:

fish paintingIf someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and he ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp?  If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey?  Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live?  We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice.  Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste?  Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish.  Men claim that Mao-Ch’iang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run.  Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?

Zhuangzi-Butterfly-DreamIn the most famous passage of the book, Zhuangzi dreamt that he was a butterfly and forgot that he was Zhuangzi.  When he woke, he no longer knew whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi.

Another famous metaphor used is that of the praying mantis that waved its arms angrily in front of an approaching carriage, unaware that it is incapable of stopping it.  It suggests that we move in response to life rather than hold our ground taking pride in our own abilities.

You hide your boat in the ravine and your fish net in the swamp and tell yourself that they will be safe, but in the middle of the night a strong man shoulders them and carries them off, and in your stupidity you don’t know why it happened.  You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you, but if you were to hide the world in the world, so that nothing could get away, this would be the final reality of the constancy of things.

fishing landscape painting

Jo of the North Sea said, “You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog.  He’s limited by the space he lives in.  You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect.  He’s bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar.  He’s shackled by his doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, so you realize your own insignificance.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle.

Frog_GetsujuJo of the North Sea said, “From the point of view of the Way, things have no nobility or meanness.  From the point of view of things themselves, each regards itself as noble and other things as mean.  From the point of view of common opinion, nobility and meanness are not determined by the individual himself.  From the point of view of differences, if we regard a thing as big because there is a certain bigness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not big.  If we regard a thing as small because there is a certain smallness to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not small.  If we know that heaven and earth are tiny grains and the tip of a hair is a range of mountains, then we have perceived the law of difference.  From the point of view of function, if we regard a thing as useful because there is a certain usefulness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not useful.  If we regard a thing as useless because there is a certain uselessness to it, then among the ten thousand things none that are not useless.  If we know that east and west are mutually opposed but that one cannot do without the other, then we can estimate degree of use.


HegelHEGEL (1770 – 1831) argued that the history of the world and human thought was an evolution of perspective that works from opposite sides to bring themselves to greater completion.  One of the most famous parts of his Phenomenology of Spirit, a history of the evolution of thought, is the Master/Slave Dialectic.  This concept became very important for anti-class thinkers (like Hegel’s student Karl Marx), anti-sexists (like the feminist De Beauvoir), anti-racists (like Franz Fanon and Angela Davis).  These three will be the last three topics for this class, the “Big Three” in universities since the sixties.

hegel upsidedown

Hegel argues that as the self (which can be an individual as well as a culture or school of thought) comes into the world, it cannot understand how there can be others like itself that are not itself and so it tries to fight and kill its others.  Then the self figures out that it does not have to kill its others and that it is more productive to enslave them, making them work for it.  Consider that the most selfish individual would tell everyone else “You are wrong” but the slightly smarter but still selfish individual would tell everyone else “That is just what I have been saying”, neither capable of tolerating opinions other than their own.

slave-rebellonAt first, the master is in the superior position.  However, over time, the slave comes to do everything for the master and thus learns through experience while the master grows lazy and ignorant.  The slave comes to realize that things can be done for oneself as well as for others, a perspective which the master never develops, and so comes to understand subjectivity and perspective, unlike the master.  The slave then overturns the master and becomes the greater and more highly developed master, a process which then repeats itself.  Hegel argues that this is why the Greeks overcame the Egyptians, and why the Germans eventually overcame the Greeks.  While this narrow view of history is Eurocentric and ignores China and Islam, it shows how Hegel things perspective develops and evolves.

Win Lose DiceModern Psychology has learned much from experiments in recent years about how individuals tend to interpret reality.  This teaches us many things about perspective that extend and develop what Heraclitus, Zhuangzi and Hegel had to say.

Many experiments have confirmed what is called the actor/observer bias or internal versus external attribution.  If an individual succeeds at a task, they often attribute the success to themselves or the group to which they belong (internal attribution – “I/We are really good at that”).  If an individual fails at a task, they often attribute the failure to the situation (external attribution – “It was because of that other thing”).  However, if the same individual watches another succeed at a task, especially someone in competition with them or that they dislike they often attribute the success to the situation (external attribution – “They just got lucky”, or “It was easier that time”), and when they watch another fail at a task, they often attribute the failure to the other person or the group to which they belong (internal attribution – “That shows they are stupid”).  Notice the complete reversal of interpretation and the contradiction of opposite perspectives given the same evidence.  The attribution and perspective is one way or the complete opposite depending on who does the task and whether or not they succeed.

Isreal Palestine Yin YangOther experiments have confirmed the hostile media effect, that both sides of an issue view media coverage and moderation (judges, referees) as hostile to their side.  For example, liberals are angry that the media is conservative, and conservatives are angry that the media is liberal.  One study at Stanford showed American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to pro-Israeli students and pro-Palestinian students, and both sides said the coverage was clearly biased in favor of the other side.  Another study had students from Princeton and Dartmouth (a big East Coast rivalry) view a Princeton vs. Dartmouth football game, and each group saw more illegal moves on the other side and each said that the referees missed more of these for the other side.

If we consider perspective, anyone in the middle of an issue is to the opposite side of anyone on the edges.  I have a card I like that shows children on a see-saw with one standing on the middle, and it reads “I know I am being fair when both sides accuse me of unfairness”.  Unfortunately, this is often true in the world of competing and opposite perspectives.

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