The Wisdom of Heraclitus: Part One

Tom Morris

Who was the first philosopher to say "Everything is always changing"? Did you know it was the same man who famously announced that "Character is destiny"? We are going to identify this sagacious character, and look at some of what he has to teach us.

A new book just been published by Viking, and has been displayed prominently in many of the bookstores of America. It is an updated translation of the few extant sayings and writings of this ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, who is the sage I've quoted. The book is entitled Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, and the translator is the poet Brooks Haxton.

In his introduction, Haxton says "An exact contemporary of Confucious, Lao Tsu, and the Buddha, Heraclitus of Ephesus gave up his kingdom and chose, instead of the trappings of power, to seek the Word of wisdom."

We know little about this enigmatic aphorist of the ancient world. He was indeed from a background of power and privilege, and yet followed his intellect in a philosophical direction. He sought wisdom behind the surface appearances of things, and wrote down his insights in nuggets of thought that are sometimes stimulating, sometimes obscure. He broke from the philosophers before him who sought mainly to understand the cosmos that surrounds us, and plunged his mind into the challenges of understanding the human condition. Beginning this week, I want to display and comment on some of the fragments, as translated by Haxton. As we shall see, the accuracy and adequacy of translations can often be disputed, but we will read the thoughts of Heraclitus from this new version, mostly, at face value, and just comment briefly on their relevance for our wisdom quest of the present day.

A major, guiding concept in Heraclitus is that of the Logos, often translated as "Word" or "Reason." Many commentators see the idea here as being that there is an underlying, or overarching, Reason or Rationality that objectively structures all the world, and that can subjectively the best of our thoughts about the world, as well. When the structure of our thought matches the underlying logic of the world, we have attained wisdom.

Heraclitus begins his journey with us in terms which are very much like the enigmatic remarks that are to be found at the outset of the Tao Te Ching. Where Lao Tsu speaks of the Tao, Heraclitus speaks of the Logos, or Word. He first says:

The Word proves
those first hearing it
as numb to understanding
as the ones who have not heard. (1)

And then follows by remarking:

Yet all things follow from the Word. (1)

He then divides all the human beings of his time, other than himself, into two groups. There are those who think they've got it all figured out and are quick to tell us, and are completely wrong, and then there all the rest, who just don't even try. The average person, he says, can't tell you any more about what's really going on in the world of their waking existence than they can report everything that happens when they are asleep.

But the philosopher thinks he has escaped the empty talk of the first group and the empty mindedness of the second, and he wants to invite us to join him in enjoying some real wisdom about living. He says:

For wisdom, listen
not to me but to the Word,
and know that all is one. (2)

Unlike the gurus of the modern world, who want us to watch them, listen to them, and, in effect, join their fan clubs, Heraclitus has the good sense to realize that he can at best point us to the real sources of wisdom for our lives. And what we learn there will be universally applicable, because "all is one."

But first, another warning. He says:

Those unmindful when they hear,
for all they make of their intelligence,
may be regarded as the walking dead. (3)

Intelligence isn't enough for wisdom. We live in a world where we are proud of our IQs and our SAT scores, but If we don't really listen with humility and take in the true wisdom that is available to us, we end up like zombies, moving around in the world, but not really living.

Heraclitus then adds:

People dull their wits with gibberish,
and cannot use their ears and eyes. (4)

Throughout human history, cliches, slogans, and catch phrases have substituted for real thought. The management lingo of the present, or the self-help shibboleths of the new age can actually keep us from learning the deepest lessons from our own personal first hand experience. The philosopher adds:

Many fail to grasp what they have seen,
and cannot judge what they have learned,
although they tell themselves they know. (5)

I'm always looking for new insight about life. And if you're at all like me, you are on a search, too. And isn't it amazing how much stuff we sometimes have to go through in order to learn something useful? I'm amazed at how often I read a 300 page book for a one sentence insight, or worse yet, wade through five long books without a single nugget of wisdom to report as a result. But then, as a full time philosopher, that's my job. I stand in the streams of human thought, up to my knees, panning for gold, in hopes that I can find a nugget or two to offer my friends who don't have the time or expertise to do the same sort of search. Heraclitus realized how much we often go through for just a little positive result. He says:

Men dig tons of earth
to find an ounce of gold. (8)

But that ounce of golden insight can make the whole process worthwhile.

When we do come across a wise man or woman, we find something of the divine in their words. And it doesn't take literary fireworks or rhetorical excellence to get our attention for their insights. Heraclitus says:

The prophet's voice, possessed of god
requires no ornament, no sweetening of tone,
but carries over a thousand years. (12)

That's why we can read a sentence a thousand years, or two thousand years, or even three thousand years after it was written, and be struck to the core with its wisdom, however simply it might have been conveyed.

This ancient thinker writes:

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. (18)

When we are in the presence of real wisdom, we are sometimes sparked and moved to insights beyond anything we can then put into words. We might be able to stammer out some sense of what we've just come to realize, but our instincts and intuitions always surpass our capacity for immediate conceptualization. We can't always say what it is we see. But it affects us deeply, nonetheless. In fact, those insights hardest to codify and communicate are sometimes the deepest and most powerful of all.

Heraclitus writes:

Wisdom is the oneness
of mind that guides
and permeates all things. (19)

And he says:

One thunderbolt strikes
root through everything. (28)

One fundamental insight, one realization of wisdom, can affect everything we do, or say, or think. That's why philosophy can be such a powerful enterprise. If it brings us one thunderbolt that can energize all that we do and all that we are, it is worth any amount of time and energy we give it.

Next week, we'll look at some of the insights that Heraclitus is most famous for articulating, some of the thunderbolts that he has cast across the centuries, including his often quoted view that "Everything is always changing".


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