The Wisdom of Heraclitus: Part Three - The Ass and the Throne.

Tom Morris

Ourtitle this week may perplex you. You may find yourself thinking "That's usually what ends up on a throne, in either the descriptive or the evaluative sense." Your thoughts may even drift in the direction of some particular domain of contemporary politics. But something very different is to be our topic today. We get our title from a characteristically enigmatic remark in the writings of Heraclitus, and we're going to do a bit of speculative expositing together to see what we can glean from it.

This is our third week of looking at the wisdom to be found in the Fragments of the ancient philosopher Heraclitus. Often a bit mysterious, yet sometimes penetratingly lucid, he's fascinated, charmed, and irritated readers throughout the centuries. We just have bits and pieces of his writings and so, as we read, we often just have to guess at context and flex our own interpretive muscles. But whether we get him exactly right or not, in all his ancient allusions and nuances, what we can read out of his remarks often provides us with new insights we can use. Let's just jump back in, with no further introduction at this stage.

Our philosopher believed that human beings face some basic problems in life. Some are problems of understanding. Others are difficulties of motivation.

Consider the following short passage:

An ass prefers a bed of litter to a golden throne. (51)

This is presumably a true observation. Donkeys are not known to have a fondness for either precious metals or political power. Likewise, offer a puppy the choice between a smelly dog biscuit and the keys to a new BMW, and we can be pretty sure which choice he will make. Although, if he's anything like my dog, he'll probably eat the treat and then go bury the keys in the back yard. We could multiply such examples of animals choosing what they know over what we so greatly value, and in the process showing utter obliviousness to those things we so ardently pursue. But what could be the point that Heraclitus is making by giving his original example of this?

Heraclitus' point could most straighforwardly begin from the observation that the ass has no idea what a golden throne is or represents. And, in our doggie example, the puppy has no idea what those keys represent. Furthermore, it will do no good to lecture the ass or read the dog an article from CAR AND DRIVER magazine. They live on a different level. Their lives are simple and their concerns are basic. They cannot grasp at all what we go grasping after. But Heraclitus doesn't make it clear at all how we are to take this fact. And we shouldn't be too fast to run to judgment. After all, as I mentioned in part one, Heraclitus himself abandoned the "golden throne" that was his inheritance in favor of a life in pursuit of philosophical wisdom. Are we to conclude that he was an ass? And, if so, what does that mean?

Is the ass, or the dog, to be viewed as a noble creature who pursues what is essential rather than what is superfluous? Are we to admire and emulate the simple creature? Or is the animal an example of a lowly being who cannot understand the higher things in life, who is content with the lower only because he has no conception of the greater and finer options that human beings face? And if this is so, if the animal is to be pitied, not envied, then does Heraclitus mean to say that so many of us are, on our own levels, like the ass, preferring what is really lower to what is much higher, because of our lack of understanding?

The answer is not clear. And this just shows in one small way the reason our philosopher was known as "Heraclitus the Obscure." Fortunately for us, the differing readings of this passage are not necessarily incompatible and irreconcilable.

Perhaps the animal offers us a model for emulation on one level, and provides us with a needed warning on another level. Like the lower creature, who is gifted by instinct, we all need to be able to distinguish between what is crucial, what is essential, what is necessary for life and safety, from what is not. The simple animal does not waste time and effort on sham values or illusory pursuits. This should be an example to us all.

But here is the warning. At its best, the life of a human being must involve not just a sense of what the basic necessities for survival might be, but also a sense of what is most important, and what should be valued with respect. The higher things in life, in human culture, and in the potential self-realization of human beings, aren't obvious without cultivation, education, and personal development. If we don't ever look beyond issues of safety and comfort, and seek to develop ourselves, our awareness of life, and our higher aspirations, we become like the ass in an unfortunate way. We fail to perceive, and thus fail to want, what might be really best for us.

Understanding brings options. And understanding motivates.

The ass will probably always prefer a bed of litter to a golden throne. But if we have similar preferances, it had better be out of informed choice rather than ignorance. Heraclitus seemed to believe that most human beings live foolishly most of the time. And he may have been right. But he went to the trouble of writing for us flawed human beings. And so he must have believed, deep down, that there was hope for us, after all.

How he sees understanding as a motivational force will be the topic we explore next week. Aren't you glad we're doing this? I sure am.

As always, I value your thoughts.

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