Heraclitus: Part Four

Tom Morris

Today, we'll begin with what Heraclitus says about motivation. This is one area where scarcity in one thing often accompanies abundance in another. Enjoying an abundance of success and comfort, many people find their motivation for growth, change, and accomplishment waning. I've heard so many people tell stories of how living in poverty pushed them to use all their talents and energies in pursuit of a dream. I've also heard wealthy people who seem to have it all occasionally sigh aloud and report that they often feel there is nothing left to work for in life. Many people find themselves motivated to work only to pay the bills, and then, when there is no immediately pressing financial need, they slack up and coast until the next emergency lights their fire again.

Abundance can create laxity if we let it. In the richest culture in human history, with an overwhelming abundance of opportunity all around, this can be a problem. Heraclitus writes:

Always having what we want
may not be the best good fortune.
Health seems sweetest
after sickness, food
in hunger, goodness
in the wake of evil, and at the end
of daylong labor, sleep. (104)

What does he want us to do to avoid this problem? Create artificial scarcities to motivate ourselves? Manufacture new needs to jump start our energies once more?

I don't think Heraclitus wants us to play any silly games with ourselves. But I do see two pieces of wise advice in the area here. First, Heraclitus can remind us that failure, problems, dissapointments, and loss can indeed motivate us. That's the silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud that all of us face now and then. Contrast enhances our experience and our appreciation of the good things in our lives. It also goads us on to new behavior.

Secondly, without doing anything silly or artificial to create scarcity for the sake of motivation, we can all nonetheless use our creativity to spot new needs in our businesses, our communities, and our lives. Coming to appreciate in a new way a real scarcity that is creating a problem, we are newly motivated to marshal our energies for action.

But there is also another sort of motivational problem Heraclitus addresses. Have you ever experienced wanting something - really wanting it - and still finding yourself, to your own surprise, not doing what you know you need to do to get it? The ancient Greeks referred to this as the experience of "akrasia," or weakness of will. We have this old saying, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." But sometimes the spirit needs a little help too. Heraclitus writes:

Hungry livestock,
though in sight of pasture,
need the prod. (55)

We all need a little extra motivation now and then, something to mooove us. Sorry, I had to make a cow joke. it takes the edge off having our philosopher refer to us with bovine imagery. But that's just one of his endearing qualities. He thinks that too many of us too often act like cattle, instead of developing the distinctively human qualities with which we are gifted.

Well then, where is that extra motivation we sometimes need to be found? We often go to motivational experts for inspiration and instruction. But Heraclitus would caution us to be careful who we go to. Some people become famous for their accomplishments in one special realm of human activity, and then present themselves to an adoring public in books and speeches as general experts on life. Heraclitus warns:

Although we need the Word
to keep things known in common,
people still treat specialists
as if their nonsense
were a form of wisdom. (92)

Nobody is right about everything. A great athlete in one sport may not have the last word for your business challenges. An expert in infomercial development may not be the wisest advisor for the relationship difficulties or career obstacles you face. Heraclitus uses the example of Pythagorus, a man whose intellect and accomplishments were widely admired in the ancient world, and says:

Pythagorus 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. (17)

Even smart people can sometimes make fishy claims. Ok, I'll stop with the corny jokes.

Heraclitus saw, in the ancient world, people going to dubious "experts" for advice about life. Even when we harbor doubts, we sometimes still read their books or watch them on television. Heraclitus says, a bit bluntly:

Fools seek counsel
from the ones they doubt. (93)

He also has harsh words for the presumptuous self-proclaimed experts themselves. He says:

Insolence needs drowning
wose than wildfure. (103)

And then again, and even more pointedly:

Stupidy is better
kept a secret
than displayed. (109)

Don't you have to smile at that one? As enigmatic as he could sometimes be, I don't think Heraclitus would have had much patience with some of the self-help mystification we often hear these days.

And he keeps going:

What use are these people's wits
who let themselves be led
by speechmakers, in crowds,
without considering
how many fools and thieves
they are among, and how few
choose the good?
The best choose progress
toward one thing, a name
forever honored by the gods,
while others eat their way
toward sleep like nameless oxen. (111)

Clearly, Dennis Miller didn't invent the rant for HBO. It has deep roots in antiquity. Heraclitus was undoubtedly a little on edge. But he was complaining about things that need to be avoided today just as much as in his time. He believed that progress toward having "a name forever honored by the gods," for character, and worthy accomplishment, was the only thing worth our time and energies. I believe that such progress is made whenever we act in accordance with the deepest positive values and try to make a difference for good, for other people as well as for ourselves and our families.

If we listened to all the modern gurus of lifestyle and success, we'd be pulled in too many directions, all at once, or we'd find ourselves bouncing from one thing to another. Heraclitus says:

Sound thinking
is to listen well and choose
one course of action. (110)

To whom do we listen? And what course of action should we choose? For more on that, and what is likely to be our last session with Heraclitus, come back next week.

And one more thing: Please look around the Philosophers' Corner for interesting essays written by our Fellows and friends. We post new thought nuggets every week. Come to see us any time!

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