Heraclitus: Part Five

Tom Morris

This is the fifth and last week we'll be looking at the Fragments of Heraclitus. This ancient thinker left us enigmatic bits and pieces of wisdom that we could spend much longer deciphering. But we'll be content to hit the high notes. I'm a philosopher like Heraclitus, but I'm not a Heraclitus scholar. In these five installments, I've just been sharing my own personal reading of the new translation of the Fragments, hoping that they will spark in you the sort of thoughts they have sparked in me.

Heraclitus was a man in search of wisdom. He seemed to know the truth that the writer of Ecclesiastes once expressed by saying that "Wisdom brings success." And he was also a man concerned about virtue. In one passage, he writes:

To be evenminded
is the greatest virtue.
Wisdom is to speak
the truth and act
in keeping with its nature. (107)

I take it that an evenminded man or woman doesn't allow superficial circumstances to control his thought, emotion, and action. A person with this virtue keeps his head even when everyone around him is losing theirs. Evenmindedness is so attached to truth that appearance doesn't unhinge it. The vicissitudes of fortune don't confound it. It is rooted in deeper soil than that. It is a virtue deeply connected to wisdom, and like any other virtue, is produced, in part by wisdom.

Heraclitus believes that it is rare to find a wise and virtuous person in this world. When we do discover such a fellow traveler, we should appreciate what we have found and nurture a proper relationship with this individual, knowing that it will lead to much good. Heraclitus writes:

Give me one good man
from among ten thousand,
if he be the best. (113)

A partnership with one excellent man or woman can produce amazing results. It is never a matter of sheer numbers, he believes, but always individual excellence in proper collaboration with its like, that alone can produce sustainable greatness. So don't worry if your projects don't attract a crowd. That one great partner can be all you need.

This is why Heraclitus was particularly upset when a great and wise man was once exiled from his city. Our philosopher was convinced that the masses of people responsible for this were just reacting against what they didn't understand. He says:

Dogs, by this same logic, bark
at what they cannot understand. (115)

Heraclitus can sometimes come across as a little bitter about the human condition. He believed that too many people put their faith in all the wrong things, and that this blinds them to what is truly valuable in life. Their commitments to a bad or inauthentic philosophy then keeps them from really hearing and learning the truth, even when it stares them in the face. He writes:

What is not yet known
those blinded by bad faith
can never learn. (116)

And he says, quite pointedly:

Stupidity is doomed,
therefore, to cringe
at every syllable
of wisdom. (117)

Harsh words. But haven't we all seen people too caught up in error to acknowledge the truth? Emotionally invested in the wrong things, any of us would find the insights of wisdom a threat. And yet, to make it even worse, there are otherwise intelligent people who, having bought into inauthentic beliefs and attitudes, nonetheless present themselves as purveyors of wisdom and virtue. Our philosopher says:

While those who mouth high talk
may think themselves high-minded,
justice keeps the book
on hypocrites and liars. (118)

And then Heraclitus utters one of the two statements for which he is best known. He says:

Character
is destiny. (121)

But the new translation we are consulting renders this as:

One's bearing
shapes one's fate. (121)

The traditional translation is best. It is not a matter of style or demeanor that determines destiny. It is, in all its fullness, a matter of character. Talk is cheap. Style can be passing. Character alone stands the test of time.

And what our character produces today, or tomorrow, is as important as anything we ever might do. Heraclitus says:

Any day stands
equal to the rest. (120)

In the end, Heraclitus doesn't admire idle dreamers, big talkers, or even the wealthy, the famous, or the powerful. He admires people who act today for the noblest possible purposes. He admires human beings who stake their all on what really matters. And in one passage, he puts this in a striking way, saying that:

The luckiest men die
worthwhile deaths. (101)

Yet it is not death that is ultimately his concern. It is how we live our lives every moment. Every day counts, and every moment matters. I believe that Heraclitus would return us all to the mindset of children in this one respect - how we handle the moments of our lives. He says:

Time is a game
played beautifully
by children. (79)

Children live maximally in the present, feeling the moment in all its joy, grandeur, or excruciating boredom, and then acting to augment the good or change the bad. Children are not afraid to put down what isn't working and jump into something else that may. They aren't stuck. They are never stuck. They surf the wonder that is so natural to their spirits. If one wave is no good, they catch the next one. And they grow by leaps and bounds. Until they grow up and risk losing that spontaneity that had served them so well.

Children work in their play. Until we learn to play in our work, we won't feel fulfilled in it or blessed by it. And we won't grow as fast as we can toward our best forms of excellence.

So childlike play can contribute to the difference we are here in the world to make. Our philosopher appreciates play. But it gets better. Heraclitus believes that we can grow and deepen even in our sleep, and thus contribute to the work of the world in apparent repose. He writes:

Even a soul submerged in sleep
is hard at work, and helps
make something of the world. (90)

So remember that if you ever get caught napping on the job. Quote Heraclitus. And hope for the best!

Where did this ancient thinker come up with all this stuff? Where did he go for wisdom? Don't worry. He says. He writes, quite simply:

Applicants for wisdom
do what I have done:
Apply within. (80)

Know thyself! Dig deep into your own nature, examine your own thoughts and heart, because there you will find the elements of all human nature. And there you will find the reverberations of wisdom and virtue, in however inchoate a form, or soft a whisper. Our philosopher says:

All people ought to know themselves
and everyone be wholly mindful. (106)

Self-knowledge and mindfulness. Wisdom, virtue, and living in the truth. Evenminded faithfulness to the insights you glimpse. Childlike playfulness. And sleep. Heraclitus has simple but profound, available, yet difficult recipes for living to share with us. Aren't you glad that some of his thoughts survived? I sure am.

As always, email me with any questions or insights that you'd like to share. And may you be evenminded, wise and virtuous, throughout each and every day!

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