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heraclitus

It is a wondrous turn of events how a conversation, a new book on Heraclitus (The Logos of Heraclitus) by the magnificent Great Books scholar, Eva Brann, finding Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, and my particular sitz im laben moved me to reread and rethink an important pre-Socratic philosopher.

To begin, I find the cosmology, metaphysics, and some of the anthropology of Heraclitus muddled in places, ahead of his time in other places, and brilliantly insightful in yet other places. Truthfully, there are still some real nuggets of wisdom to be mined from his fragments. It is also worth noting that Dante did include him with the other virtuous pagans in limbo, and I am not sure I disagree with this decision. The influence of Heraclitus on later philosophers and intellectuals should cause us to occasionally re-examine this obscure weeping philosopher’s contribution to thinking.
Here are a few select quotes with some questions and thoughts.

People dull their wits with gibberish,
and cannot use their ears and eyes. (p 5)

One wonders if Heraclitus is not on to something profound here. Is it true that “gibberish” has an adverse effect on one’s ability to reason? Does the mindless oral mumblings cause one to become deaf and blind to truth?

The eye, the ear,
the mind in action,
these I value. (p 9)

I would hope that all of us could nod in agreement with Heraclitus. In our time of the non-stop visual bombardment and the ever present aural assault, the mind has become mush.

Seekers of wisdom first
need sound intelligence. (p 33)

This one does cause me to wonder if he is right. How sound does one need to be intellectually to discover wisdom? We could speculate that wisdom would assist in becoming more intelligent. Possibly, this is a dialectical matter and the one assists the other.

To be even-minded
is the greatest virtue.
Wisdom is to speak
the truth and act
in keeping with its nature. (p 71)

Here Heraclitus may actually be helping us formulate a definition of wisdom. That “even-mindedness” seems rare in a time of polarization and extremes. Note also the manifestation of wisdom is in one’s speech and action.

Stupidity is better
kept a secret
than displayed. (p 73)

I imagine that the expression “it is better to remain silent and thought a fool then to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt” may have its roots in Heraclitus. This is indeed sound advice.

Dogs by this same logic, bark
at what they cannot understand. (p 81)

Heraclitus seems to have been a keen observer or listener as a number of his fragments recognize the all important connection between internal thoughts and external verbal expressions. As a dear friend of mine, who is well trained in the social sciences tells me, just listen long enough to people and you will have a very good sense of what is going on inside their heads.

Stupidity is doomed,
therefore, to cringe
at every syllable of wisdom. (p 81)

I so want to believe the essential truth asserted in this fragment. I only wish that this were clearly the case. However, most of us have been in a situation when wisdom and truth were (at least apparently and temporily) shouted down and silenced by the extremely loud and stunningly stupifying noise of a fool. I wonder if Heraclitus meant that ultimately “stupidity is doomed.” It seems his faith in the “logos” was ultimate, and I would conclude that our faith in “The Logos” should be even more confident about the ultimate outcome in the battle between stupidity and wisdom.

Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published on Musings of a Christian Humanist and appears here with Dr. Woods’ gracious permission.


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1 reply to this post
  1. One of the great problems in contemporary understandings of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, and even much post-Socratic Grek philosophy is the view that these figures were like modern professors of philosophy or engaged in the same sort of vocation as the likes of Bertrand Russell, or perhaps as some sort of proto-physicists. In general they were far more like a mix of spiritual teachers, mystics and magicians than rationalists or the modern idea of natural scientists. This has particularly muddied the water in the study of Parmenides, one of the greatest of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who has been turned from what he was, a Iatromantis or healer-prophet strongly reminiscent of a Indian sage, into the narrowly rationalistic Father of Logic. This has also helped us to forget the highly philosophical, in the sense of Plato or Clement of Alexandria though not of a modern philosophy department, character of the great epic, Greek poets Homer and Hesiod and of the whole of Greek religion. This has caused us to see the 'Greek miracle', not just inaccurately in the sense of a rationalistic, narrow pursuit it was not(ignoring some later figures), but inaccurately in seeing the rise of the true Greek philosophers as somehow in contradistinction to traditional Greek wisdom, and particularly religion.

    If this work helps us to properly understand Heraclitus in this vein, then it is to be welcomed.

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