Most people think philosophy is obscure, and I will not argue that there is no reason for such an opinion. However, there was only one philosopher, for who had earned the nickname “Dark,” and this was Heraclitus of Ephesus.
Not only ignoramuses, but also people of an extraordinary mind (for example, Socrates) considered the philosophy of Heraclitus very difficult to understand, although today any student after a brief acquaintance with the textbook will easily retell the main ideas of this thinker. The fact that the ancient Greeks did not have at hand our textbooks on the history of philosophy partially excuses their “lack of understanding,” but still does not completely clear the suspicion that we missed something important in the teachings of this philosopher.
How to Cite:
Halapsis, A. V. (2020). Man and Logos: Heraclitus’ Secret. Anthropological Measurements of Philosophical Research, 17, 119-130. doi:10.15802/ampr.v0i17.206726.
People write vaguely for various reasons. Sometimes a writer conceals the absence of original idea using difficult phrases and constructions. Obviously, this is not about Heraclitus, because his originality is undeniable. Sometimes the complexity of presentation is justified by the complexity of topic, and the author simply does not see the opportunity to explain his idea more simply. This is also not about Heraclitus, because he did not abuse, and even because this Greek despised the readers so much that he deliberately made his idea as less clear as possible. Cicero reproached him with the latter (Cicero, 1967, pp. 73, 319), and Diogenes Laertius explained that “he deliberately made it the more obscure in order that none but adepts should approach it, and lest familiarity should breed contempt” (Diogenes Laertius, 1925, p. 413).
It is natural to expect purported mystery from a priest, prophet, or founder of a secret society; Pythagoras secrecy is somewhat annoying, but at least it was justified by his strategy. As for Heraclitus, he did not create a sect, so he did not need to promise his supporters access to exclusive knowledge. If this is not just ambitions and arrogance, then there must be reasons for such a strategy. However, they cannot be extracted from what popular reconstructions of the Heraclitus` teachings provide. He appears as a person thinking outside the box, the author of witty aphorisms, misanthrope and an enemy of open society. For the former, ancient philosophers highly valued him and pay tribute to this day, aphorisms have become the property of the general public, and his arrogance and political views evoked both admiration and condemnation. Original, eccentric and gloomy hermit, a “typical” genius, whose greatest insights were combined with a nasty character and narcissism.
Heraclitus` philosophy was revolutionary for its time, but what could be secret in it? He was not the first to talk about arhe, about space, etc. Other Ionian philosophers were ready to share their knowledge with everyone, and Heraclitus for some reason did not want his knowledge to fall into unworthy hands. What did the philosopher of Ephesus try to hide from the ignorant, and what thought did he want to share with those who knew, what secret did this Greek hide from the uninitiated?
For two and a half millennia, many comments have been written on the teachings of Heraclitus of Ephesus and many reconstructions have been created, in the light of which all the shadows, it would seem, should have long receded. In addition to the traditional for the history of philosophy themes, oppositions of Heraclitian becoming and Parmenides being (Christidis, 2012), the image of the river as a symbol of variability (Narecki, 2012), the concept of Logos (Brann, 2011; Johnstone, 2014), Heraclitus attitude to religion (Adomenas, 1999), a reconstruction of his philosophy of nature (Habash, 2019; Neels, 2018) and political philosophy (Popper, 1945, pp. 9-14; Robitzsch, 2018), more specific questions are raised. For example, the problems of oblivion in the philosophy of Heraclitus are considered by David Michael Schur in a thesis, which was defended at Harvard University (Schur, 1994). The specific style of Heraclitus discusses Celso Vieira (Vieira, 2013), and Robin Reames discusses the influence of Heraclitus on the formation of rhetoric (Reames, 2013). But something prevents from depriving him of the nickname he got from his compatriots.
My hypothesis is the assumption that the main theme of Heraclitus` philosophical studies was not nature, not dialectics, and not political philosophy; he was engaged in the development of philosophical anthropology, and all other questions raised by him were subordinated to it to one degree or another. It is anthropology that is the most “dark” part of the teachings of this philosopher, therefore the purpose of this article is to identify the hidden anthropological message of Heraclitus. In case of success, it will become clear what made him “darken.”
Statement of basic materials
Many theologians and even spiritual writers turned to Heraclitus, and sometimes in cases that are completely unobvious, where we find ourselves at a loss: what does Heraclitus have to do with it? It would seem that in many places quotes of “more religious” authors would be more appropriate. For example, in the Gospel the quotes of the abstract-philosophical concept of the Logos or in a Treatise on Afterlife — of the sun movement. It seems that if someone to mention among the Greek philosophers in such cases, it is rather Pythagoras, Plato or Anaxagoras. Heraclitus encrypted his religious insights, as Diogenes Laertius mentioned. In later times, one thought that his characterization concerned only his presentation style – somewhat unusual, but not so complicated – wondering in secret how can he be such a misanthrope in order to present quite simple, and sometimes banal thoughts in such a confused language. However, the subject of philosophical reflection of Heraclitus was not a secret for the ancient Greeks. Maybe they did not really understand their meaning, but the range of interests was understandable, although not to everyone.
Every religion has its own mythological component – a certain narrative about the acts and adventures of the celestials – however, the degree of development of the mythological component varies greatly. The more developed the narrative, the greater the chance for the gods to continue their “posthumous” existence in folklore. Zeus and Athena, Poseidon and Aphrodite, Apollo and Artemis are much more alive than many of their colleagues from other countries due to the fact that many stories have been preserved about them.
But it is the narrative that most annoys those who prefer philosophical meditations to entertaining. Among the latter was Heraclitus, whose attacks on both traditional and non-traditional religiosity of his time gave rise to suspect him of materialism and even atheism. Nevertheless, the Ephesian thinker did not intend to debunk religion as such, but merely expressed neglect of the religiosity forms that the crowd was satisfied with. As Mantas Adomenas notes, the goal of Heraclitus` criticisms is not the religious practices themselves, but their popular interpretation (Adomenas, 1999). Bloody sacrifices, phallic processions and false sacrings, he perceived as a mockery of the sacred, wickedness and insult to the gods.
In turn, Heraclitus attracted religious authors (including the authors of the Derveni Papyrus and the Fourth Gospel) not as a materialist or, even more so, not as an atheist, but as a deep religious thinker who, ridiculing superstition, opened the way to a true understanding of the Divine. He did not try to create an order or a sect, did not engage in religious propaganda, and did not call himself a missionary of other worlds, a god or someone like that. Heraclitus was deeply religious, but almost not devout, being aimed not so much at the gods, but at divinity.
For a Christian, “divinity” comes from God, for a polytheist, “divinity” is what the gods themselves are involved in. Since even the mention of the gods was inevitably associated with the deeds that the poets attributed to them, it was not easy to extract from the stories about the gods the divinity to which philosophical minds were inclined. Therefore, Heraclitus had a low opinion of the national religion of his compatriots; in fairness, it must be said that he was not alone in the desire to whip Hesiod.
Divinity may be regarded as a kind of ideal, but at the same time, the gods who are worshiped and in honor of whom holidays, processions, sports, etc. are organized, can be very far from this ideal. The contradiction between the ideal of divinity and its carriers (“Homeric gods”) was too obvious, so when the Greek philosophers talked about god, they were talking either about abstract divinity, or (if god had the name) about some cosmic principle.
But the religious views of the Greeks were not limited to the traditional Olympic religion, there were also the mystical cults, the most widespread of which was associated with the name of Orpheus. Plutarch and Clement of Alexandria believed that Heraclitus borrowed many of his ideas from the Orphics, and some modern authors consider this an exaggeration (Sider, 1997, p. 148). Heraclitus was not Orphic, considering the mysteries of this sect to be profanation (as the Pythagorean sect was also a profanation for him), but he, despite his nasty temper, never reproached Orpheus. Moreover, he gave Orpheus` teaching an unprecedented depth.
It is Heraclitus, not Pythagoras – whose teachings were not of Greek origin at all – could be considered a reformer of Orphism, except for one circumstance. The teaching of Heraclitus in its nature is such that it could not be the subject of religious propaganda, and therefore these two lines have diverged so much that now their relationship is almost imperceptible to us. Nevertheless, it was, and it was not at all accidental that the author of the Derveni Papyrus (the intellectual Orphic, well acquainted not only with mythology and cosmology, but also with philosophy) in his commentary on Orpheus quotes Heraclitus, not Homer or Hesiod, not Pythagoras or anyone from the Pythagoreans (Betegh, 2006, p. 11; Kouremenos, Parássoglou, & Tsantsanoglou, 2006, pp. 129-130; Laks & Most, 1997, p. 11). But what was “Orphic” in Heraclitus and why did he arouse such interest among purely religious authors?
The fact that you cannot step twice into the same river is known even to people who are very far from philosophy, and many of them have no idea about the author of the aphorism. The latter is witty, but nothing more; Heraclitus was hardly the first to pay attention to the variability of the world. There is probably no person who at least sometimes is not regret the impossibility of returning to the past in order to change something, or even just… return. Yesterday said goodbye to us forever; tomorrow will be different in any case, unless, of course, the same thing happened to you as to the main character of the Groundhog Day. Plato noted that almost all sages, beginning with Homer, taught about the variability of the world, and only Parmenides was an exception (Plato, 1997, pp. 169-170). It is the teaching of the Eleatics, which clearly came into conflict with both the sense organs and life experience that should have seemed absolutely fantastic, however, it is Heraclitus who was called “Dark”, not Parmenides. Apparently, we do not even understand what the ancient Greeks did not understand at Heraclitus.
What river was Heraclitus talking about? This question seems to be meaningless. His words can be applied to any river; moreover, here the river is just a symbol. These things are obvious enough even to the ignorant. However, Heraclitus was reputed to be a man who deeply hid his thought. Therefore, we can assume the existence of several semantic levels. The waters change in all rivers, but there are rivers, the entry into which is by no means connected with swimming.
However, before approaching the water, let us sit on the bank and think about the bad temper of Heraclitus. His dislike for fellow citizens is well known, as is his hostility to most predecessors. But among the latter he especially singled out Pythagoras, whom the Dark Philosopher mentions several times and always in a sharply negative context. What is the reason for such dislike for the thinker from Samos?
I will not consider the version of rivalry and envy, for to suspect Heraclitus in this would be the downright indecency. Perhaps the Ephesian philosopher was irritated by combining the search for truth with ridiculous requirements (for example, with a prohibition on eating beans), just as he was ironic about Hesiod`s division of happy and unhappy days. However, the matter, it seems to me, is not limited to the rejection of the marketing strategy of Pythagoras. There is something else.
Here we come to the essence of the anthropological project of Heraclitus. The main theme of his search lies in the plane of human destination. His contempt for the majority of fellow citizens does not come down to aristocratic snobbery. Being in a crowd is bad, not only because the values of the crowd turn a person away from the search for truth, but also because this search itself, in principle, cannot become mainstream. There is no single path, single method, single model of knowledge, and for Heraclitus this is a fundamental point. Pythagoras, who created the order (sect) was to be perceived by the Ephesian thinker not just as a fraudster. And the accusation of plagiarism is also not without reason.
Pythagoras` guilt is not in neglecting the requirements of scientific ethics, and not in violation of copyright to intellectual property (they did not exist as social values), but in the initially incorrect approach to the search for truth. Pythagoras gathered other people`s knowledge, passed it off as his own and made his disciples strictly follow them. All this was expressed in formalized prohibitions and taboos, in absolute obedience and blind trust to a teacher who imposed both patterns of thinking and patterns of behavior (up to diet). Plagiarism (real or imaginary) is not the most serious. Even if Pythagoras invented all this himself, for his students it would not have changed much. After all, they would be sure that by accepting some doctrine and comprehending it, one can join in divine wisdom. But the fact is that comprehending other people`s doctrines is certainly the wrong way. Wisdom cannot be “borrowed” from others; it cannot be “copied” into one`s head. Knowing ten wise doctrines will not make anyone a “tenfold” sage.
It would seem that, although much knowledge does not bring wisdom in the literal sense, at least it contributes to its emergence. However, there is one subtlety. How exactly is knowledge delivered? If as a material for memorization, then there is more harm than good. A sage can only guide a disciple by showing an example of his own search. Therefore, Heraclitus did not look for followers, realizing that simple consent would not yield anything, because his treatise is not only a pointer to the Way, it is the Way itself. And this is the path to immortality.
Often, by “immortality” one mean unlimited life; the gods have it, the human tariff is limited, so the former are called immortal, the latter – mortal. Today, most people, thinking about the possibility of their own posthumous existence, imagine their own I in some other shell. My soul = I. At the same time, it is implicitly assumed that the soul remembers its life on earth, is aware of its I and generally is not different from its current state in its thinking. Indeed, if my soul does not remember anything from my life experience, it will no longer be my I. How to implement this without a brain is a difficult question. If this is not just a fantasy, then one should assume the presence of a kind of informational double and an alternative resource in relation to the brain. However, this is a separate topic that I have already discussed previously (Halapsis, 2019).
However, for the ancient Greeks the ability to remember the past was by no means obvious. Moreover, this was an exception and a special case. Souls are immortal, but the Greeks called man mortal. Because the immortality of the soul means little when there is no memory.
The Orphics believed that the situation was not hopeless; Heraclitus was of the same opinion. But unlike the Orphics, he did not think that hymns, prayers, mysteries, or anything else matters. Heraclitus declares: “Immortal mortals, mortal immortals [or, ‘immortals are mortal, mortals are immortal’], living the death of the others and dying their life”) DK 22B62 (McKirahan, 2010, p. 121). It is this vague phrase that gives the key to Heraclitian anthropology.
Gods do not die of old age, diseases, they cannot be killed (at least in the usual sense of the word). But the gods live the life (and death) of their worshipers, they are strong and powerful, while they believe in them; with the disappearance of the faith immortal gods fade into oblivion. The great and terrible gods of antiquity at the best became characters of folklore, and at the worst, they completely disappeared. Who remembers those worshiped by Neanderthals?
As for people, they die physically, and there is no one who would not know about this empirical fact. However, does everything human disappear with the stop of breathing and heartbeat? Man is distinguished from other living beings by the ability to think, his mind, consciousness; he stands between animals and gods. At the same time, an intelligent man is closer to the gods, and a stupid one is closer to animals. Does human consciousness disappear with the death of the body? The answer to this question depends on the quality of the soul.
One of the key ideas of Pythagoras was the doctrine of metempsychosis, which involved regular incarnations of the soul on earth – a doctrine that is quite attractive, but requires a large number of admissions. In fact, his main justification was his confidence in the teacher, who said that he allegedly remembered his previous lives. Heraclitus considers Pythagoras a deceiver, making the statement that you cannot step twice into the same river as a counter-argument. And if we are talking about the prospects of a posthumous existence, then the choice of rivers is not so great.
The Greeks believed that after death, the soul goes to Hades, in which, according to most myths, five rivers flow: Styx, Acheron, Lethe, Cocytos and Phleghethon (Pyriphlegethon). Charon carries the soul – according to some information through Acheron, according to others – through the Styx. In any case, death in the minds of the Greeks was tied to the image of a river through which it was possible to cross one-way, for Charon under no circumstances would take anyone back.
Pythagoras claimed the possibility of return of the soul and its embodiment into a new body, and it is against him that Heraclitus makes the argument: you cannot step twice into the same river! Just as one cannot step twice in the same “ordinary” river, one cannot cross Acheron (Styx) twice. Pythagoras is a fraud because he gives deceptive hope, according to Heraclitus, there will be no second chance. Cratylus, who thought he had surpassed Heraclitus by claiming that it was impossible even to enter the river once, in fact, understood him too literally, and therefore – fundamentally wrong. Heraclitus was not at all interested in swimming, and even the doctrine of the world variability was only an illustration.
Life acquires special value due to the fact that we all enter the very same river only once. Therefore, he is not interested in the Ephesians` invitation to participate in the government of the city, and he rejects the offer of the Persian king Darius, who promised him a full board in return for philosophical conversations. He has no desire to recruit disciples, and even more so, to create an order like the Pythagorean. Time is too expensive to waste on trifles. He needs to prepare to meet the eternity, and therefore he is engaged in self-knowledge (I searched myself (DK 22B101 (McKirahan, 2010, p. 115)).
However, these searches had little in common with the searches of Socrates, for whom self-knowledge was realized in the form of a dialogue with a comprehensive discussion of the problem and the results that were most understandable to those around him. Heraclitus considered knowledge to be the province of a few, and since the majority does not show interest in it, they cannot be allowed to the results obtained. Only a person of high intellectual and moral qualities will be able to follow the path of Heraclitus, and that is why he used the cipher, for the gods do the same: “The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign” DK 22B93 (McKirahan, 2010, p. 116). The example of the gods means not so much the aristocratic esotericism of knowledge, but the need for active participation in the cognitive process. The one who knows will understand, but the unreasonable cannot have access to divine secrets. And the central point of this mystery is the doctrine of the Logos.
Since the Logos is the highest cosmic principle, standing above the world and over the gods, one would think that it has nothing to do with an individual person. However, the Logos of Heraclitus is not at all identical with the God of Aristotle, but not because the Logos is closer to man, but because man is closer to the Logos. “The soul has a self-increasing Logos” (McKirahan, 2010, p. 123) DK 22B115; “A person`s character [or, ‘individuality’] is his divinity [or, ‘guardian spirit’]” DK 22B119 (McKirahan, 2010, p. 124).
The idea of the soul`s immortality also follows from the idea of the participation of the soul in the immortal Logos, which takes the discourse into a completely different direction. But the matter is not limited to a simple statement with which it could please fellow citizens like Zalmoxis convinced the Thracians that death does not exist. For immortality itself, oddly enough, gives little.
The human soul consists of fire, but it can be “dry” or “wet.” A wet soul neglects its own essence, dampens; there is little fire in it, which means little Logos. But in this case, there is also little immortality in it.
Immortality is usually not considered in a quantitative sense: either one has it or has not, for even the phrase “that one is more immortal than this one” seems very strange and ridiculous to our ears. For Heraclitus, apparently this was so. And he is quite consistent. His mind turns out to be not just a characteristic of man, but an ontological factor (remember Anaxagoras with his concept of Mind). Only a dry soul follows the Logos, for it most closely corresponds to the fiery nature of the latter.
All this is good theoretically, but what is the practical sense in following the Logos? And here Heraclitus opens the veil of secrecy, claiming that in Hades the sages will arise and become vigilant guardians of the living and the dead) DK 22B63 (McKirahan, 2010, p. 123). Later Plato developed this idea in Phaedon and Cratylus (Plato, 1997, pp. 60, 116). By the way, one of the angelic hosts is called Guardians in the Book of Enoch and in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Lumpkin, 2010; Martínez & Tigchelaar, 1999). Maybe this is a coincidence, but maybe not.
As David Shaw points out, the central element of Heraclitus` thought was the concept of divine justice, which for the Greek of his era meant the order of the universe (Shaw, 2018). Therefore, a dry soul will be awakened not by the will of one or another deity, but by virtue of natural reasons, for the Logos cannot be dead. The soul is immortal, not by virtue of its numerical essence, as Pythagoras believed, but because it carries a particle of the Logos. But this is potential immortality. Actually, it is immortal in case it awakens this Logos in itself and understands the unity of the Logos, and does not seek its own. A wet soul would also wake up, but there is nothing to wake up there: the small presence of the Logos is enough for its immortality, but not enough for self-awareness. That is, a wet soul does not die, but exists as plant or animal in Hades.
Heraclitus did not share the teachings of Pythagoras on the transmigration of souls, so reverent about the time on earth, realizing that there would be no second chance. He was angry and surprised by people who spend their only chance on stuffing their belly and other forms of self-indulgence. The flesh is finite, it is mortal and decaying, and the soul – the daemon – is eternal, and pleasing the flesh, man misses his chance to gain eternal life in the kingdom of the Logos.
Naturally, they could not help but outrage him who tried to join the deity through phallic processions, Bacchanalias and other unreasonable actions. It was crazy for him. And blood purification from these positions was also crazy. And Pythagoras in his eyes was like a charlatan who was shrouded in mystery, passing off grains of truth for his teaching. According to Heraclitus he committed the main sin: he convinced his followers that ritual actions or dietary food somehow affect the posthumous existence of the soul. Therefore, he became for Heraclitus the founder of the sacrificial knives – a kind of priest – or even just an Egyptian priest on Hellenic land.
Heraclitus regarded the soul as participating not only in the Logos, but also in the body. There is a spark of the Logos in the soul, but there are also bodily desires. The more a man introduces him to the Logos, the less he becomes dependent on the body, and vice versa: the more bodily needs burden the soul, the less space remains for the Logos. Even the most exalted man has in his soul a share of the earthly and bodily, and even the most stupid has a particle of the Logos. One soul will be drier, the other wetter, but both dryness and wetness are present in each.
At the time of death, each soul loses a part of itself, for its connection with the body is not at all something secondary. But a dry soul loses a small part of its essence, and a wet soul – almost everything. In other words, during the life of the body, a dry soul formed a fiery body with a hint of moisture, and a wet soul could not do this. Accordingly, one needs a supply of dryness, or a supply of fire, so that having lost a body, the soul could retain consciousness and self-awareness. Eternity is inherent only in that part of the soul that is part of the Logos, and if it is the greater part, then the soul, having lost bodily moisture, will retain its self; if the latter almost entirely consisted of bodily desires, then there will be nothing to be retained. Its eternal part will continue to exist, but in a plant or animal form, the soul whose self-consciousness was formed from the fiery element can continue a rational existence.
Therefore, Heraclitus writes not about resurrection or rebirth, but about the awakening of the souls of sages. The souls of most people are doomed to dreamless sleep, their own logos was too weak to connect with the cosmic Logos. And when Heraclitus writes about those who gorge themselves like cattle, this is not just aristocrat`s arrogance in relation to the crowd, it is a statement that these people miss their chance, becoming like cattle in life and doomed to bestial existence after death. Heraclitus did not see any opportunity to change this state of affairs, and grief was seen through his contempt, because it was no coincidence that his second nickname was Crying (besides the name Dark).
And the last one. An atheist, techie and pragmatist will never understand Heraclitus. Anyone who does not need a key will see his set of ambitions or assign him his own thoughts “in germ.” Christian dogmatist who is convinced that he has a higher truth than even the greatest non-Christian thinkers could offer, will understand him even less. He who believes that the divine truth is in his pocket does not need Greek philosophy, but any philosophy in general.
The philosophical concept of Heraclitus is still a mystery for researchers of his work. I proposed an interpretation variant in which various elements of this concept fit into a consistent model. The latter also allows us to understand the special attitude to this philosopher in the ancient tradition both from other philosophers and from the authors of religious texts.
Although the anthropological turn in philosophy is traditionally associated with the activities of the sophists and Socrates, the previous philosophical thought was also not without anthropological ideas. Moreover, pre-Socratic philosophers posed problems, the interpretation of which brought the doctrine of man to the level of high-order abstractions, while surprisingly preserving the concreteness of the life-purpose questions he faced. And one of the brightest representatives of pre-Socratic anthropology was Heraclitus of Ephesus.
His religious beliefs are usually seen as a complement to natural science, ethics, and political views. I tried to show that for Heraclitus everything was exactly the opposite. Religion was the motivator that made him study the world, man, and society. He was looking for a key, and he found it. He was not interested in either the game of the mind, or empty reasoning. He faced a very specific task, but he understood that the gods limited knowledge with good reason. His esoteric doctrine of salvation opened the way to the Islands of the Blest only for the most worthy – not for the most pious, kind and tame, not for the richest and most notable, but for the wisest. This thought contrasted with both the Olympic religion and the Dionysian cult. Naturally, it could not be accepted by Christianity as well.
However, the doctrine of the Logos developed by Heraclitus had a tremendous impact on Plato and Philo of Alexandria, and through them on the author of the Fourth Gospel, who begins his story with a “Greek” rethinking of the mystery of the Incarnation. If Heraclitus claimed that a person carries a particle of the Logos, then John (or the one who wrote on his behalf) proclaimed that the Logos itself incorporated a particle of man. Despite all the differences between these approaches, each of them postulated the cosmic (divine) significance of human existence, which means it brought anthropology to the ontological level.
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