VI. Heraclitus and the Metaphysical Tradition (1967)
Recording of May 10, 1967
Transcribed and partially edited by Alexander Bazelow and Fran M. Hassan
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HERACLITUS AND THE METAPHYSICAL TRADITION
Today, I wish to speak about Heraclitus of Ephesus and I am trembling. Because he is such a forbidding figure. He wrote one book, and what we have left of this book are fragments, pieces taken out of other people's texts; and we are forced to ask the question, how come so little is left (1). Heraclitus was a strange Greek. He did not believe in freedom, which was very rare in Greece. He was a tyrant himself -- a tyrannical nature. We cannot approach him with love, there is nothing in him that is lovable, nothing at all. He was a hard, cold, forbidding figure, and that was how he conducted his life. He made himself hated by everyone and he hated everyone. Why was he forced to do that? He had a vision of the world, a metaphysical vision, which became, much later, very fruitful for the whole development of science and philosophy in Europe. The Greeks -- his co-citizens in Ephesus -- not only killed him; they drove him into the temple of Diana, where he had to starve to death. No one could kill him in that district, but no one could bring him food. And there he finally ended his life the way he had begun it, detached from everyone and every thing. On the world, and on the things of the world, he had thrown a cold eye; and on his fellow human beings as well.
It is natural enough that very few Greek philosophers followed him. They called him the dark one, the obscure one, but we have seen since he was resurrected in the nineteenth century that he is by no means dark, that he is by no means obscure. He created, like the philosophers that preceded him, a view of the cosmos as a well ordered universe, but he did it in such a way that there was not a bit of consistency in it, and the Greeks just hated that view. They were afraid of him, and that is why they neglected him, and by this neglect the tremendous house that he had built disintegrated, and we are left only with these few pieces. We could perhaps say that Anaxagoras was really the only one who followed him, but he had to replace Heraclitus' principle of "the logos," with his own principle of "the nous". All of the others were his enemies. The philosophic and poetic situation in Greece at this time was ruled by Homer. Poetry had created the first world view of the cosmos for the Greeks. It was a very optimistic world view. And then this man turns up who offends everyone, who claims to hate, not only Homer: I said, he hated all men. He hated Homer especially. Xenophanes, and later Plato, attack Homer because of his theological views. They didn't want the gods to be as immoral as Homer had portrayed them. But Heraclitus speaks of Homer in terms that would have insulted him. Homer was the God of the Greeks, everyone was educated by Homer and they loved him. Much later, old philosophers like Socrates will still say
"The youth love lyric poetry and when they grow into men they love dramatic poetry and tragedy, but we old men still turn back to Hesiod and Homer, because there is so much more in them."
Heraclitus rejected that absolutely. He speaks mockingly about Hesiod and Homer. He asks us to look at them, those heroes of the Greeks, they did not even know that "All is One" and yet they call themselves wise (2). What he did was to create in opposition to Homer the first great work of Greek prose. Poetry confronted by prose.
He was such a sober man. From where we stand today, we would say that he wanted to look at the world scientifically, and so he had to hate poetry. He not only hated myths, he was one of the greatest smashers of mythical thinking that ever lived. Listen to him, as he speaks of the Greeks as drunkards,
"vainly purifying themselves by defiling themselves with blood just as if one had stepped into the mud, and then were to wash his feet in mud. Any man who marked him doing thus would deem him mad." (3)
"they pray to these images, as if one were to talk with a man's house, knowing not what gods or heroes are, but Hades is the same as Dionysus in whose honour they go mad and rave." (4)
He invented a kind of prose that is greater, even in the leftovers than the other great Greek prose written by Thucydides. It is so hard, so cold, it could almost be called, although he was not a Spartan, laconic. Statement after statement apparently well-joined in the original, and yet cold like Greek marble, a wonderful and masterful prose. In this sense, these few pieces are like a Greek temple that has fallen down and been completely destroyed, and in these fragments we still can find the image of the whole, Then we see the internal style, and we can reconstruct him to a certain degree, because all of the main elements are still there.
Not only did he hate myths, he hated those he considered to be the contrivers of myths, namely poets.(5) For him, these are old wives' tales they told to each other and to the people; he wanted the truth, and nothing but the truth, and for that only did he lead his life, It is a model of utter detachment--from human beings, from gods, from everything. If we consider a modern scientist, who tries to be objective and who lives an objective and detached life because he has to, he is nothing compared to Heraclitus. The phanatism [sic] of detachment becomes visible, metaphysically paving the way for this great capability of man, and for the existence of the whole line of scientists. Only, in science it is but a partial capability, and this is as it should be. Heraclitus was this capability completely. He was, so to speak, a victim of his vision. The capability of scientific thinking requires that we do, although we cannot succeed completely, our utmost to be as objective and as detached from the object of knowledge as is humanly possible. Heraclitus was almost superhuman in that he achieved this perfectly.
For an idea.
He has a vision of the cosmos and he has to present that vision, and then he leaves this book and dies. Arrogant! He is the most intellectually arrogant figure that I have ever seen in all of world history. He is also the bravest, because he had a new world vision and he denied everyone and everything the right to talk down to him, He wrote,
"fools when they do not hear, are like the deaf; of them does the saying bear witness that they are absent when present." (6)
I hear an echo, in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche. Zarathrustra says,
"I do not write for idiots; those who cannot try to understand me shall better be blinded by my wisdom." (7)
An aristocratic, a haughty Position. It stems from Heraclitus. Although we have only a few political sayings left, we can very well conclude that his original conflict with his co-citizens was that he was logically obliged to erect a tyranny. (8) He was anti-democratic as we have never seen anyone in Greece being an anti-democrat, out of principle. (9) Because he only knew he was right, he only knew the truth, and nobody else. He was not a politician, but he was mixed up in politics, and that is the root of the hatred against him. He withdrew from politics, because he had more things to say.
The cosmos of Homer and of all the other Greek thinkers, however it is explained, whatever principle they find, whether it be Anaxagoras' nous, or Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, they all move away from the principle Heraclitus presented, and that was the principle of the logos. We know today what we owe to him. We owe to him the invention of a principle that makes scientific work and the scientific mind possible. There wasn't any such principle before him. Earlier, Thales is credited with starting science by a hypothesis, saying "All is water.". Then Anaximenes said "All is air." They were looking at the world without any beliefs, and they wanted to find out its basic material. Then comes Heraclitus, and he says "fire." And he doesn't mean the whole world "is" fire, he doesn't mean the element, because he tells us that fire will change into water, and water will change into fire, and the earth will change into both fire and water. Here we see for the first time a vision of the possibility of interchanging elements. We have today discovered many more elements since that time. The alchemists used Heraclitus for many centuries because they wanted to make gold. Today we can make gold, only it is too costly. Since we have atomic science, we can indeed change every element that exists in matter into another element. We have only to rearrange the atoms. That was a far look ahead, when he talked about the interchangeability of the elements.