Heraclitus Moralized

urlIn the absence of judgment, a person is passive, shallow, phoney, outwardly; indeed a pathetic, decrepit being. Alas, conjecture would expect the moral disdain of Heraclitus to be encouraged by the noteworthy and prized human capacity for autonomy. Contemporary moral theory of a Kantian kind would claim that rationality is the seat of autonomy. As opposed to absolute notions of negative freedom where a person is characterized as free to the extent that there are no extrinsically imposed obstacles in the way of choice; freedom is understood to be a self-imposing law or rule that springs from processes internal to the will of each individual. By implication, a Kantian could argue that by virtue of this self-imposing rule one is necessarily bound to compliance; obligated to uphold that very law which is the out birth of one’s deliberation. Paradoxically to some, anything short of this would ground one in a course of “unfreedom” or heteronomy.

            Heraclitus certainly endorses the view that moral respectability presupposes self-control. So, for instance, in a blaringly moral context, a man in a drunken stupor is described as someone who requires assistance from a boy because he does not know where he is going.[i] The drunk is outwardly shameful, and inwardly humiliating. The lack of restraint here assuredly highlights the disdain Heraclitus felt for the layman previously encountered in fragments of an epistemic kind.[ii] Connecting the dots, the intemperate person may be described as an ignoramus lacking judgment and therefore unable to make worthy decisions. Perhaps drawing out the point of self-governance, “Souls slain in war are purer than those that perish in disease”. Where the meaning is that when death is brought on because one so happened to be inflicted with a disease he is both passive and dies as a victim of a fate not of his choosing. Whilst, the death of a soldier is that of a man that dies in honor, as the protector and defender of a state, for instance. The participatory mode of creditable experience has been noted throughout[iii] but it is beautifully epitomized with “life’s death” in the most dynamic and ethico-political demise of the warlord.[iv]

            Passive individuals play an inactive role in the tapestry that makes up their own life for they are disinclined, stupefied or overwhelmed. They are pathetic, thereby unable to stand up for themselves or commit to anything more enduring than the immediacy of the present. They are vulnerable to the currency of their beliefs; they can be swindled into abiding acceptance of anything; they can add up the riches of life’s experience in a pigeon’s droppings. As much as such people are lacking in character, they are fated to live-out[v] an unarresting, uninteresting, fruitless, boring, life of utter psychological fatigue. Such a life is without value, not because it is wanting in social acceptance, economic affluence, material possessions, or professional acknowledgement. Indeed, the lives of the masses are valued by others and for others. What does this mean? When a person adopts extrinsic evaluations¾other individuals, groups of individuals, social norms, etc.¾as the driving force behind their choices and as the determinant of self-worth, then this person is valued by others. When a person internalizes these extrinsic evaluations, then this person is valued for others.

            Heraclitus’s meaning seems to be that life is worthy only when it is valued from the inside out. The existential fervor of Heraclitean thought hasn’t gone unnoticed.[vi] Existential thought is raging two mutually exclusive battles, it would seem: as one grips the “temporal” in a stranglehold, one simultaneously embraces one’s quietly ferocious “Eternal”. With Kierkegaard’s aesthetic man in mind[vii], The temporal, often misunderstood as the existential foot-hole, when extrinsically oriented wastes even “the hedonic” on momentary gratification that has the power to ignite only a match; yet, when cultivated from the inside out with the patient concern of a connoisseur the temporal experience builds up to such great intensity so as to ignite the atomic bomb. The outwardly hastens to new hedonic delights finding himself lost in the frenzy of infinite insatiability, whilst the cultured hedonist relishes in one’s yearning for unconsummated satisfaction. Driven by his hedonic impulse the youth seeks to capitalize on all and every given opportunity; yet, the matured opts for the slow steady path of selected pleasure where vigilant indulgence spins a yearning of ever-greater intensity. Enjoying in the temporal, it is the matured that has immortalized the hedonic experience through the inward participatory mode of the committed quest. The Heraclitean moral dictum similarly would castigate the sheep-like extrinsically oriented mongrel and harness moral worth to that individual who can “stand for the truth of one’s own self-discovery and self-transcendence” and simultaneously feel the immense burden of responsibility weighing heavily upon one’s shoulders.

            Still, whilst Heraclitus condemns others for their epistemic asceticism, it was he who, paradoxically, retreated to a life of recluse solitude. Still, no self-respecting being, Heraclitus might argue, could retain one’s dignity living side-by-side with the decadent.[viii] To do so would require a measure of tolerance that necessarily implies comprise. Heraclitus is a person of principle, no measure of comprise is small enough so as not to jeopardize his committed search and abiding to the one Truth, Logos. Yet, would a Heraclitus not promote the view that “an opinion not worth fighting for is an opinion not worth having”? When the aforementioned moral import is combined with the Theory of Conflict the easy suggestion would be that seclusion is a cop-out. The pulsating glue that keeps the entire network of interconnected parts together throughout is opposition or conflict. “Even the posset separates if not stirred”[ix] (fr. 125); indeed, “the bow (βιός) is called life (βίος), but its work is death” (fr. 48). Given that Logos pervades the Reader in the same way that it does the World, it would not require a stretch of the imagination too great to surmise that as someone gains greater insight she is also prodded forward dialectically such that her opinion is tested against opposing ones either intrinsically or extrinsically located. In an ethico-social demise she would engage in the arduous task of elevating to an understanding of greater depth that would comprise the comfortable niche of her superficial counterpart, the masses. Playing devil’s advocate then, is it not possible that Heraclitus attempted to engage his counterpart but that she incessantly rehashed the same fixed viewpoint leaving his words to fall on deaf ears, so that the so-called exchange of opinions would be at a standstill and lead to a stalemate? The option of avoiding conflict and opting for “quiet resolve” or “polite servitude” would lead to moral impoverishment and cause a person to recoil to the wanton path of compliance. However, Heraclitus stands his ground over an ever-growing opponent, all of humanity. We only need hearken back to his contempt for the masses as a reminder. So in a very real or literal way Heraclitus sets himself outside of the socio-political enclave of his stifled opponent and lives by himself.

[i]. “A man drunk is led by a boy, stumbling and not knowing where he goes, having his soul moist” (fr. 117).

[ii]. More particularly, “Right thinking is the greatest excellence, and wisdom is to speak the truth and act in accordance with nature, while paying attention to it” (fr. 112).

[iii]. Thinking without judgment; reading without interpretation; experiencing without presence of mind; doing without forethought.

[iv]. There are a number of interconnecting themes that cannot be considered in the space of this work. A few include Heraclitus’s Conflict theory (‘war is the father of all things’; “People do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre”; “The bow is called life, but its work is death.”) and his Theory of Flux (“We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.” “It rests by changing.”).

[v]. “Man’s character is his fate” (fr. 119).

[vi]. Friedman has included Heraclitus amongst the forerunners to existential thought in his The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader, 22-23; also Sprigge mentions him with regards to his impact on Heidegger in his Theories of Existence, 117. Of course, Heidegger and Nietzsche stand out amongst existential thinkers who were hugely impressed by Heraclitean philosophy.

[vii]. The aesthetic man found in early works has served as my inspiration. See Kierkegaard’s Anthology, esp. “The Diary of a Seducer”.

[viii]. Existential thinkers notoriously employed the term decadent in reference to values that lead to the ultimate decay of man or where man is prone to a herd-mentality and inauthenticity. See Nietzsche, Sartre.

[ix]. In Greek κυκεών translated posset. This was a drink comprised of a mixture of wine, barley and grated cheese. The ingredients would not dissolve in the wine and hence would require constant stirring so as to keep thoroughly blended and thereby bring out all the flavor of the elements that comprise it as one.


Except from The Pedagogic Mission: An Engagement with Ancient Greek Philosophical Practices, Elly Pirocacos, Lexington Books, 2015.


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