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Heraclitus and the Higher World of Logos
He had it figured out. But much is buried under modern assumptions.
German 19th century scholars who wrote about Heraclitus were a rather thorough lot: thorough in their command of the literature and ancient Greek, to be sure, but thorough also in their anachronistic projection of the ideas of their milieu onto poor Heraclitus.
On the bright side, 19th century scholars were also very spirited guys and didn’t pull any punches:
Such in brief is what Ferdinand Lassalle finds in Heraclitus’ book On Nature. As an exposition of Heraclitus it is not worth the space we have given it, or any space, in fact; but as one of the most beautiful illustrations of over-systemization, it is extremely valuable. Any formal refutation of his conception of Heraclitus is unnecessary, for almost the whole of it is without any foundation whatever.
Other scholars often didn’t do much better, as far as I can see. To be fair, Heraclitus’ work lends itself well to projections and anachronisms, because just a few fragments of his work survived: their content sketchy, their transmission dubious, their translation disputed.
Indeed, a lot hinges on the translation of certain key phrases and terms, such as his use of λόγος (Logos).
So let me join the fray (I am German, after all) and offer you my own reading of this fascinating ancient eccentric philosopher who back then seems to have been very famous indeed, and who has found new fans today in people like Iain McGilchrist or certain process philosophers.
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First thing to note is that the guy apparently didn’t have a very high opinion of his fellow men:
For what sense or understanding have they? They follow the bards and employ the crowd as their teacher, not knowing that many are bad and few good. (F104)
When they are born, they wish to live and to meet with their dooms -- or rather to rest -- and they leave children behind them to meet with their dooms in turn. (F20)
Those who hear without the power to understand are like deaf men; the proverb holds true of them -- 'Present, they are absent.' (F34)
The many have not as many thoughts as the things they meet with; nor, if they do remark them, do they understand them, though they believe they do. (F17)
To me one man is ten thousand if he be the best. (F49)
Many commentators have accused him of “elitism,” especially since it is claimed he was an aristocrat (who then became sort of a hermit). But well, look around; who’s to blame him? Who of those having paid any attention over the last few years wouldn’t agree with such statements? Heraclitus looked around, too, saw the folly, shook his head, and tried to warn people.
Besides, those who call him “elitist” seem to think that this is about education or class (projection, much?), but it is not: it is about the low tolerance for truth, and the “rude souls” put on display by too many people:
Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men having rude souls. (F107)
If Heraclitus saw his fellow men as having rude souls: what did he consider a great soul? And what were his cosmological ideas?
Heraclitus and the meaning of Logos
Consider this fragment:
Though this Logos is always true (always exists
Where I put Logos in this quote, the translation I used translated “the Word.” Various scholars have rendered it as Reason, universal Reason, Reason immanent in the world, the objective unconscious law of Reason, conscious intelligence...
What they seem to agree on, however, is that Heraclitus’ Logos expresses something along the lines of “the element of order or law in the ever-shifting world.”No doubt that was part of it. But modern scholars, it seems, just can’t help but think about it in either materialist or dualist terms. The key to understanding Heraclitus, however, lies in acknowledging that to his mind, the higher world and our world are much more intertwined than modern conceptions of the cosmos allow.
In such a cosmology, we exist both in the physical world and the higher world simultaneously. What we see in the physical world is an expression of the higher world and its higher, intelligent order: the Logos. We can learn how to discern the higher world and live according to its principles, but we cannot see it directly. To perceive it, we need to develop the capacity to see the unseen. As such, this view isn’t too dissimilar to Paul’s ideas about living according to the spirit, as opposed to living according to the flesh — the latter corresponding to Heraclitus’ “rude souls” that are unable to perceive the Logos.
Heraclitus states this pretty directly:
The Logos: though men associate with it most closely, yet they are separated from it, and those things which they encounter daily seem to them strange. (F72)
In other words: we are embedded in this higher world, from which our world emanates and which we must seek to comprehend, yet it is hidden from us due to our ignorance and lack of soul quality. Hence we can’t make sense of our daily experience: it seems arbitrary, random, cruel — because we are unable to discern the unseen world and its intelligence. So we must learn precisely that until our souls aren’t “rude” anymore, but refined: at which point our eyes and ears cease to be useless, because then, even while we perceive the physical world, we perceive the higher world and its principles expressed by it.
And it’s not the physical laws, or unseen electromagnetic forces, or Kant’s world of the “thing as such,” which we must get in touch with, as Oswald Spengler interpreted Heraclitus (though he was on the right track in certain respects).It is the higher, deeper plane of existence where the gods dwell, or even beyond where even the gods cannot go, because they too are subject to Logos. This higher plane is intelligently ordered, and the path towards wisdom lies in moving closer to that intelligence by recognizing its work in the visible world.
Logos is that which we get closer to if we decide to go up, towards cosmic order, the cosmic mind, towards Truth.
Once you look at it this way, it becomes much clearer what Heraclitus means with some of his aphorisms.
For example, this idea of an invisible higher plane of existence, from which our world comes to be and whose features and machinations we must infer, explains the apparent tension between these two fragments:
The things that can be seen, heard, and learned are what I prize the most. (F55)
Men are deceived over the recognition of visible things, in the same way as Homer, who was the wisest of all Hellenes; for he too was deceived by boys killing lice, who said: 'What we saw and graspted, that we leave behind; but what we did not see and did not grasp, that we bring.' (F56)
How can he claim that we should focus on the here and now, the empirical world, and at the same time proclaim that we are deceived over the recognition of visible things and imply that we should above all treasure that which we don’t see and can’t grasp?
Simple: unlike modern dualist conceptions, which harshly separate the physical and the supernatural worlds, for him, our visible world is completely embedded in the higher world; therefore, it is via the visible world that we can learn about the invisible world. Hence the focus on the empirical. But ultimately, we need to discern Logos, the higher plane, and our existence in it, which is a given. But we can’t see and can’t grasp it directly, which means we are easily deceived into abandoning it in favor of a purely earthly conception of the world:
The hidden harmony (attunement) is better than the visible (open). (F54)
Indeed, not recognizing the invisible world means we don’t see with our souls — even as we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, we have no clue what’s going on:
Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men having rude souls. (F107)
While we are at it: you can ignore the higher world and its rules and just focus on the earthly aspects of existence, incapable of discerning its higher meaning. But since our world is still embedded in the higher world, you cannot hide — and it will get ya eventually:
How can one hide from that which never sets? (F16)
The resolution of this apparent contradiction (focusing on the empirical but prioritizing the invisible) jives well with Heraclitus’ famous Coincidence of Opposites: the idea that apparent contradictions are what generates higher-level phenomena, like the two ends of a bow create the necessary tension to shoot an arrow.
An apparent contradiction can therefore be productive and in a sense resolved on that higher plane of existence: in the higher, invisible world, these contradictions come together via a process of becoming. They are joined in a higher order movement: like the harmonious sound of the string, which the tension makes possible.
In the visible world, this tension is very real and cannot be ignored. Contradictions matter. On the higher plane, they produce a qualitatively new phenomenon in the form of a deeper insight into Logos.
Wisdom is one thing: [to understand the intelligence by which all things are steered through all things]; it is willing and it is unwilling to be called by the name Zeus. (F32)
In other words, cosmic mind, intelligent cosmic order, Logos, is implicit in all things because our world is transcended by a higher plane of existence which we can discern; hence it is both Zeus (God, an intelligent actor literally residing on a higher plane) and not Zeus, because this cosmic mind is also an implicit order.
Heraclitus wants to highlight here the tension between law and intelligence, order and godly action, separateness and entanglement of visible and invisible world. As always, this tension generates flux, movement, strife, an energy of a higher order illuminating the higher plane — a light invisible to our senses, yet discernible to our souls. Logos is not Zeus; it is arguably higher than Zeus: the grand Cosmic Mind. Yet the gods live on a higher plane and are therefore closer to Logos and perceive it more directly. From our perspective, the “intelligence by which all things are steered through all things” can be called God, but it also refuses to be deified because in a sense, it’s all just the natural order of things.
What does it mean to live according to Logos and the higher world? Here is a clue:
For the very best choose one thing before all others, immortal glory among mortals, while the masses eat their fill like cattle. (F29)
What is immortal glory among mortals? Today, we would understand it as meaning something like “being remembered as a hero forever.” But given the entirely different cosmology of Heraclitus (and the different presuppositions of the ancients more generally), we need to take “immortal glory” literally: it means glory in the higher world, the invisible world, while still walking this earth, that is, while still living in the visible world.
It is not about becoming a hero for the masses, because why would that be the goal if Heraclitus thinks they are foolish gluttons? No, while earthly glory can happen due to immortal glory, it doesn’t have to: glory in the higher world is where it’s at, and it becomes all the more valuable if it is achieved not in the afterlife, but while still walking the earth, even though the masses might be utterly blind to it (rude souls, remember).
Judgement, Apocalypse, and Comets
Let me mention another important aspect here. Modern people tend to interpret ancient texts metaphorically — which is fine as it goes, since metaphors play a crucial role in thought and the ancients knew that very well (unlike many modern scholars, judging by their often dreadful prose). But such interpretations are also guided, it seems to me, by the deeply entrenched idea of progressivism: people in the past were primitive, and only step by step did they develop the right ideas, until today’s intellectual pinnacle has been reached. This implies that the ancients couldn’t possibly have known things that are completely lost today, or that in some respects they had a much sounder understanding of things than modern thinkers.
But if you leave open this possibility, then it would be wise to sometimes take the things people said in the distant past literally. Consider these fragments:
It is the thunderbolt that steers the course of all things. (F64)
The most esteemed of those in estimation knows how to be on his guard; yet truly justice shall overtake forgers of lies and witnesses to them. (F28)
The transformations of fire are, first of all, sea; and of the sea one half is earth, and the other half is lightning flash. (F31)
Fire coming upon all things will test them, and lay hold of them. (F 66)
This order, the same for all things, no one of gods or men has made, but it always was, and is, and ever shall be, an ever-living fire, kindling according to fixed measure, and extinguished according to fixed measure. (F104)
We have two ideas here: that of judgement and that of fire/lightening.
As we know, cyclical catastrophes in the form of comets and other extraterrestrial material seem to be a feature of our history, even though most historians don’t take these into account nearly as much as they should. But these catastrophic events are not only portrayed in myths all over the world, but we know that ancient people were obsessed with divination and observing the skies — presumably to get a heads-up to dodge the next such drama. They also tended to interpret those destructions as judgement.
Perhaps we should read these passages in Heraclitus in this light: if we fail to recognize Logos, to see the unseen, to truly understand the created cosmic order in which we are embedded, then we will bring justice upon ourselves in the form of death and destruction.
“Fire coming upon all things will test them, and lay hold of them” indeed.
We can understand this both metaphorically and literally: we will be tested, as indeed we already are; and this very much feels like fire descending upon us, burning us from the inside, but also kindling our spirit if we remain strong. But it might also literally rain down on us in the form of comets and what have you.
Heraclitus suffered no fools, perhaps because he knew that too much foolishness will provoke the invisible world, the eternal order, to coldly “extinguish according to fixed measure” our foolishness. Again, it is both Zeus throwing thunderbolts, but also not Zeus: a simple natural operation according to Logos.
This might seem cruel, but perhaps this is only because we have not learned yet to discern the true intelligent cosmic order:
For god all things are fair and good and just, but men suppose that some are unjust and others just. (F102)
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Introduction by G. T. W. Patrick to the Fragments, 2020 Digireads Publishing (Original published 1889), p. 12
Unlike otherwise indicated, translations and numbering of the fragments follow John Burnet, Arthur Fairbanks, and Kathleen Freeman, online available here.
Alternative translation by G. T. W. Patrick
Patrick 1889, p. 56 (footnote 4).
See also the part in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry about the pre-socratics:
“The opening of Heraclitus’ book refers to a “logos which holds forever.” There is disagreement about exactly what Heraclitus meant by using the term logos, but it is clear from DK22B1/LM9D1, D110, and R86 and DKB2/LM9D2 as well as DKB50/LMD46 and other fragments that he refers to an objective law-like principle that governs the cosmos, and which it is possible (but difficult) for humans to come to understand. There is a single order that directs all things (“all things are one” DKB50/LMD46); this order is divine, and is sometimes connected by humans with the traditional gods (it is “both unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus” DKB32/LMD45).”
Oswald Spengler, Heraklit: Eine Studie Über Den Energetischen Grundgedanken Seiner Philosophie, 1923.
Spengler unfortunately projects a lot of modern assumptions as well, and he too suffers from this canonized “grand story” of a simple progressive development of Western philosophy from humble pre-Socratic beginnings to modern (Kantian) sophistication, each poor Greek fellow adding bits and pieces by “discovering” or “first coming up with” certain ideas and distinctions deemed important to the modern mind.
Alternative translation by G. T. W. Patrick in parentheses
Graham Hancock has popularized some of these ideas; Victor Clube and Bill Napier have figured out the comet angle (The Cosmic Winter). For a tracing of those ideas in ancient texts, see Laura Knight-Jadczyk, Comets and the Horns of Moses, Red Pill Press, 2013