Sacraments

I am serious about my religion.
I don’t take its sacraments lightly.
They may cause you discomfort:
A long walk, a trusted companion, an open fire.
I cannot imagine a relic, a book, or a doctrine more sacred.
Perhaps you doubt them.
Perhaps I doubt yours.

A walk through a wood
A walk through a world
A friend
“Man’s best friend”
A crackling campfire
“The most tolerable third party”
A sworn companion
The Logos fire
Henry David Thoreau
A boiling star

The Hungriness of Stuff

We previously reflected upon the intimate, multifaceted relationship between ancient man and fire, and considered how easy it would have been for a man such as Heraclitus to conceive of the idea that fire is the fundamental constituent of all matter.

Heraclitus was, after all, a subject of the Persian Empire, a land of fire worship, and the reputed cradle of alchemy. Alchemy is a practice of transmuting matter that depends greatly upon fire. It seems to be a natural—albeit mystical—offspring of the bronze age.

Perhaps after recognizing the ubiquity of fire, Heraclitus reflected upon the nature of fire, and came to this conclusion:

Burning Man effigy, Black Rock City, Nevada

Burning Man effigy, Black Rock City, Nevada

fire is hunger and satiety.

—Heraclitus

Fire is indeed a hungry phenomenon. It seems to exist exclusively to consume, though the light and heat it has provided us through the millennia make it much more than a consumer. Yet it remains an archetype of consumption. Is not combustion the primal hunger within us? Is it not our deepest physiological craving for the fuels of combustion: oxygen and carbon compounds?

But fire is obviously not equal to hunger, for as consumption, it is also the satisfaction of its hunger.

Seeing everything around us as governed by this paradox, one can easily see the function of fire in the philosophy of Heraclitus. Heraclitus taught that the world is governed by a harmony of opposites. Recognizing that harmony, he saw wisdom in the working of things, but it was a harmony of war, of hunger. Whatever equilibrium he could see was a dynamic, cyclic equilibrium under tension. To Heraclitus, fire must have seemed fundamental both literally and metaphorically.

The Burning Bush

When God spoke to Moses, God took the form of a burning bush.

The fire is in the bush from the beginning.

The fire is in the bush from the beginning.

Why did an ancient Israelite think that God would take the form of a self-immolating bush?

It might be natural enough to think that fire consumes a bush, but there’s another way to see it—the way that many ancients saw it: the fire is in the bush from the beginning. It’s not really such a crazy idea if one considers that the fire cannot occur without what’s in the bush. Sure, the fire also needs oxygen, but again: the bush exhales oxygen as it generates wood and foliage. It provides the fire with everything it needs. It is, in a real sense, a terrestrial offspring of the sun, waiting to ignite.

With the igneous nature of vegetation in mind, consider the igneous nature of the earth. Volcanoes could not have escaped the awareness of the ancients. With accompanying seismic activity, it must have been easy to conclude that the earth itself has a fiery cauldron at its heart. Gas and oil seeps, when ignited, may have lent some corroboration to this conclusion. Indeed, it is well-known that a fire temple recently made use of the natural gas seeps at Baku, Azerbaijan.

Ancient peoples didn’t just see fire in vegetation and in the earth. They saw fire in the sky. Of course they saw the sun as a heavenly fire, but they even saw the stars as fires:

the brightest of these flames, and the hottest, is the light of the sun ; for that all the other stars are farther off from the earth; and that on this account, they give less light and warmth; …

—Diogenes Laertius, Life of Heraclitus

The Baku fire temple, depicted in a 1919 postage stamp.

The Baku fire temple, depicted in a 1919 postage stamp.

It is easy to underestimate the value of fire to ancient peoples. Fire gave them an ability to function at night. Fire defended men from large predators. Fire was a weapon of war, a companion in the hunt, and a tool for managing vegetation.

But more remarkably, fire seemed capable of transforming things. Fire tenderized and flavored food. Fire sterilized flesh and purified water. Fire evaporated water. Fire transformed clay to pottery. When iron was placed in fire, the iron itself would take on the the color and heat of fire, and suddenly man could reshape matter.

But fire got even more amazing with the advent of the bronze age. Fire had previously been used to forge iron and transform flesh. Now it would be used to transform matter itself. Alchemy would naturally follow.

Ancient peoples must have felt a tremendous sense of awe when witnessing the transformative power of fire. It had long been our companion as a species, to be sure, and it had also remained an untamed force of nature. Whether embodied as the sun, the thunderbolt, or a metalworker’s forge, it is a god who holds a special place in his heart for humanity.

No wonder, then, that the Persians worshiped it. No wonder they associated fire with the very ordering principle of the universe. No wonder that Heraclitus—an Ephesian subject of the Persian Empire—did the same. Fire seemed capable of transform anything.

The dream of transformation that fire once nurtured in man lives on today, if only in the nooks and crannies of our cultures. According to the Persian religion that I was raised in—the Bahá’í Faith, the first sign of the coming Kingdom of God on Earth will be a new, revolutionary science of alchemy:

The first sign of the coming of age of humanity referred to in the Writings of Baha’u’llah is the emergence of a science which is described as that ‘divine philosophy’ which will include the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements. This is an indication of the splendors of the future stupendous expansion of knowledge.”

—note 194 to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 254

This very same religion assigns its most tortuous, cruel punishment to the crime of arson. Is not such a sign of respect for the power of fire a form of worship?

Today, we don’t think so much of fire, yet we, with our gas-fired power plants, furnaces, boiler rooms, and internal combustion engines, are every bit as dependent on combustion as our ancient forebears were—to say nothing of the other forms of fire. We are a civilization of fire worshipers, though our iconography has changed.

The Cradle of Ethical Metaphysics

If we turn to the Gathas to determine the geographic origins of Zoroastrianism, it seems reasonable to conclude—or guess—that Zoroastrianism originated somewhere in or around Bactria-Margiana. Recent discoveries of what appear to be ancient, pre-Zoroastrian fire temples in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC), appear to confirm this line of reasoning.

The alleged fire temple at Dashly-3

The alleged fire temple at Dashly-3 (Bactria)

But we cannot necessarily conclude that all aspects of Zoroastrianism can be traced back to the same time or region. The definitive doctrine of cosmic dualism, for instance, is not apparent in the Gathas or in the archeological finds of Bactria-Margiana. Perhaps we can say that the Zarathustra of the Gathas taught that some thinking is good and some is bad, and that dishonesty is a chief characteristic of the latter, but that does not necessarily mean that Zarathustra taught a doctrine of ethical metaphysics—or cosmic dualism, as identified by Nietzsche.

So what would be a good guess as to the geographic origin of cosmic dualism?

When, for starters, did the Zoroastrian Satan “Angra Mainyu”, or Ahriman, first appear?

We know that the words Angra and Mainyu do first appear together in the Old Avestan as “bad thinking” or “miserly thinking”, which is opposed to “Spenta Mainyu” or, roughly, “bounteous thinking”. So it is reasonable to credit the Gathas of Zarathustra with the philosophical seed of cosmic dualism, but it does not necessarily follow that Zarathustra was a cosmic dualist; indeed, it seems positively unlikely that he was.

The earliest evidence available to us at this time of cosmic dualism was an account of Herodotus (484–425 BCE) of the Magi [I 140], which he seems to have identified as a tribe of the Medes, distinct from Persians but related thereto. All Herodotus mentioned was that it was customary among the Magi to kill noxious beasts. Western accounts of Ahriman and cosmic dualism do not emerge until Plutarch (46–120 CE), well into the Parthian era, and probably before a word of the Avesta was put into writing.

In light of this scarcity of evidence, it seems peculiar that what we recognize as Mazdean dualism is so similar to the ideas of Heraclitus, who was a contemporary of Darius, and predated Herodotus by two or three generations. Heraclitus, though, appears to have been critical of the Magi (though he may have been using the term as a generalization for sorcerers, faith healers, etc.). Still, it seems likely that someone by the name Magi were battling “noxious beasts” before the time of Heraclitus. Perhaps their primitive notions of good and evil caused him to reflect on the ubiquity of opposition in nature, but I’m inclined to go a little further and suggest that the dialectic of Heraclitus was probably a response to a doctrine of universal opposition that was commonly known and discussed in his corner of the Persian Empire.

I think it’s fair to credit the term “Ahriman” to Zarathustra, but I am not so sure that the idea of Ahriman is as Zoroastrian as it is Magian, and the Magi, to the best of our knowledge, were Medes. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain that the Magi weren’t a priestly caste throughout the Iranian world.

Where did this cosmic war between good and evil originate? It is not easy to say. Because we cannot say that it began in the Old Avesta, it seems difficult to claim that it originated in the lands of the Old Avesta. Perhaps the best we can say is that it is an Iranian idea. That would include modern peoples from the Pashtuns to the Kurds, and perhaps the ancient Scythians and Sarmatians as well. But when we look at what we have heard of those ancient tribes of the steppes, we find nothing even alluding to cosmic dualism, which might lead us to suggest that it might have been an invention of the Bactrians or Margianans who succeeded Zarathustra, or even the Medes or the Persians. Perhaps the evidence that points to the origin of the name “Ahriman” in the vicinity of Bactrian-Margiana is the best evidence we have for the geographic origin of the idea of Ahriman; but isn’t it possible that Ahriman derives from a Median word of similar meaning?

At this time, I am inclined to credit the Old Avesta as the inspiration behind the idea, and the lands of the Old Avesta as the soil where the seed was fist planted, some 500 years before Herodotus. There was plenty of time for the idea to develop. When and where it first took the form of doctrine is difficult to say.

Good, Evil, and Plutarch

American Faravahar

American Faravahar

Henry David Thoreau, an obscure 19th Century classicist and journalist who earned a reputation as a decent translator of Greek works, once reflected on the profound presence of Evil in the world:

Are there not two powers?

—Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Jan 9, 1853

Among the Greek classics which Thoreau is known to have read is Plutarch’s Moralia, which includes an essay

wherein Plutarch argues that the prevailing wisdom of all peoples is based upon a common belief in a cosmic dualism of Good and Evil.

… it is from two opposite Principles and two antagonistic Powers; … that Life becomes of a mixed nature; …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLV

The primary example provided by Plutarch for what he regards as a universal belief is the Zoroastrian religion, to which he dedicates two sections of “On Isis and Osiris”.

And this is the opinion of most men, and those the wisest, for they believe, some that there are Two Gods, as it were of opposite trades—one the creator of good, the other of bad things; others call the better one “God,” the other “Daemon,” as did Zoroaster the Magian, …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLVI

But when Plutarch endorses these cosmic dualisms, he endorses them as representations of a deep, moral-metaphysical reality.

Just before Plutarch brings up Zoroaster, he argues against Stoic Deism and the Materialism of Democritus and Epicurus, criticizing them as opposite, equally unacceptable extremes. He summons our friend Heraclitus to introduce the alternative:

… the harmony of the universe is reciprocal, like that of a lyre or bow, according to Heraclitus, …

On Isis and Osiris, XLV

And just after discussing Zoroaster, Plutarch returns to Heraclitus, combining three of the Ephesian philosopher’s fragments into a single compound argument:

Heraclitus directly calls Mars, father, lord, and ruler of all things; and says that Homer, when he prays that “Perish Contention, both from gods and men,” forgets that he is cursing the origin of all things, inasmuch as they derive their origin from contention and antipathy, and the Sun will not overpass his appointed limits, otherwise: “The avenging tongue of Law would find him out,” …

On Isis and Osiris, XLVIII

Thus we find in Plutarch Zoroaster sandwiched between slices of Heraclitus. One might dare suggest that Plutarch saw some correspondence between those two ancient thinkers, one an Iranian, perhaps a Mede or a Persian, and the other a Greek subject of the Persian Empire.

Seeing Zoroaster in this light, not as a literalist but as a proto-Heraclitean, I wonder what fruit an imaginary encounter between Nietzsche and Plutarch might bear. What if the German were to suggest to the Greek that he had seen the potential in Zarathustra and thereby reformed the Persian prophet, beyond Good and Evil, into a Heraclitean? Would Plutarch have been surprised? Might Plutarch have asserted that Zarathustra was a Heraclitean all along?

Zarathustra the Yes Man.

There is perhaps no message more essential to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra than the whole-hearted affirmation of life as an individual experience.

I am a blesser and a Yea-sayer, … into all abysses I carry my blessing Yea-saying.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3.4, Before Sunrise

This affirmation of life as a whole appears to be the end to which Nietzsche employs the Stoic notion of eternal recurrence, but his affirmation of everything owes much to Heraclitus (who may have inspired the Stoics to think of eternal recurrence in the first place). Fundamentally, it is the Heraclitean vision of the impermanence and intertangledness of everything that causes Nietzsche to take valuation of life “beyond good and evil”. But that is another discussion.

What I wish to point out here is that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a prophet of affirmation, and an iconoclast to the idols of rejection.

To Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the enemy is the teacher of rejection, the “preacher of death”:

There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom rejection of life must be preached.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.9, On the Preachers of Death

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra has also been called a prophet of “dionysian pantheism” and “amor fati”. This is not exactly the image that most Zoroastrians have of their prophet, but the two Zarathustras are not as dissimilar as one might presume, for Zoroastrianism is notable as a religion that values “this life” most of all, and considers this “physical” or “getig” world to be the full realization and highest state of existence.

The getig existence is better than the previous menog one, for in it Ahura Mazda’s perfect creation received the added good of solid and sentient form.

—Mary Boyce, “Zoroastrians”, page 25

The Avestan origin of the word “getig”, Gaethya, derives from a root gay-, jay-, meaning ‘to live’. The opposite of getig is “menog”, which derives from the root “to think”. Though the mental world is considered the primal world, it is the living world that is the ultimate fulfillment of existence. Zoroastrianism does not look to any world but the present “living” world for its ultimate fulfillment, and in seeking that fulfillment, it endeavors to defend a twofold principle of virtue that is at once Truth and Life against the opposite principle of Lie and Death.

Though Nietzsche may indeed have thought that his Zarathustra was the true prophet of life-affirmation, I sometimes pause to wonder whether the fatalistic sense of his doctrine of eternal recurrence is, as Heidegger thought, actually a rejection of the transient character of life. It may be that the Zoroastrian idea of engagement in a cosmic battle or ethical striving is a better model for a truly life-affirming worldview, even though it does not depict every aspect of existence as equally blessed.

No other religion expresses as clearly as Zoroastrianism the affirmation of life, …

—S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, pg. 118

The earthy, irreverent, self-parodying joviality that distinguishes a part of the Parsi character was born of a mixture of influences that included the Zoroastrian life-affirming outlook, …

—Jesse S. Palsetia, The Parsis of India, pg. 186

The Zoroastrian conception of human existence is essentially a joyful and life-affirming one…

—Diané Collinson and Robert Wilkinson, Thirty-Five Oriental Philosophers, page 4

Also Sprach Herakleitos

Nietzsche’s choice of the Iranian (not necessarily Persian) prophet Zarathustra was far from arbitrary, and Nietzsche wanted us to know this.

“I have not been asked, as I should have been asked, what the name of Zarathustra means in precisely my mouth, …” — Ecce Homo

Though taking the title “the first immoralist,” Nietzsche did not suggest that his Zarathustra is the anti-Zarathustra, as one might superficially presume. Nietzsche, rather, believed that the great dualist of old would be the first man to discover “the death of God,” as it were, because of the nature of the Zarathustrian worldview.

“Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things: the translation of morality into the realm of metaphysics, as force, cause, and end-in-itself, in his work.” — Ecce Homo

It was the cosmic dualism of Zarathustra, as Nietzsche knew the prophet, that led Nietzsche to make such use of him. To Nietzsche, as to many others, Zarathustra is the prophet that brought morality and metaphysics together, seeing good and evil as the very metaphysical fabric of reality. This was the first essential aspect of Zarathustra. The second essential aspect is the fundamental distinction between Zarathustra’s good and evil: Truth (Asha) and the Lie (Druj). To Nietzsche, Zarathustra was the most honest prophet, so Nietzsche thought that the honesty of Zarathustra would ultimately prevail over his moralism, taking him “beyond good and evil.”

“Not only has he had longer and greater experience here than any other thinker … what is more truthful than any other thinker. His teaching, and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supremem virtue. … To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is Persian virtue. — Have I been understood?” — Ecce Homo

That triumph of honesty over the idols of moralism is a central theme of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

“I count nothing more valuable and rare today than honesty.” — TSZ, Of the Higher Man (4.13.8)

Nietzsche plays with other Zoroastrian themes throughout the book:

  • Mountains: Zarathustra was as much a mountain prophet as any, and Nietzsche loved mountains.
  • He returns repeatedly to purity, even speaking of the need for cleansing after childbirth.
  • He honors cattle, and the ox, more than once.
  • He likens Zarathustra to a rooster, a bird that is treated with reverence by Zoroastrians because of its role as a harbinger of the dawn (3.13.1).
  • Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, like the Zarathustra of tradition, experiences an enlightened moment wherein he doesn’t cast a shadow.

Beyond Good & Evil

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is no nihilist, but rather quite the opposite. The lesson is not that good and evil are irrelevant; they are crucial:

“No greater power has Zarathustra found on earth than good and evil. … without evaluation the nut of existence would be hollow.” — TSZ 1.15: Of the Thousand and One Goals

This is not the only passage where Zarathustra associates good and evil with power.

What Nietzsche’s Zarathustra discovers is that they are not static:

“Allegories are all names of good and evil: they do not express, they merely hint. A fool is he who wants knowledge of them!” — TSZ 1.22.1

“May your virtue be too lofty for the familiarity of names: and if you must talk about her, be not ashamed to stammer about her. So speak and stammer: … I do not will it as the law of a God, …” — TSZ 1.5: On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions

Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek subject of the Persian Empire who lived circa 500 B.C.E., said something quite similar about the allegorical nature of truth:

The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.

What Zarathustra sees in good and evil is what Heraclitus sees in his Logos: a harmonious war of loving antagonists.

“… the secret of all life! That there is battle and inequality and war for power and predominance even in beauty … How divinely vault and arch here oppose one another in the struggle: how they strive against one another with light and shadow, these divinely-striving things.” — TSZ 2.7: Of The Tarantulas

How closely this observation resembles what Heraclitus sees in the bow and the lyre:

“People do not understand how that which is at variance with itself agrees with itself. There is a harmony in the bending back, as in the cases of the bow and the lyre.”

For Heraclitus, the world is not merely flux, but more: the world is a war of opposites, but it is also a symphony.

We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (DK22B80)

War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. (DK22B53)

Heraclitus criticizes the poet who said, ‘would that strife might perish from among gods and men’ [Homer Iliad 18.107]’ for there would not be harmony without high and low notes, nor living things without female and male, which are opposites. —Aristotle

Another angle of this unity of opposites is the unity of ascent and descent. Both Heraclitus and Zarathustra have something to say on this particular theme:

“The way up and the way down are one and the same.” — Heraclitus

“Summit and abyss—they are now united in one!” — TSZ 3.1: The Wanderer

This symphony of opposition is the key idea that Zarathustra and Heraclitus have in common. Near the end of the final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the prophet sings:

“All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love; …” — TSZ 4.19.10: The Drunken Song

Likewise, Heraclitus says:

“Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.”

Heraclitus & Zoroaster

This commonality between Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Heraclitus is startling, but what is also startling is that Heraclitus may have also recognized the common ground between his own thought and the Zarathustra of antiquity, for there are some striking similarities between the two:

  • To Heraclitus, the world is a war of opposites; to traditional Zoroastrianism, the world is a war between two opposing forces (Good and Evil).
  • Heraclitus drew a parallel between his Logos and fire, just as the Zoroastrians’ universal principle of Asha is associated with fire. Heraclitus is thought by many to have taught that the world is made of fire, whereas Zoroastrians are thought to worship fire.
  • Heraclitus draws an identity between “the wise” and divinity; the God of Zoroastrianism is named “Lord Wisdom”.
  • Heraclitus lived in the Persian Empire, perhaps 1-7 centuries after Zarathustra.

Seeing all this commonality, it is not hard to see a triad formed by Heraclitus and the two Zarathustras. One might venture to assert that both Heraclitus and Nietzsche strove to take the theme of Zarathustra beyond the dogmatism of Zoroastrianism, though, whereas Nietzsche made a point of making references to Zarathustra, Heraclitus appears to have taken the opposite course, perhaps in an effort to avoid being associated with the Persians among his fellow Greeks, or possibly to discourage any suggestion that his “Logos” is in any way a derivative of any doctrine.

Nietzsche could even be seen to have taken that departure into the poetic, musical style of Thus Spoke Zarathustra specifically to serve the theme. In doing so, Nietzsche conceived of a protagonist that is not unlike our image of Heraclitus: something of a hybrid between poet and philosopher; a cryptic, contrary riddler and hermit; an elitest and yet a prophet for universal affirmation. Even Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence, similar to a Stoic doctrine that was likely inspired by Heraclitus’ notion of a cyclic return of things to fire, teaches a somewhat Heraclitean lesson of world-affirmation. There is much in common between Nietzsche and Heraclitus, and much of what they share can be attributed to the legacy of Zoroastrianism, itself a religion of world-affirmation.

Gods of Wisdom


The wise (sophos) is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus. —Heraclitus

Zarathashtra worshiped something he called “Lord Wisdom” (Mazda). He called his religion Mazdayasna, which translates to “worship of wisdom.” Heraclitus might have been the first Greek to advocate philos-sophia, or “love of wisdom.”

Heraclitus and Zarathashtra made a God of wisdom. What might they have meant? “Wisdom” is such a commonly used word with secondary shades of meaning. The greek word “sophia” is no less versatile. Heaven only knows the full breadth of the Avestan “Mazda”.

My fat little Oxford Dictionary of Current English provides the following definition:

wisdom • n. 1 the quality of being wise. 2 the body of knowledge and experience that develops within a specified society or period: oriental wisdom.

Alright, so wisdom is primarily a derivative of the adjective wise. That sounds about right. What is wise?

wise • adj. 1 having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment. …

I believe this definition does a fair job of breaking wisdom down into its particulars.

Judgment

Good judgment is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of what we think of when we hear the word wisdom. It is necessary because the notion of wisdom depends upon a notion of rationality.

Choice (Action)

Wisdom cannot be automatic or mechanical. It must involve choice. To suggest that any process can be consider wise if that process was not an outcome of some decision is to propose a concept other than wisdom.

Hence, one might rightly say that if freedom is an illusion, so is wisdom.

Action (and wise inaction) are critical to wisdom, of course, but one might argue that so long as wisdom is embodied, it seems that action and inaction are implied in the idea of choice.

Experience & Knowledge

Experience and knowledge are also necessary to the definition, and I don’t think that personal experience and acquired (or a priori) knowledge merge into one, nor do I think that wisdom can be seen as implying one to the exclusion of the other.

Virtue

The adjective good is crucial to the adjective wise, and I don’t think that any specific definition of what is good is necessary to require this. What is wise is dependent upon what is good, regardless of what good is established to be.

To suggest that wisdom could be defined in an amoral context, using a broad, philosophical meaning of moral (ethical, virtuous), would be to violate the general meaning of wisdom, for the word wise must imply judgment that serves the good. To put it simply, it is generally understood that wisdom is a good, virtuous thing. Let’s remember: we are attempting to understand a word, rather than describing an actual phenomenon.

To summarize, wisdom consists of:

  • reason (judgment)
  • choice; action/inaction
  • direct experience
  • knowledge (innate & acquired)
  • goodness

Can we rightly use these concepts to describe the thought of Heraclitus and Zarathushtra?

With respect to Heraclitus: reason, knowledge, and direct experience were crucial, but the roles of choice and goodness in his thought are debatable. Choice may be permissible to his pantheistic God. The fragments of Heraclitus do not seem fatalistic in their social arguments, so one might claim that choice goes without saying. As for goodness, Heraclitus claims that good and evil are not universal aspects of existence. But would it not have been paradoxical for Heraclitus to tout the virtue of his Logos without considering the Logos—in some sense—good? When he spoke of a universal sophos, he must have been implying a higher good.

Regardless of what attributes the actual Zarathushtra acscribed to his God Ahura Mazda, it can fairly safely be claimed that notions of choice and goodness are fundamental to his religion. There is substantial evidence that Zoroastrianism values reason, but I am not so sure that knowledge and experience are fundamental to Zoroastrianism. Some Zoroastrians may claim that their religion values knowledge, and that it is a very empirical religion, but I am dubious on the suggestion that any traditional religion can be called empirical. Still, if we posit that Zarathushtra, be he real or myth, did worship wisdom to the exclusion of all else, we must incorporate a respect for knowledge and direct experience into his religion, for is it not evident that knowledge and experience are the chief elements of the most primitive notions of wisdom?

Haunted by Heraclitus

Heraclitus is not merely turning in his grave, he’s haunting his inspirations.

It appears that an image of a painting that was inspired by Heraclitus’ aphorism the way up is the way down somehow underwent a vertical flip somewhere out on the aether, such that the way up is quite literally the way down:


Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'


The Up-Way Up

(How Maisner painted it)


Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'


The Up-Way Down

(how I found it)

I encountered this painting by Bernard Maisner on the online Harvard Square Library. I came across the image on the right while searching for an abstract representation of the theme of the aphorism. When I posted it, I asked for Maisner’s permission, and—to make a short story shorter—he very gracefully noted that the image was upside down.

It turns out that the orientation of the actual painting is significant, as it contains text that is somewhat more readable when up-side-up.

Ethos as Destiny

This is a continuation of our reflections on character as destiny.

We left this discussion having stripped down the self to nothing but her choices, but that was not where I wished to leave her. I would sooner clothe her in all the particulars of the universe than leave her a naked abstraction.

Heraclitus of Ephesus

Charles H. Kahn breaks down Heraclitus’ epigram ethos anthropoi daimon as follows:

‘character, for man [is his] daimon’. The meaning of the sentence depends on the meaning given to daimon.

As discussed before, we could read this as it has often been read, as the pronouncement of an inspirational speaker: yes, you are the master of your own destiny!, or a Kahn puts it, the cause is not in the stars but in ourselves. That may be how Heraclitus meant it, but as I have argued previously, it sounds a little out of character (pardon the pun) for a man whose mantra appears to have been all things are one.

Kahn suggests two basic definitions for daimon:

  1. one’s destiny, fortune; one’s prosperity or misfortune
  2. a god, divinity, or angel; one who distributes or assigns a portion

I believe both of these definitions are equally appropriate, and I’m not terribly concerned with drawing a distinction between them. My concern is whether Heraclitus intended to suggest that character is the lone causative agent by some causational unfolding of one’s personal destiny, or rather, whether Heraclitus may have meant that character, as is said of virtue, is a destiny—a fortune—unto itself.

Though Kahn does not address this issue directly as it pertains to this specific epigram, he does discuss it in relation to another aphorism.

But if everything that goes up must come down again, since there is no transmundane realm, no escape from the cosmic cycle …, one might question the coherence of this conception of the soul’s path upwards to celestial light or fire as a ‘greater destiny’ … where is there any ultimate difference of principle between the nobler and the baser fate, where in the long run is there any advantage allotted to wiser lives or better deaths?

Here we see Kahn confronting Heraclitus, and demanding consistency of him. If we do so, we must suspect that daimon must mean something other than one’s ultimate condition at the moment of death (or ascension).

Kahn continues …

This is the specifically Heraclitean form of a general question that any monistic system of ethics must face. And Heraclitus would surely have answered like Spinoza: the beatitude which rewards a life of excellence is the quality of that life itself; in his own words ‘man’s character is his fate’, his daimon for good fortune or for bad.

Hence, we might reword the phrase a touch:

Character, for man, is his fortune. —Heraclitus

… and we might be reminded of something that was said 500 years later:

Virtue is its own reward —Ovid

I think I prefer the non-compensatory language of Heraclitus, ambiguous as it is.