Roll over Herakleitos


Man’s character is his fate.
—Heraclitus

“Ethos anthropoi daimon.” What could an old Greek and subject of the Persian Empire have meant by such a declaration? Many modern folk seem inclined to replace the implicit verb “is” with an explicit “determines”. It only makes sense to the modern liberal mind: a man’s character determines his destiny. How else could character relate to the unfolding of events, I suppose that they reason, but that is the rationale of a modern—and somewhat Western—mindset.

As an American, I am accustomed to the mantra of self-determination: “you can be anything you want to be”. I do my best not to repeat it. I certainly have my doubts that a pre-socratic Greek could have been proposing such a doctrine by putting the words ἔθος (disposition, character, custom, habit), ανθρωπος (man, mankind), and δαίμων (divine power, angel, fate, etc.) together.

He might have meant “a man’s custom is his angel,” or maybe “disposition is destiny.” Who can say for sure?

Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'
Bernard Maisner, The Way Up Is the Way Down – Heraclitus

We might strive to acquaint ourselves with the man, as obscured as he is by the ravages of time, before attempting to fit his words together. We ought to also consider what his words might have meant to a subject of the Persian Empire who lived before much of what we recognize as western philosophy was even born.

Heraclitus is known most as the philosopher of change. There is little doubt that change was a big part of his philosophy, but there is considerable dispute as to whether change was the centerpiece of his thought. I am inclined to side with those who see Heraclitus as a philosopher of universal unity and interdependence. When he spoke of change, he spoke of it not as arbitrary flux, but as the result of a harmonious dialectic of opposing principles, or forces. Given that, one can hardly see the Heraclitus who summarized his own thought as “all things are one” as a prophet of self-determination or radical individualism, or even of personal determinism.

So what might be a more likely interpretation? I would like to read the aphorism with an eye for irony, which I believe to be warranted given the general pattern of Heraclitean epigrams. If we take the word daimon to mean destiny, we should ask ourselves what Heraclitus might have meant by the word. Would he have meant the final destination of a man, at the moment of death perhaps? The words of Heraclitus give us a strong impression that he did not believe in ultimate destinations. In light of this, I believe it is reasonable to suggest that destiny must be seen as something fulfilled, in an immediate sense. Furthermore, a man who made it clear that he was aware of the external forces that can exert themselves upon a man, could hardly have believed that a man is impervious to external influence. Given these points, it seems to me that Heraclitus must have meant that a man’s character is his destiny, with destiny taken to mean the fulfillment of oneself; that is, not so much that one’s choices determine what one becomes, but rather one’s choices define what one is.

“I am my choices.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” — Albus Dumbledore

Does birthplace or name define a person? Hair color, or height? Coordination? Intelligence? Personality? Are these things characteristics, or circumstances? When we look at such so-called characteristics, we soon see them as our personal environment rather than characteristics that we can claim to be our own. Ultimately, the sum of these characteristics is the sum of our environment: existence itself. All things are one.

All that remains for the individual are one’s choices.

One cannot expect to change anything, but one can choose to change anything.

This is a rather stoic definition of personal destiny, but I think a stoic interpretation might be true to Heraclitus, given his evident awareness of the interdependence of things, and stoicism seems appropriate given the homage the stoics often paid to Heraclitus.

Heraclitus Down Under

Here’s Alan Saunders, host of the Australian program The Philosopher’s Zone, reflecting on the influence of Heraclitus on Australian philosophers John Anderson and John Passmore.

I find that what Passmore talks about most is not so much Anderson as Anderson’s lectures on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and in fact not so much Anderson’s lectures on Heraclitus as Heraclitus himself. About Anderson, I’m still a bit in the dark, but Passmore has convinced me of why Heraclitus mattered to him and why Heraclitus ought to matter to me.

As presented in ‘Memoirs of a Semi-Detached Australian’, Heraclitus is a philosopher of flux: change, the conflict of contrary things, is the essence of life. We cannot impose order from above; order emerges, in the way that it should emerge in democratic societies, when, as Passmore puts it, ‘contrary interests achieve a degree of balance without losing their distinctiveness.’

“Balance” is an apt enough term, I suppose, but I might have used “harmony.” The key here is that socially and politically, there is no one universal foundational truth. Truth is emergent.

Saunders continues, explaining how Heraclitus saw us as distinct, yet entangled to the point that we compose a kind of social organism that transcends individualistic notions such as active and passive individuals.

But however distinct we may be, we are inevitably entangled in all that lies around us. We can be spectators, says Passmore, but even a spectator can have an effect on the game: the way I look at you may have consequences for you and your behaviour.

Such a social dialectic has been infamously misinterpreted by Marxists to undermine the individual in society. Where they have failed to follow a truly dialectical model is in imposing a universal foundation upon society, and not allowing change to emerge organically, in a free society. The individual must be defended against all powers, whether those powers be kings or mobs, for the collective to thrive.

And what I see when I see you, or what you see when you see me, will be the result of whatever information we have and our earlier histories, all of which makes for a complex tangle of relations, which is why, Passmore remarks, Heraclitus warns us to expect the unexpected. We can never possess certain knowledge or make entirely reliable predictions.

This is a useful philosophy to have. I for one find it entirely congenial, and it tends to encourage a certain pluralism, or at least anti-dogmatism, of outlook…

See Ockham’s Razor, Aug 22, 2004

I agree with Saunders, though I do regret that dialectical thinking has too often been made the servant of dogmatism. Self-professed dialecticians since Hegel have oft as not failed to go the distance with the Heraclitean dialectic, and settled for the comfortable security of foundationalism. By employing dialectical thinking as a philosophical PR representative for universals, they have missed the point at best, and have at worst been guilty of philosophical deceit.

This reminds me of how Heraclitus, having evident respect for the genius of Pythagoras, called him “the prince of impostors.” Pythagoras was a mathematical genius who has had great influence on western thought, science, and Heraclitus as well, but who enslaved his genius to a dogmatic agenda.

“Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus pursued inquiry further than all other men, but choosing only what he liked from these compositions, made a wisdom of his own: much learning, artful knavery.” —Heraclitus

From Annihilation to Immortality

I admit to having been baffled by Nietzsche’s references to the doctrine of “eternal return” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. What did he mean when he asked how believing in such a doctrine would impact our lives? What difference would it make, I wondered, if I occurred once or a million times? From the perspective of eternity, is an identical repeat any kind of return at all? It seems no different to me than living once in eternity.

Ironically, I like that old Stoic doctrine of eternal return and conflagration. I guess I just like the idea that God just torches everything every once in awhile and starts afresh. But I do get the feeling that this doctrine worried many Stoics with respect to its impact on notions of personal immortality. How? I suppose many of them feared that their souls would burn up with everything else, and that couldn’t be much fun. One Stoic proposed that souls are spared. I suppose that many didn’t mind the spiritual burns so long as they got to come back.

Who am I to say, but I think they might have been missing the point.

The whole thing seems to have started with Heraclitus, who was big on fire as a primal substance, and also liked to stress the periodicity of things. But he may have meant fire as a fundamental political substance, or perhaps a fundamental moral substance. We cannot be certain that he was the material philosopher that some of his Ionian contemporaries were.

I like to think of the Logos of Heraclitus as a metaphor for political, spiritual, moral, and physical reality. I think it applies quite nicely.

One of the great strengths, I think, of Heraclitus is that he used the fire of opposition to deny all duration and individuality, to the point that all is so ephemeral that all individuality melts into a singular, universal Unity. This is similar to the principle of emanation in Neoplatonism, but it hinges upon an oppositional, harmonic dynamism not present in Neoplatonism.

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

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. — Heraclitus

The critical difference between Heraclitus and Plotinus is that Heraclitus took unity a step further. He saw all things in harmonious opposition, such that their most essential characteristics could not be extracted or isolated from anything else. A neoplatonist might see himself as a unique emanation of God, whereas Heraclitus seems to have seen existence as without such a center. We are not mere emanations, but equally central aspects of reality. Taking this thought the distance, “we” are ultimately one and the same.

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

That is a form of immortality that I can hang my hat on. Of course I still fear death and value my needs over the needs of others, yet I find in Heraclitus an unsurpassed philosophy for counteracting the pangs of self and change.

In this sense, conflagration can have a unifying, immortalizing influence on thought, but it really seems that the Stoics were altogether too dogmatic about it, and lost what seems to have been the spirit of Heraclitus to that dogmatism.

But then again, who are we to correct the Stoics on Heraclitus? They must have been much more familiar with him than we are. Is it possible that they were not as dogmatic as they seem from two millennia away? Perhaps Heraclitus was more dogmatic than he seems to me. Hard to know. Still, it is enough that those words of his that have survived the ages have inspired these kinds of reflections in others, and given us one of the great philosophical terms of antiquity: Logos.