July 22, 2013

"Death's Other Kingdom: Heraclitus On The Life of The Foolish And The Wise" By Herbert Granger

Below is an excerpt from, "Death's Other Kingdom: Heraclitus On The Life of The Foolish And The Wise" by Herbert Granger, Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University. Source: Classical Philology, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 260-281. Published by The University of Chicago Press. The excerpt below is from Pg. 260-264.
The common stock of humanity has no understanding of the nature of reality, thinks Heraclitus, and only a very few humans ever comprehend it. A significant number of fragments comment on the epistemic condition of the common man, and the frequency with which Heraclitus returns to the common man's epistemic state indicates that he thought it important to appreciate his plight. For plight it is. The contrast between the wise, who know the truth, and the foolish, who do not, could not be sharper; it is equivalent to the difference between the quick and the dead. Heraclitus develops his characterization of the ignorant mass of mankind through a number of images, the more significant of which may be appreciated as joining in the imagery of death. The dead who dwell in the house of Hades, as Homer depicts them, share many of the features Heraclitus ascribes to the foolish. The dead in the poems of Homer act like sleepwalkers who lead a kind of subhuman life, in which they suffer from forgetfulness and in most circumstances lack comprehension, sensation, and speech. A survey of the Homeric picture of the dead contributes significantly to the conclusion that Heraclitus judges the foolish to be like the dead as Homer portrays them. Like Homer and the Greeks in general, Heraclitus links sleep and death in a significant way, and his use of the imagery of sleep in his characterization of the foolish advances in a major way the impression that the foolish are like the dead. The fragments and the testimonies about his beliefs testify to the possibility that Heraclitus even believes that sleep is a form of death. The scholarship on Heraclitus has overlooked how the foolish are equivalent to the dead, and thereby it has not appreciated as fully as it might an important dimension of Heraclitus' epistemology. Heraclitus underscores heavily the great value he ascribes to wisdom by depicting the foolishness of the bulk of humanity as a kind of death. The wise who have knowledge, by contrast with the ignorant, would be like the living, and, since they are already alive, their life would count as a heightened state of existence, arguably comparable to the life of the divine.

Heraclitus gives prominence to something he calls "the Logos," what "all things come to pass in accord with" (B 1), but just what this Logos is remains a contested issue. The "Logos" may be the nature or essence of reality, what Kahn describes as "the eternal structure of the world as it manifests itself in discourse." Or, as others contend, it may be a universal principle or law that regulates the basic workings of reality. Or, as a few have insisted, it may be Heraclitus' true "account" of reality as he expresses it in his own book, or logos. Whatever the "Logos" may be exactly, Heraclitus believes that the comprehension of the "Logos" yields the comprehension of reality. According to fragment B50, it is what it is "wise" for human beings to "listen" to, instead of to Heraclitus, what they should "agree" with, or, more literally, what in their agreement they should make their own logos the "same" as. Human beings, however, "forever fail to comprehend" the Logos, "both before hearing it and once they have heard it" (B 1). Yet despite the incomprehension it generally meets with, the Logos is open to all and even possesses a certain kind of simplicity. It is common to everything, "all things come to pass in accord with the Logos" (B 1), and in its commonality it is available for the comprehension of everyone: "Although the Logos is common, most men live as though their thinking were a private possession" (B2). B50 furnishes Heraclitus' only surviving explicit declaration of the message of the Logos, "all things are one," which may provide the sum of its message in this concise form. At any event, the truth does not consist merely in "much learning," which does "not teach understanding." If understanding could be achieved through much learning, it would have taught those polymaths, who Heraclitus plainly thinks have no understanding, "Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataeus" (B40). Hesiod, like Homer, is an epic poet of the distant past, and, again, like Homer, he enjoys the high regard of the Greek world, "the teacher of most," says Heraclitus (B57). Hesiod's poems on the origin of the gods and on practical wisdom were staples of the curriculum of the educated Greek. Among the polymaths, Heraclitus also names members of a new class of intellectuals, those who engage in "inquiry" (iktaopiq), independent research on a variety of topics, including cosmology.

The truth or reality in its commonness stands before everyone, and in its openness it may even be described as what is "obvious": "Men are deceived in the recognition of what is obvious, like Homer who was wisest of all the Greeks. For he was deceived by boys killing lice, who said: what we see and catch we leave behind; what we neither see nor catch we carry away" (B56). The puzzle whose solution eluded Homer was part of the Homeric tradition, at least in late antiquity, and doubtless Heraclitus intends the puzzle to be emblematic of reality. The use of children as the propounders of this puzzle to the "wisest of all the Greeks" underscores the obviousness of the truth, and even its simplicity, since the puzzle may be expressed and understood by mere children.

Yet the "obvious" that stumps Homer, the "wisest of all the Greeks," is after all a puzzle. Since this puzzle likely reflects the character of reality, the commonality and obviousness of reality do not keep it from being a puzzle that is difficult to understand. "Nature loves to hide" (B123), says Heraclitus, and "the hidden harmony is better than the obvious" (B54). The "nature," pyUct, that is hidden is presumably not "nature" in the collective sense, but the "nature of things," the sort of "nature" Heraclitus declares in B 1 he will expound upon, "distinguishing each thing according to its nature and telling how it is."9 Reality in its puzzlement Heraclitus likely finds comparable to the puzzling oracles of Delphi: "The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither tells nor conceals, but gives a sign" (B93). The "signs" are there among the nature of things, "obvious" for those who may discern them, or once they have discerned them, but only if they bring hard work to bear upon them. Despite the openness of the truth, its apprehension is no easy matter: "Seekers of gold dig up much earth and find little" (B22).

The commonality and openness of the truth indicate that it requires for its acquisition no special dispensation of the sort that may be ascribed to the poets. Hesiod reports that while he was shepherding his sheep on Mt. Helicon the Muses of Olympus spoke to him and "breathed into" him "a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime" (Theog. 22-32). Homer calls upon the Muses of Olympus to recount to him the lords and the ships of the Danaans who fought at Troy, "for you, who are goddesses ... know all things" (II. 2.484-85). Since most of humanity remains uninspired by the Muses, the truth, if it issues only from the inspiration of the Muses, could not be common and open to all, but a special privilege vouchsafed to the few, those whom the divine Muses choose to favor. The hard work needed for the apprehension of the truth is also at odds with the immediacy of the poetic inspiration the Muses provide through their intervention. The hard work that yields the truth relies on the senses for its tools, capacities that are the common heritage of all humanity: "Those things that come from sight, hearing, learning from experience: these I esteem" (B55). Knowledge has an empirical basis, and does not depend upon the extra-human or the divine. The poets are special targets of Heraclitus' scorn, because their inspiration amounts to an exceptional claim for themselves, of possessing a special dispensation and the immediate apprehension of the truth without difficulty. Homer and Hesiod, the greatest and most revered of the epic poets, are singled out for contempt, although the poet Archilochus does not escape chiding (B42), as well as Xenophanes (B40), who also wrote in verse. The poets possess no special knowledge from the divine because they merely return to their audience their audience's own values. The common people "believe the bards of the people and take the mob as their teacher. . ." (B 104). If the common people who are the mob take the mob for their teacher in the form of the poets, then the poets in their poems would appear merely to return to the common people their own opinions. Reliance on the poets for the unknown is, therefore, reliance upon untrustworthy authorities (A23). Others who are not poets Heraclitus singles out for derision, those who through their "inquiries" might be thought to make an unjustified claim for themselves of a special knowledge. Among these Pythagoras, "the prince of impostors" (B81), receives special attention (B25). Yet the contempt of Heraclitus is not reserved for some benighted few, who are purveyors of pseudo-wisdom in one form or another. It takes in the great mass of mankind, and all are on a par in their ignorance: "Most men do not think things in the way they encounter them, nor do they recognize what they experience, but conjecture for themselves" (B 17, cf. B 104).

Heraclitus employs a number of images to describe the epistemic situation of humanity, and their situation is poignant. Many of these images merge in the imagery of death, as Homer may have conceived of death, or as we find it portrayed in the Homeric poems, and humans are in a state epistemically equivalent to death. Central among these images is the condition of sleep. When humans are not in contact in their thoughts with the common world of reality, the objective truth, they are in a private, subjective domain of their own making: "Although the Logos is common, most men live as though their thinking were a private possession" (B2). Pythagoras, who is perhaps Heraclitus' prime example of the peddler of pseudowisdom, "made a wisdom of his own," a wisdom of merely his own fabrication (B 129). The privacy of the ignorant amounts to a state of sleep, and the state of those humans who in their thinking are in contact with the objectivity of truth amounts to a state of wakefulness: "The world of the waking is one and common, but the sleeping turn aside each into his private world" (B89).