From the vertiginous summit of his virtue, and against all evidence to the contrary, Heraclitus informs us that “it is wise, listening not to me but to the logos, to agree that all things are one.” Thus, with far greater subtlety than his ancient Stoic heirs, and long before his greatest modern disciple, Nietzsche, Heraclitus enjoins an affirmation of the whole world. But many aspects of this world are hard to affirm—conflict, suffering, death—and he does not ignore them, nor does he dismiss them with the sort of pat theodicy that has given other immanent spiritualities a deserved reputation for insensitivity. Instead, he makes them integral to his paradoxical worldview.
It is easy to misconstrue this integration as bellicose. “One must realize that war is shared,” Heraclitus writes, “and conflict is justice, and that all things come to pass in accordance with conflict.” Although this aphorism deliberately evokes the bloody war and greedy conflict denounced by his epic rivals, Homer and Hesiod, Heraclitus has in mind a universal principle according to which every unity is to some extent a tension of conflicting opposites. His best examples are bow and lyre, since both must strain in opposite directions just to be the unities they are. But their unity in opposition reverberates further. The lyre, for instance, needs the initial opposition of its frame and strings not just to be a lyre but to produce a higher opposition of notes, which together form a harmony. This harmony, in turn, may oppose the voice of a singer to achieve a still richer unity from additional opposition, and so on. Heraclitus invites us to see every unity, similarly, as a harmonious opposition. Put the other way round, he invites us to see every conflict as a harmonious unity.
Along with the meditation on time, culminating in recognition of our ephemeral selves, this second spiritual exercise about conflict is at the heart of Heraclitean philosophy. This second exercise is more difficult to maintain when we are not bystanders to conflict but suffer it ourselves, and most difficult when the outcome is death. Yet so too is the first meditation most difficult to maintain when the self that slips away is someone we love (la mort de toi) or, in time, ourselves (la mort de moi). Death thus presents us with the biggest challenge to the practice of both Heraclitean exercises, giving their spirituality its melancholic atmosphere, but also exposing its fundamental unity. Heraclitean spirituality is a meditation on death.
Lest it seem morose, however, we must remember the flame, recalling how it embodies the contradiction between need and satiety whenever it is frozen in a moment. With fire as our paradigm of greedy time, then, we should not be surprised to find everything in it simultaneously dying a death and nurturing a life. Sometimes the life is said to be its own, sometimes it is said to be another’s. In either case, Heraclitean spirituality is no less a meditation on life. Ultimately, though, it regards both life and death as unified in their opposition, harmonious in their conflict.
Heraclitus sometimes hints that fire is his god, just as he gives to war the epithet of Zeus (“father of all and king of all”), but the one aphorism that defines this god makes clear that he is celebrating not fire or war in particular, but rather the temporal unity in opposition that they exemplify: “The god: day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger. It alters, as when mingled with perfumes, it gets named according to the pleasure of each one.” In this English approximation, as in the Greek original, the first sentence lacks a verb, or any syntax at all; it is nothing but a series of nouns. The second sentence of the Greek, in a way that is impossible to represent in English, has no explicit subject; it is nothing but syntax. What is Heraclitus saying with this odd juxtaposition between parts of speech?
With grammar as our metaphysics, we are tricked by nouns into thinking of the things they designate as static: “fire” and “self” seem to refer to stable things, to nuggets, although we have seen how they misrepresent their referents by doing so. Heraclitus destabilizes this implication by first listing only nouns that are polar opposites, suggesting that the god is no one static thing to which any of them refers, but is instead the temporal process of opposition between them all. Ignoring the lesson of this aphorism, for a moment, and lending this divinity the nominal illusion of stability, we could say that Heraclitus’s god is simply time itself. To dispel such an illusion, though, he switches in the second sentence to verbs, which more naturally convey processes and time. Were he less artful, and more Heideggerian, he might have said that god gods, or even that god gods in his godding. But such a ruse would have accomplished little beyond obscurantism. Verbs too may trick us into ossifying the world, into thinking processes themselves are stable.
When we think of a river or a fire, how often do we think of them as stable, if not static, things? (Things, to be precise, that could exist in a moment without contradiction.) Without practicing Heraclitean meditation—reminding ourselves perpetually of the passage of time, reminding ourselves often of the nonsense produced by trying to thwart its greed—the candid answer must be: almost never. So seductive is the illusion of this stability, fostered not just by language but also by the inveterate nostalgia of the human heart, that even with Heraclitean spiritual discipline we do well to affirm time’s passage sometimes; at best, often. To help us along, Heraclitus juxtaposes this aphorism’s two sentences in a unity of perfect syntactical opposition, using grammar itself to dispel the illusions of grammar. The logos he reports with this aphorism on god is not fully in one sentence or the other, then, but rather in the harmonious tension of the two. As so many other aphorisms, moreover, this one exhibits the logos it conveys: the immanent god is the unity of all these opposites, never static but always exceeding itself, the very process of their opposition at work in thought, language, and the world alike.
Yet this god redeems us neither from time nor from its conflict; on the contrary, the affirmation of this god promises to immerse us more deeply in both. This immersion nonetheless responds to our désir d’éternité, the longing for eternity to which every spirituality must respond: “Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living the other’s death, dead in the others’ life.” If our selves really are like rivers, sustaining themselves only for a while by the patterns of their flows, then the interruption of these flows is tantamount to their death. But we have already noticed how just an aphorism may effect such an interruption. Heraclitean aphorisms thus have murderous power, but so too do psychoanalytic interpretations, great works of literature, religious liturgies, the traumata of childhood, assassinations, wars, and so many other unpredictable events of this marvelous world. Even in our everyday lives, within every moment, within our very selves themselves, old selves die and new ones are born. Indeed, if we climb all the way to the Heraclitean summit, we survey a landscape in which there is no self at all. No self, that is, if we look for any thing. For the self is no thing.
Mourning death properly retrieves new vitality for life, and this truth we learn from the deaths of our beloveds proves no less true with the daily sacrifices of our passing selves to greedy time. These little deaths may go unremarked as we bustle about, too busy to attend their neglected funerals, but each one that goes unmourned takes its silent toll. Only with the past mourned can the future be welcomed. This is the lesson of Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, but also of the Heraclitean spirituality that is its ancient heritage. Jubilation must be mixed with the grief that is its due, jubilation over the infinite births made possible by grieving no fewer deaths. Every moment lived and felt consciously, even with some small awareness of its fractal complexity, should therefore be a moment of equal joy and pain. Freud elaborates the techniques of this spiritual practice, and Nietzsche adds affective color to its cognitive austerity, most of all when he writes in Zarathustra:
Have you ever said Yes to one joy? Oh my friends, then you also said Yes to all pain as well. All things are enchained, entwined, enamored—if ever you wanted one time two times, if ever you said: “I like you happiness! Whoosh! Moment!” then you wanted everything back.
The insight of these profound words would deserve liturgical incantation were repetition not inimical to their spirit. Yet they are often mistaken for a cosmological speculation about the eternal repetition of time, which should rather terrify than console, as Nietzsche intended. His genuine consolation to our frustrated longing for eternity is not in eternal repetition but in the carefully focused recognition and consequent celebration that time brings the birth of new mini-selves as well as the death of old ones. If this consolation be sufficient for everyday life—and in those whom it has consoled, from Marcus Aurelius to Proust, its cultivation by daily meditation is no easy task—when we face the supreme test, the death of a beloved, we may bring our discipline to a higher level, rising above the quotidian flow of mini-selves to see a higher-order pattern, the macro-deaths and macro-births of macro-selves. The logos is the same. With practice, so too is the consolation.
In fact, the same logos and consolation can be iterated infinitely to meet the demands of our dolorous world: to mourn the deaths of whole families, communities, and nations; to mourn intellectual and artistic traditions lost, civilizations in decline, and the inevitable demise of humanity itself; indeed, at the outermost reaches of this spiritual exercise, were it imaginable, the Heraclitean would contemplate the demise of this universe, the succession of universes of which it is a part, the succession of this succession, and so on. With each death comes a birth, and with each birth a death; for no matter the unity, it must be a harmony of opposites. To be sure, with each iteration the logos becomes more difficult to affirm, both emotionally and intellectually. Yet none but its heroic sages need ever climb to those uppermost heights. We succeed if we come to terms with la mort de toi and la mort de moi. The richest example of someone who climbed this high was Proust. His novel brings us along as his Narrator—with whom he deliberately confused himself toward the end—elaborates this spiritual exercise, sustaining it over a lifetime, until he produces the creative dissolution of self into an all-but-immortal work of creative art.
How Proust does so is a story for another post, but for now the Heraclitean meditation on time and conflict—whether upon a river, a fire, a lyre, or oneself—seems enough to produce a vertiginous wisdom. It is thus tempting to bottle this wisdom in a formula, to underwrite proscriptions and produce guidelines; in short, to fashion a Heraclitean ethics rivaling the other traditions of Greek philosophy, especially the Platonic and Aristotelian one that made rationality our function. According to this tradition, long dominant in Western philosophical history, we are best when we are most rational, worst when we are least so. So long as the notion of rationality be given some content—and Aristotle’s whole philosophy, coming to a point in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, accomplishes this task—such a formula can prescribe specific virtues, and even specifically virtuous actions, while proscribing certain vices, along with their associated actions. Pitting Heraclitus against Aristotle, we could say that our function is creativity, so that we are best when we are most creative, worst when most repetitious. But can Heraclitean wisdom be frozen in this way? Two serious problems arise if we surrender to this temptation.
The first problem concerns the content of the function it would ascribe to us: could it really prescribe specific virtues, let alone specific actions, while also proscribing vices and their attendant actions? Not all good appears creative, nor all evil routine. What about the saintly monk who appears a paragon of routine, or the inventive murderer of so many horror films? Appearances may deceive here. Yes, the monk may appear to the uninitiated to be living by a formula, just as the writer of sonnets may appear to the trendy critic to be writing by numbers, but the monk himself will tell you that the formula of his exterior life frees him to innovate in his spiritual interior—where true spiritual innovation happens. Conversely, if there is any truth in horror, looking within the soul of the apparently inventive murderer, we are more likely to find the repetitious fantasy of the coward than the fearless confidence of the creative artist. Plato tried to show this by opening up the tyrant’s soul for our inspection toward the end of his Republic, and Freud elaborated a somewhat similar diagnosis of the criminal in Some Character Types Met With in Psycho-Analysis. Even if these diagnoses fail, this first, psychological problem with a Heraclitean formula is not nearly as serious as a second, logical problem.
Aristotle gave content to the notion of rationality, as have many other philosophers, showing that this was possible without self-contradiction, whatever other problems it incurred. But how can the creativity that is supposed now to be our function receive any content without ceasing to be creative? After all, any formula for creativity would, when followed, preclude true creativity. This should stop the search for a Heraclitean formula in its tracks. Without a formula, however, what guidance can Heraclitean spirituality offer to someone who looks to it for wisdom?
The modern prophet of this spirituality, Nietzsche, met this challenge directly with his much misunderstood, and consequently maligned, notion of the Übermensch: “I teach you the overman. Human being is something that must be overcome.” Nietzsche’s overman strives to overcome humanity, to exceed it, to create a new man, but in the most disastrous misunderstandings of his task he stops as soon as he has succeeded, settling complacently into his new life as blond beast or capitalist superman. The fallacy of these misunderstandings is the repetition and stasis they sneak into the very ideal of innovation and creation. Nietzsche’s genuine overman would strive dynamically to overcome whatever it is he creates, the very moment he creates it. According to Zarathustra, “the overman is the meaning of the earth.” But even if you follow him, adopting his meaning as your own, you cannot rest content that you have at last discovered the meaning of life. True creativity must exceed even its most creative formulations of creativity.
Misunderstandings of this ideal are inevitable, as Nietzsche recognized, making Zarathustra scold his ape and dismiss his fawning disciples. Like those disciples, if not also that ape, we all crave formulae, recipes, and scripts to guarantee a meaning to our lives. And if creativity is paradoxically our meaning, this craving is altogether explicable. For if you must create a unique meaning for your life, you inherit a tremendous burden: as Sartre taught, you are condemned to be free. This is a condemnation because with such freedom comes the risk that you will fail, that your life will turn out meaningless despite your best efforts. Your condemnation is so total, in fact, that even your deliberate effort to be creative may prove to be your biggest obstacle to its achievement. Analogously, the neurotic’s deliberate effort to understand herself may prove to be her most obstinate defense against true self-knowledge, just as Oedipus’s deliberate effort to avoid his fate precipitates it. Formulae, recipes, and scripts are perennial temptations because they seem to relieve us of this heaviest existential burden. Aside from Sophocles’ tragedy, the most disturbing account of this perennial temptation is found in Dostoevsky. His Inquisitor rejects Christ, and would even execute Him, rather than allow Him to threaten the recipe of miracle, mystery, and authority that has allowed the Church to relieve humanity of its burden of freedom for millenia.
Heraclitean spirituality nevertheless has an ethics, just not one that yields ready answers. It enjoins you to be creative, but it cannot tell you how to follow the injunction. It must preserve an ironic distance from any moral or spiritual prescriptions, lest it contradict itself with a formula. We have flirted with the formula that our function or nature is creativity, remembering that whatever definitive content we supply to the notion of creativity, our nature would be to exceed even this content. In such a formulation, our nature would be to overcome our nature. If so, fulfilling it at a moment would be impossible because contradictory: to fulfill one’s nature at a moment would be to fall short in that moment of overcoming it. But we have met such a paradox already, first in the Heraclitean fire, then in the Heraclitean self. As fire or self become contradictory whenever they are frozen in a moment, so too does Heraclitean spirituality whenever it is bottled in a formulation. Approximations are useful as educational tools, and this post has aimed to provide an education as much to the author in writing as to the reader in reading; but tools should not be confused with the goal of that education: wisdom.
Wisdom is an activity, and so only writing that fuses its content with its form can perform this activity as much as report it. Heraclitus has shown us how to do this in Greek, with the philosophical resources available in his time. He left us the poetic prose of his aphorisms, with their deliberately ambiguous logos. But this logos should not be treated as a final testament, to be followed forever after as static truth. Nor could it be so treated without hypocrisy. This is why we have turned in this conclusion to more recent thinkers. For we should strive not just to put old wine in new bottles, but to ferment the wine still further. Heraclitean spirituality itself demands that we extend it, exceeding Heraclitus by integrating into his wisdom the contributions of subsequent thought. To keep this excessive philosophy from contradicting itself by formulation, finally, we must also give it a way of both reporting and performing its wisdom in English. With every expectation of failing, but sure that only a failure to try would ensure failure, here is my best effort thus far, Sic et Non:
the same river,
this specious now, this
very one, now gone, alas,
not even once, if truth be told,
nor can it be, truly, for knowing grasps
a thing, no thing, each thing is nothing in itself but
a waxing palimpsest, this selfsame text, myself no less,
waning at best before your very eyes, each blink
effacing, the drying ink tracing these echoes,
these dying refrains of infant palindromes,
returning again imperfectly somewhere
new, some time over or under,
wherever yields never the
same word twice, unless,
maybe, now, this