The Outlaw Spirit: Heraclitus

I suppose it might be interesting to continue in this vein of offering up brief profiles of those who have been “voices crying in the wilderness”, as Blake described himself also.  It would be interesting to do one on Castaneda, too, and to show how he likewise fits in the Hermetic stream (as does Nietzsche).  There’s no question, I think, that had Castaneda published his books in the Late Middle Ages, he would have been tortured and burned at the stake by the Inquisition for heresy. As it is, his contemporary detractors and enemies have done nearly everything possible to immolate Castaneda’s character and credibility, from trying to compel the University of California to rescind his academic degrees to coercing his publisher to suppress or, at a minimum, reclassify his books as “fiction” — all in the noble cause of defending the truth from adulteration and for the defence of public virtues, of course.

My interest today, though, is with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c 535-475 BC), also called “the Dark”, “the Obscure” and “the Weeping Philosopher”, and who quite likely was the founder of the practice of philosophy itself. All we have of his work, however, is less than a hundred intriguing “fragments” or epigrammes that tell us little of his overall thought. It seems that no one in his time thought enough of his views, sadly, to bother to conserve his work.

But there is enough to conclude of Heraclitus that he was of unusual and exceptional character, and of his “fragments” there are enough to reconstruct something of his overall outlook and why he was such a marginal character in the context of his times. Rosenstock-Huessy, in his pointed critique of “the Greek Mind”, made an exception for Heraclitus, who he called rather “the Greek Buddha”, and for good reason.

There are very few articles on Heraclitus and his philosophy that I regard as good. Most of them are written by philosophers who have the same distorting biases and misunderstandings — the same “Greek Mind” — that consigned Heraclitus to the margins or the underground in the first place. Of those things that are memorable about Heraclitus is that he is the first to attempt to describe the Logos (whence our “logic”), the teacher of impermanence (panta rei or eternal flux or “becoming”), the teacher of the unity, identity, or coincidence of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum), and is remembered for his saying “character is fate” (ethos antropoi daimon, which has also been translated as “a man’s character is his guardian spirit”, which is probably a mistake).  His great philosophical opponent at that time was the philosopher Parmenides, the philosopher of “being”, whose influence on the Western intellectual tradition has been great, or at least far greater than the influence of Heraclitus. 

As mentioned in the last two posts on the outlaw spirit, behind Sir Francis Bacon’s famous question about whether science or magic (Natural Philosophy or the Hermetic Philosophy) was to supply the philosophical foundations for the Modern Era there stands the spectres of Parmenides and Heraclitus, respectively. This is, I think, crucial for us all to understand, because the long 2500 year dominance of the spirit of Parmenides is coming to a close, while the star of Heraclitus is now rising. This is a profound revolution in our consciousness, so it would be a good thing to understand its dynamics in order to dodge the problems of perplexity and confusion.

We can say, without too much exaggeration, that the Age of Heraclitus is about to begin as the Modern Age winds up… and winds down, too.  So, it would be a good thing to understand what Heraclitus was on about, as his way of knowing and consciousness is now becoming ours, too, even despite ourselves.

The meaning of the “Logos” is a good place to start, since it has been so highly influential, even in distorted and perverted form, having been appropriated from Heraclitus by the Christians (the “Logos” is “the Word” of St. John) and by the philosophers as “logic” or “Universal Reason”. Logos has played the devil with those who have attempted to translate and define its meaning as understood by Heraclitus, having been translated as “Word”, “Reason”, “Soul”, “Intellect”, “teaching”, or “Christ” and even “God” and various other meanings, some of which even skirt the edges of the truth.  But the way in which Heraclitus uses the term is closer to the meanings of “Buddha dharma” or Lao Tze’s “Tao” or, in fact, “God”.   When Rosenstock-Huessy writes that “God is the power that makes men speak — that enthuseth man so that he speaketh,” this “God” is, in fact, the same Logos of Heraclitus, and it is equally what Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin”.

That is to say, Rosenstock-Huessy’s “God”, Gebser’s “Ever-Present Origin”, and Heraclitus’s Logos are names for exactly the same thing.

So, we need to take the meaning of “Logos” out of the realm of mental abstraction, where it does not belong, and into the concrete experience as a presence in everyday life and reality as Heraclitus knew it himself, and which he discovered by the method of “introspection” or “self-examination” (which is to say, meditation).

Fr. 50:  Listening not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all things are one. (Hippolytus Refut. 9. 4 )

Fr. 1: Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this Logos, men are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is; but the rest of the men fail to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do when asleep. (Sextus, adv.math. VII, 132)

Fr. 2:  Therefore it is necessary to follow the common; but although the Logos is common the many live as though they had a private understanding (Sextus, adv.math. VII, 133)

The source for these three remarks on the Logos is from one of the better essays on Heraclitus, but one which I still think falls far short of a fuller understanding of Heraclitus’ meaning. To conclude that the Logos is “reason” flies directly contrary to Heraclitus’s intentions. All things are one in and through the Logos and arise from this Logos, which is to say that the Logos is the source of all existence itself and exists in and through all things and beings. In that sense, then, the Logos is the exact equivalent of what Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin”, and is exactly equivalent to what Buddhism calls “the unoriginated and unconditioned”, but which is itself origination. For that reason, the best translation of “Logos” would probably be “the Source”.  The Source is itself a coincidence of opposites, being the unoriginated origin.

Because all things arise in and through the all-pervading, omnipresent Logos, all things are one. Therefore, the unity of opposites or coincidentia oppositorum is a given, as expressed in the numerous paradoxes of Heraclitus. There’s no question but that Heraclitus knows the Logos as “God” and not as “logic”.

God is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger [all the opposites, this is the meaning]; he undergoes alteration in the way that fire when it is mixed with spices, is named according to the scent of each of them” (Hippolytus Refut. 9. 10).

Hence arises confusion about the Logos — and either the “soul has a logos” or the “soul is the logos” has led some to conclude that the Logos is the reasoning power or faculty in man and that this is even “the soul”. Heraclitus specifically refutes that meaning. It is man’s privilege to be able to become conscious of the Logos and to articulate it. This is true philosophy and reason as Heraclitus understands it — articulating the Logos by making it perceptible, concrete, presence.  But Man is not unique in having or embodying this Logos. This is also “unity of opposites” — the part and the whole. The Logos is common to all beings, but in man it is the true, inner sensus communis,

Therefore it is necessary to follow the common; but although the Logos is common the many live as though they had a private understanding

This interference of the “private understanding” with the realisation or manifestation of the Logos is what Blake calls “the Selfhood”, which he equates with his false god Urizen.  But because the Logos is common to all, “transcendence” or knowledge by empathic identification is possible.

In saying that the Logos is the Source, or fountainhead of all existence, I am also reiterating Rumi’s insight into the source of all phenomena equally,

This place of phenomena is a wide exchange
of highways, with everything going all sorts
of different ways.
We seem to be sitting still,
but we’re actually moving, and the Fantasies
of Phenomena are sliding through us
like ideas through curtains,
They go to the well
of deep love inside each of us.
They fill their jars there, and they leave

There is a source they come from
and a fountain inside here.
Be generous.
Be grateful. Confess when you’re not.

We can’t know
what the Divine Intelligence
has in mind!

Who am I,
standing in the midst of this

This is Rumi’s experience of the Logos, and is very “Heraclitean”.

Heraclitus equates the Logos with fire. Fire is the archon, or primal element. Some have concluded from this that Heraclitus was a “material monist”, which is nonsensical. “Fire” is energy, and this fire is alive and intelligent in the extreme,

“This world did none of gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an ever living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures” (Clement, Strom. V, 14, 1)

It’s coming in and its going out are the transforms or transmutations of energy. The key here is “ever-living fire”. The various transmutations of fire — into water, earth, air and back again — is recognition of the constant flux of energy. This “ever-living fire” perceived to be in continuous flux is fully the equivalent of what Castaneda described as the seeing of “energy as it flows in the universe,” as the special aptitude of the seer.

“Heraclitus … made fire the archê, and out of fire they produce existing things by thickening and thinning, and resolve them into fire again, on the assumption that fire is the one, underlying physis” (Phys. 23.23, DK, A5)

That sounds to me rather like a law of the conservation of energy and of the interchangeability of energy and matter. And in many other ways, Heraclitus’ physics sounds like an early quantum description of the cosmos.

“All things are an equal exchange for fire and fire for all things, as goods are for gold and gold for goods” (Fr. 90, Plutarch, de E. 8, 388)

Like Blake, Heraclitus does not think dualistically, but in terms of polarities and complementarities. The coincidence of opposites applies here, too. “War is the father of all things” is fully the equivalent of Blake’s “without contraries there is no progression”, and yet the contraries are seen as arising from the one Source and possessing an inner unity, which for Heraclitus is the Logos. This is also the principle of polarity one finds in Gebser’s work — Athena and the Gorgon are the same, even though contraries. For Heraclitus, equivalently, “Hades and Dionysus are the same”, and yet contraries.

This was “the Greek Mind’s” objection to Heraclitus (and subsequently to the Hermetic philosophy generally) — that Heraclitus’s reasoning violated the law of non-contradiction, a strict “either/or” logic that states that if something is deemed true, then its contrary must be false.  In conventional logic, something cannot be and not be at the same time. But Heraclitus rejects that dualist logic as being itself a falsification of fundamental reality and of the Logos.  Things are, and yet are not. This is the same paradox one finds repeatedly in the poetry of Rumi also, and is at the root of the quantum paradox.

So, instead of Parmenides static universe of “Being”, Heraclitus saw the flux of energy in dynamic equilibrium (one that is modeled in Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”). The Logos is the informative principle — that which gives shape, form, structure, or order to the cosmos, and is the cosmos, and it is the same informative principle that lends order and structure to our consciousness, and in Cusanus’s philosophy, this is called the coincidence of the Maximum and the Minimum, or what today we call the macrocosm and the microcosm — the holographic universe, or “the universe in a grain of sand” (Blake).

In effect, in the Logos we live, move and have our being. This is what Heraclitus understands by Logos and we do not exist apart from it except through the delusion of “private understanding”, his term for ego consciousness. The Logos is not reason or logic. It is the source of reason and logic. The Logos is not order. It is the source of order. The Logos is not “the Word”, it is the source of the Word. The Logos is not the soul. It is the source of the soul. It is origin. And yet, because of the unity of opposites, the Logos, being the all in all, is also reason, soul, “word” (speech), order, logic, or intentionality.

Nietzsche is almost pure Heraclitean in this respect. For Heraclitus, the only reason we don’t know the Logos as “the common” is because of the “private understanding” (which I call “the foreign installation”). Heraclitus’s method is to attack this “private understanding” through his method of introspection or “self-examination”. He analyses the hell out of this “private understanding” until there’s nothing left to analyse — a very Buddhist method or “deconstruction”. What’s left over is the Logos. In method, that resembles Nietzsche’s “in times of peace, a warrior goes to war against himself”, or “it’s not the courage of one’s convictions that counts, but the courage to attack one’s convictions that counts.”  In this way, one “becomes what one is”.



4 responses to “The Outlaw Spirit: Heraclitus”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    For a little bit more on this and the meaning of the Logos, you might want to catch a comment I posted in reply to alex jay in the previous post,

  2. abdulmonem says :

    I admire your search for clarity and thank you for what you bring to the spiritual table. I feel content with the idea that there is only one divine soul and all other particularized soul is an extension thereof . The particle and the wave. My soul is an extension of his soul and the spirit( inspiration) is the connecting tool.There is no voice that vanishes in the wilderness. The universe is an honest container. As there is a hermetic stream, there is a heretic stream, to maintain the tension that lead to harmony. Harmony is the son of tension after all. The Sufis as you are aware talk about the animal self ( word in flesh or form) and the speaking self ( a wider word in form), and your are not suppose to despise any of them. Unity and diversity. the danger resides in being besieged in one of the emanations of the ever-expanding manifestations.Our civilization moral principle is that there are no more principles and here lives the disease. Of course we can only speak of god in his revelatory action. no wonder Goethe opted for the deed. Words are extension of the speaker and before they take the form of words they were potentialities that accommodate all possibilities, and here one need to be careful in his assertion.God is fire is the mistake committed by the devil when he proclaimed that he is better than the clay because he is made of fire. He was rebuffed , this is not the criterion. it is a question of ethics. In the meeting of Moses we read, blessed he who is in fire and around it, a pretext for those who worshiped fire. Here is the warning not to confine the divine in one form, because he is the formless that accommodate every form. It seems that we are in need to recenter our focus all the time to avoid getting sunk in the weeds, since he is already everywhere and everything and even everywhen.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    And we read in the Quran that god knows that there are among the humans ,beliers, deniers vilifiers,defiers and falisifiers and it is very difficult to keep balance. This is the game and this is exactly what we are encountering everyday whether in what we see or what we hear, and there is no choice but to play our role and to wait. This imbalance is reflected even across the most aspirant soul, like Blake who said, nature is the work of the devil or Heraclitus who said, the doors of the senses are doors of evil. It is a personal understanding that may astray. When the small soul is not inspired by the grand soul the liability of imbalance is very high. that is why when knowledge is detracted from its source.all type of maladies emerge. The fallacy of Descartes and the other two that Blake despises. It is time to respect the source and abide by the guidance of the source and have faith that we are going to meet the source, Life is meaningless if we are not going to meet the source and to continue the journey of the expansion of knowledge we have started here. It is the call to read in the name of the divine is the most important call that we need to heed during our short life.It is intercuturalism that we need in order to acknowledge multiculturalism as Saul said because in the first the true exchange takes place and detach our self from the lies of the written memory and respect the oral memory because written words are very often detracted from the truth. It seems that when oral truth disappears the misled mind think it can substitute it by written words and that is why we see so many, many codes agreements and legislation to no avail.If the moral code of god is disrespected, how do you expect the human moral code to be respected.Again let our inner teacher contact his divine teacher in order to lead an honest life. It is stupid to accumulate billions over billions and die without enjoying the pleasure of spending over other.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    So far, the “Logos” has been one of the most confusing terms for me to understand. Thankfully, you took on explaining its meaning. Very illuminating and helpful.

    The “Logos,” the “Ever-Present Origin,” and also “panta rei as eternal flux” are all wonderful and most meaningful ways of referring to that unknowable force, power, and energy that is with us and surrounds us ad infinitum.

    I don’t ever expect to understand the Ever-Present Origin, but I have always felt that it has steered me in the direction of unavoidably making its presence known. Therefore, I have always wanted to be able to refer to it – when there is occasion – with the most respectful way. And “eternal flux” and Heraclitus’ “Logos” and the “Ever-Present Origin” all provide for that wish.

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