Nietzsche and Heraclitus
Surprising to me is, that the post that has garnered the most “views” on The Chrysalis, and ranks as the most commonly searched keywords that bring viewers to The Chrysalis, is a statement by the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus: ethos anthropos daimon (or ethos anthropoi daimon). These three words have very profound implications, for it might be said also that Nietzsche’s entire philosophy amounts to unwrapping the fuller meaning of this enigmatic statement, usually (but not really adequately) translated into English as “character is fate” or “character is man’s fate”. In some respects, these three words are also the key to understanding the Anthropocene.
Heraclitus was, perhaps, the most enlightened man of his age, even though in his time he was called “Heraclitus the Dark” or “Heraclitus the Obscure”. The social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy honoured him by calling him, rather, “the Greek Buddha”. His philosophical arch-rival was another Greek philosopher, Parmenides. Their rivalry has come down to us through the generations as that between the philosophies of “Being” and the philosophies of “Becoming” — the former associated with Parmenides and the latter with Heraclitus, and thus also somewhat linked to what is called “classical” and “romantic” attitudes and moods. The more accurate way of describing this controversy, though, is about the nature of “Physis” (or “reality”) as permanence or impermanence (change), or stasis versus the flux. In many respects, too, this controversy is still retained in the contest between the Mechanical Philosophy and the Hermetic Philosophy.
It may be a measure of how enigmatic and obscure Heraclitus appeared to the Greek Mind of his day that few thought of preserving the works of Heraclitus. We have only “the Fragments” which allow us some degree of insight into Heraclitus’s teachings. In some respects, the controversy between Parmenides and Heraclitus revolved also around the real nature and meaning not so much of Physis, but consciousness, and of the difference between the conceptual (Parmenides) and the perceptual modes (Heraclitus), two modes of attention that Rudolf Steiner also takes up in his book The Philosophy of Freedom.
It is of some interest, too, that before Descartes uttered his famous formula “I think, therefore I am”, it was Parmenides who first declared that “thinking and being are the same”. So we could see Heraclitus’s “ethos anthropos daimon” as a riposte to Parmenides formula, even though the two statements seem strangely similar in meaning. Even the famous paradoxes of Xeno, which would seem at first to affirm Heraclitus, were actually used in support of Parmenides. Xeno was a Parmenidean, and his famous paradoxes were probably meant to demonstrate contra Heraclitus that a paradoxical reality was absurd.
Parmenides “thinking and being are the same” and Heraclitus’s “ethos anthropos daimon” would appear, then, to be the same as the statement in the Old Testament Proverbs that, as a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he”, although by “ethos” Heraclitus means something more fundamental than thinking. The “thinking of the heart” comes close to what he means by “ethos” — something more fundamental than intellect or the conceptual.
Understanding this “ethos” has become crucial because for the last century or so, the world outlook associated with Parmenides and the influence of his philosophy has been disintegrating — a truly momentous event. And perhaps the foremost representative of the Heraclitean revival has been Friedrich Nietzsche. His forecast for “two centuries of nihilism” was not just the logical consequence of the “death of God”, but also the overthrow of the hegemony of the entire Parmenidean paradigm, and one largely rooted in a new appreciation and interpretation of what Heraclitus meant by “ethos” and “ethos anthropos daimon“.
As mentioned in earlier posts, Nietzsche’s most concise statement of this “ethos” is represented in the chapter of his Zarathustra entitled “The Despisers of the Body”. For Nietzsche, the authentic soul or self is that which “does I am” rather than that which “says I am”, and the manner of its doing, and the how of its doing, is its ethos. To put that another way, ethos is the doing of the You of you, which in Iain McGilchrist’s neurodynamic model maps the “Master” and “Emissary” relation, or in Aurobindo’s writings also the “Sovereign” and “the Minister” relation, or which, again, in Nietzsche appears as the “Dionysus” and “Apollo” relation, or which in some places in Nietzsche also appears as the implicit conflict between the “intuitive” and “the rational” man. In some respects, this is also the conflict between the spontaneous and the controlling, and so is also equally reflected in Jean Gebser’s remarks in The Ever-Present Origin that everything today hinges on “knowing when to let happen and knowing when to make happen”.
So, in a real piece of irony, the contest between Parmenides and Heraclitus is what transpires inside of us all the time, between the “Ego” and “the Self”, and as the conflict between what I will and what I intend. Nietzsche’s attempt to end this inner conflict is expressed in his principle of amor fati — love of fate: “It is so because I willed it thus”, and so Nietzsche choses to align his conscious life with his ethos, and this is expressed in his formula for self-overcoming: “Become what you are!”. Perfectly, Heraclitean, in effect.
When I think on Nietzsche’s project, here, I’m always reminded of something that appears, too, in Castaneda’s writings, which some have dubbed “the Shaman’s Prayer”, but which is more an expression of the “Rule” among the sorcerers of don Juan’s lineage
I am already given to the power that rules my fate.
I cling to nothing, so I have nothing to defend.
I have no thoughts, so I will See.
I fear nothing, so I will remember myself.
Detached and at ease, I will dart past the Eagle
To be free.
That would have also been an appropriate epitaph, too, for the philosopher who called himself “the free spirit” and Herr Voegelfrei — Mr. Free-As-A-Bird. The “power that rules my fate” is the Heraclitean “ethos“, or what don Juan often refers to as a “predilection”. (It is also why Rudolf Steiner admired the intent of Nietzsche’s spirit, even when Steiner felt that Nietzsche erred in some aspects of his philosophy).
There is a sharp distinction between ethos and mores, which accounts for Nietzsche’s assault on all moral codes he believes inferior to the ethos and which interfere with the fulfillment or realisation of this inherent ethos, which he holds to be the true Self. We find this same antipathy to moral codes in William Blake for the same reasons, and Blake’s insistence that Jesus broke the Law of Ten Commandments because he acted and spoke from his ethos, and not from mores.
Ethos anthropos daimon is just another way of describing the karmic law of action and reaction, and that, too, is already implied in Proverbs that as a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he”. This “thinking of the heart” is ethos, or “predilection”, and it becomes a fate. So, in that respect, Heraclitus’s ethos anthropos daimon is quite similar to the Hindu principle Tat Tvam Asi — or “Thou art That” or, to put it another way, “you create the reality you know”.
Ethos has been described in other ways, such as the “ruling idea” of a culture, or even the ruling “myth” or motif of one’s personal life. It is associated with the formative force precisely because it is our predilection and “the power that rules our fate” — which gives form to that fate, so much more is involved here than the idea of “character”, but something more fundamental still which we might call the “force of intent” or “the meaning of our life”. So, in some respects, the Heraclitean ethos also corresponds to what Jung might call our “ruling archetype”. Discovering our own “ethos” then is a rather important personal task of acquiring self-knowledge.
And the question naturally arises: what is the relation of this “ethos” of Heraclitus to the Heraclitean “Logos“? That’s a question for another day, but in some respects the answer is already given in the title of a book by physicist David Bohm (another of the school of Heraclitus): Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Bohm’s idea of the “holomovement” is pure Heraclitean “flux” — panta rhei. But the “implicate order” would correspond, in some respects, too, to the idea of the ethos, and perhaps also to Ilya Prigogine’s notable Order Out of Chaos, which also strikes me as very Heraclitean.
But more on that later.