Heraclitus, Fragment 34

[[‘The Sibyl with raving mouth utters things mirthless’ and unadorned and unperfumed, and her voice carries through a thousand years because of the god who speaks through her.]]

This quote is from Plutarch, and there has been considerable dispute about how much of it to attribute to Heraclitus. There is a general sense that Heraclitus is unfavorable toward Oracles. For this reason, Rheinhardt didn’t attribute any of the fragment to Heraclitus. However most scholars agree, given Plutarch’s reliability, that part of it at least is from Heraclitus, in particular the segment included in quotation marks above. Other segments of it may not be verbatim from Heraclitus but in my view appear nonetheless to express some of his sentiment.

The Oracle in question was a medium who would go into a trance, apparently possessed by the god Apollo or entranced in his vision. From such a trance, she would typically utter gloomy or dark words that would be interpreted by the priests.

Heraclitus’ search for truth might be seen to have some vague similarities to that of the medium: He does possess a desire for the divine perspective. In short, he wants to convey or urge us on to an objective god’s eye point of view. Further, he relativizes his own importance. He suggests we not listen to him but to his account (F1, cp. Kahn 125). We might also see Heraclitus as speaking words “unadorned and unperfumed” (even if this is Plutarch’s description rather than Heraclitus’). The truth Heraclitus speaks is not a sweet truth. His is not an ideal of truth separated from the world, one that has resolved all conflicts. Rather, his is a dialectic perspective, linking light and darkness, life and death (F88), claiming “strife is justice” (F82)

Yet, the similarities between Heraclitus and any Oracle are limited: Heraclitus is largely dismissive of the poets and other who claim to be Oracles for deities. He is equally dismissive of those who listen without understanding and reflection, or who listen “like children to their parents” (F13). Heraclitus has a vision of the wise that approach divine “sound judgment,” but such a judgment is not revealed to us. It doesn’t comes to us in our sleep or from the confines of our private worlds. It is a judgment acquired by learning, by examining the world and pondering the accounts of it.

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