Heraclitus, Fragment 33

“The Lord whose Oracle is in Delphi neither indicates clearly nor conceals, but gives a sign.” (Robinson 93; cp. DK & S 93; Kahn 33)

In his fragments Heraclitus writes of three gods, Zeus, Dionysus, and Apollo. Zeus, the overseer of the gods, was also thought to oversee human destiny. He is the god of law and social order. Dionysus was the god of fertility as well as wine and ecstasy. Here “the Lord whose Oracle is in Delphi” is a reference to Apollo. Apollo was the most worshiped of the Greek gods. Scholars think he was first known as the god of shepherds, but then later as the god of the arts, especially music, dance, poetry, as well as the god of medicine, and the god of prophecy. As a late development he was seen as god of the sun.

The Delphic Oracle was the most important Oracle of the Ancient world. It spoke obscurely. To understand it required active thought on behalf of the person towards whom the Oracle was addressed. It has been common to compare the obscure style of Heraclitus with that of the the Delphic Oracle. Heraclitus, known as the riddler, has indicated “nature loves to hide” (F10). His fragments do not explain ideas clearly. They point in a direction, but require thinking on behalf of those toward whom they are directed.

If anything points to the “death of the author” and the “life of the interpreter” as emphasized in much late 20th century literary theory it is the way that we are forced to handle Oracles or fragments like those of Heraclitus. The meaning is not clearly stated. It must be actively interpreted.

In the various fragments Heraclitus points to the lack of “sound judgment” in humans (F55). He speaks of wisdom as the need to recognize the wise as “set apart from all” (F27). Yet, he also thinks that some might approach such “sound judgement,” that people too have “claim to self-knowledge and sound thinking” (F29).

Heraclitus’ aphoristic approach to thought leads the reader to self-knowledge and self-reflection, but always by directing us to turn an eye and ear outward. The goal remains the same as that of the age old religion, of gaining divine judgment. Yet, even if Heraclitus, our teacher, still also speaks in riddles, like the prophets, the way toward wisdom proposed is not that of prophecy. Rather, as Heraclitus notes, the inquiry into many things is necessary for those who desire wisdom (F9). The way to wisdom is difficult, akin to the arduous task of digging up gold (F8). Pursuing it in the Heraclitian spirit requires “sight, hearing, [and] learning from experience” (F14).



Heraclitus, Fragment 32

To be of sound mind is the greatest excellence and wisdom; to speak and act with truth, detecting things according to their nature” [or constitution]. (Sweet 112; my amendment; DK 112; Kahn 32)

Sweet translates sophronein as “sound mind.” Kahn translates it as “thinking well.” The term is a cognate of phronesis. It indicates being temperate and discrete, having self-control.

There is a longstanding debate among scholars of Heraclitus about correct punctuation, as the punctuation strongly affects the meaning of the quotation: In particular it is not clear whether a comma should come after “greatest” (megiste). If it does not, as in Sweet’s translation, then Heraclitus is speaking of an excellence of humans, a telos. This would be the first such reference to human excellence (arete), understood philosophically, as a fundamental goal in Greek philosophy. Kahn, like Sweet, accepts the interpretation of this passage as entailing a telos. This also makes sense in light of Heraclitus’ view of action being guided in every case (F54) and of there being a “way” (F5) that many lose sight of. Such language hints of a goal or purpose to which we can be guided.

In some passages already explored, Heraclitus notes that sound judgment is reserved for the gods (F55). In others, he relativizes this saying at least that to know oneself and think well belongs to all people (F29). Here he is highlighting a human potential for excellence and wisdom.

It is important that Heraclitus is here connecting the achievement of “sound mind” with speech and action. Truth is not depicted here simply as a theoretical attitude. There is also a true way of acting. Heraclitus here is being a theoretical and practical philosopher. He is speaking of theory and practice. Indeed, the “thinking” pointed to is even manifest in action–“speaking” the truth.

True speaking and acting as Heraclitus here conceives of it involves an orientation toward things with respect to their “nature” or their “constitution.” Here the term used is phusin. It refers to an object’s natural qualities, constitution, or condition (Sweet, p. 49). Robinson avoids the term nature and speaks of “the real constitution of things” instead. This has the virtue of emphasizing the process character of Heraclitus’ thought. The focus of Heraclitus is not on a substance metaphysic, thus so much on “natures” or “essences.” Detecting things according to their constitution requires knowing the principle according to which they are guided (F54). It requires knowing the logos that guides all things in the process of becoming.

Heraclitus, Fragment 31

“Thinking is common to all.” (Sweet 113; cp. DK 113)

“Thinking is shared by all.” (Kahn 31)

One question at the outset concerns what thinking is. Is Heraclitus only pointing to rational calculative thought? Is cognition of any other sort perhaps not deserving of the name thinking? Or does he mean to point to cognition more generally, or to a Heideggerian poeticizing? Perhaps this is not of critical importance, at least not here. Certainly all people have consciousness, share sense perception, feel pain and pleasure, remember, imagine. We can also logically reflect on and give account of things. As we have seen Heraclitus thinks all potentially could even “think well” (F 29).

When speaking of people of sound judgment, Heraclitus emphasizes that they share a common world . They are awake to that world. The sleeping, by contrast, live in their own private worlds (F 6). Heraclitus views most people as asleep, not as awake to common world. Does awaking to the common world mean awaking and developing our common thinking? It may well imply acting in sync with a common not merely a private sense of good (F 3)

Did Heraclitus have an intuitive sense that we gain our individual ideas largely because of immersion in a common language, a common set of understandings, meanings, which we individually assimilate and perhaps collectively contribute to? Did he mean to point already to a process of collective thinking that is possible? Out of a common stock, we all can develop individual accounts that others for their can then absorb, reflect on, respond to.

Individual experience unfolds against our common language and common frameworks. And as individuals we add to the common stock of thinking. Immersion in collective action and collective reflection facilitates our own growth in thinking as individuals, and as individuals we contribute to the thinking of others.

In dialogue or reflective conversation we share our thinking with others. In this, thoughts are not objects like marbles, such that when I take one, there is one less for you. They are more like flames, such that when I have a thought and decide to share it with you, we both can have it. As thinkers we thus needn’t be greedy with our thoughts. As our thoughts are shared, the common flame grows brighter.

Hegel 2: The Way of Rationality

Section 2 of Hegel’s chapter on Heraclitus is entitled “The Way (Weise) of Rationality.” “Weise” can be translated as method, manner, mode, or even “melody.” In an older usage it means “sage” or “wise man.” Hegel in any case views Heraclitus as wise for having elevated Ionian natural philosophy to speculative philosophy. Like Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus Hegel accepts that Heraclitus contributes to the Ionian teaching on the elements. However, he argues that he exceeds the other Ionians by thinking of being and nonbeing as parts of the process of becoming. He is not focusing only on a teaching of proto-science, but is making a fundamental contribution to metaphysics.

The three main subsections of this section include writing on a) abstract process, time; b) real form as process, fire; and c) a closer determination of fire. The latter section is the most detailed.

Time as an abstract process: Time is depicted as the true sensuous being or the essence of sensuousness, the sensuous view of the process. Hegel calls it bodily “abstract sensuousness” (18.329). In sensuous experience, we are subjected to things as changing. In sensuous experience the future, nonexistent, comes into existence, then slips into the past, ceases to exist. In time, neither the past nor the future exists, only the present. But nonbeing of the future changes into the being of the present, which changes into the nonbeing of the past. Heraclitus underlines this interaction between being and nonbeing in the process of becoming. These, he sees, as two moments of the process of becoming. Time he views as the first form of becoming.

Fire as the real form, as process: “In time the moments being and nonbeing are only positioned as negative or instantaneously vanishing” (18.330). Heraclitus however does not only speak of such processes in the abstract. He grasps these as natural processes, arguing that fire is primal concept or notion. As in movement, in the natural process there are three fundamental moments: “a) a pure negative moment, b) the moments of co-existing opposition, water and air, and c) the stationary totality, earth” (28.330). Heraclitus understands fire to be the “essence of this process.” It is to be understood as time, expressed in physical world processes. “The life of nature” unfolds as movement through the mentioned processes: “the separation of stationary totality, earth, into its opposites, the positioning of the opposites of these moments–and the negative unity, the return into unity, the burning of the stationary totality” (18.330). Fire is time, expressed physically. In it all things change, including itself.

The closer determination of fire: More clearly articulated, fire is a real process in the world. It is a process of metamorphosis, of change, of the transformation of the physical. It is flux. It is thus expressive of Herclitus’ foundational principle, of becoming. It destroys other things in its process or sublates them in that it transforms them into something else. It is expressive of “the antagonism of hate, of conflict, and the bonds or friendship, harmony” (qtd. 18.331). Hegel sees Heraclitus as in principle understanding the unity of opposites. It is expressive of the eternal transformation of things as they change from one element to the other as the world is continually recreated (18.332). As Fragment 37 has it: “The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out” (quoted on 18.333).

But Hegel views Heraclitus as being flawed or even contradictory in the way he expresses the change that occurs. Hegel refers to Fragment 38: “the reversals of fire: first to sea; but of the sea half is earth, half lightening storm.” Similarly, he refers to Fragment 41: “The death of fire is birth for air, and the death of air is birth for water.” Fire undergoes changes to other elements, namely air and water. Hegel sees Heraclitus as trying to get at something important with these thoughts of the transformation of elements but not as quite carrying it off.

Parts of Heraclitus’ view however are viewed as fanciful, such as Heraclitus’ view that world eventually perishes in fire. Such an idea runs counter to other ideas Heraclitus expresses, for example, that would lead us to see the discussion of the world perishing as metaphorical–that there is a constant perishing.

Hegel ends this subsection by again highlighting Heraclitus’ accomplishments: He is the first to express the nature of the unlimited and the first to express that nature is unlimited. He’s the first to comprehend the essence of nature as intrisically a process. In Hegel’s view, because he moves beyond the mere proto-scientific perspective of the Ionians to speculative thought, Heraclitus is to be viewed as the first philosopher (18.336).

Heraclitus, Fragment 30

“Speaking wisely, one should stoutly contend for what is common to all, just as a city does for its law, but even more obstinately. For all human laws are nourished by the divine one; it prevails as it will and suffices for all and overcomes.” (Sweet 114; cp. DK 114)

“Speaking with understanding they must hold fast to what is shared by all, as a city holds to its law, and even more firmly. For all human laws are nourished by a divine one. It prevails as it will and suffices for all and is more than enough.” (Kahn 30)

“Those who (would) speak with insight must base themselves on that which is common to all, as a cit does upon (its) law — and much more firmly! For all human laws are nourished by one (law), the divine (law). For it holds sway to the extent that it wishes, and suffices for all, and is still left over.”

Heraclitus here speaks of “what is shared by all” or what is “common to all.” This is the logos, which can be viewed as shared by all people, or even all things (cp. Kahn pp. 117ff.). Those who have understanding have understanding of the logos. Plumbing the self leads to knowledge of that which “is shared by all” (F31) and that which “guides all things”(F54).

It is hinted here that logos is lawlike. The comparison is between the law of a city and the implied law of logos. A city achieves a unity of purpose through adherence to law. Heraclitus states here that it is even more important for understanding that we hold fast to the logos–a law of reason–than that the city “holds to its laws.”

Heraclitus speaks here of a divine law that stands in relationship to human law. This is not a clear statement of natural law, as we will see in the Stoics, but does point in that direction. Natural law theory of course will maintain that one is to bring human law into accordance with natural law. This provides even the possibility of resistance to human laws that are out of sync with the natural or divine law. It is not entirely clear here what Heraclitus thinks the specific details of the relationship between human and divine law is, specifically whether Heraclitus thinks that a resistance to the human law is possible if it conflicts with the divine law. The text hints at such a possibility since it states the need to hold even faster to the law “shared by all” than to the laws of the city. It is clear that Heraclitus sees a relationship between the divine and the human law, the former being “nourishment” for the latter.

The last sentence of the fragment is obscure. What does it mean for the divine law to “prevail as it will” or “hold sway to the extent it wishes”? The former formulation may hint at a determinism like the Stoics will accept. The latter seems to express the willfulness of a divine intelligence. What is it for it to be sufficient for all and “more than enough”? Is this perhaps hinting at an overlap between the good of the individual and the common good, that the divine law will not serve some at the expense of others but will serve all, such that conflicts between the goods of individuals are to be viewed as only apparent conflicts? If so, seeing this will require transcending the normal view of the subjects and embracing an extremely broad view of justice, a view that will also accept that “strife is justice” (F82).

Heraclitus, Fragment 29

“All people have a claim to self-knowledge (literally ‘self ascertainment’) and sound thinking.” (Robinson 116; cp. DK & S 116)

“It belongs to all men to know themselves and to think well.” (Kahn 29)

“All humans have a share in knowing themselves and in thinking with moderation.” (LM 30)

In the Renaissance it was typical to display Heraclitus as the weeping philosopher. He sees that people have the potential for self-knowledge and sound judgment that they do not realize.

Nearly all statements about human knowledge that we have examined so far have pointed to human failing, to the “human failure to comprehend” (F1), to those who lack comprehension and “hear like the deaf” (F2), to those who “forget where the way leads” (F5), to those with “much learning” who nonetheless fail to gain understanding (F18), to those who fail to see “what is obvious” (F22). Indeed, Heraclitus has said only the divine understanding admits “sound judgment.”

Nonetheless, in what we have examined he has however also indicated, in a fragmentary way, what a wise approach to knowledge would be. Here we have the most positive statement about the possibility for human knowledge and sound thinking so far.

As we continue to explore the fragments, we will see more what self-knowledge and sound thinking consists in. Both require a broadening of the perspective beyond the subjective: even self-knowledge opens up to knowledge of the entire world. Indeed, sound thinking will require opening up even beyond the purely human. Sound thinking requires an approach of a god’s eye perspective that transcends one’s narrow view or even an anthropocentric view. Heraclitus’ dialectic is one that will take into consideration for the world the animal perspective as well as the human. “Asses prefer garbage to gold (F71) not because asses are lacking in understanding but because what is good for an ass is different from what is good for a person. The sound judgment that is possible is one that will recognize the human good not as the measure of sound judgment but as one good within the one broader world.

Heraclitus is depicted in Renaissance artwork as sad because, while he thinks humans have this potential for self-knowledge and sound judgment, he doesn’t think it is achieved. Most people have failed and will likely continue to fail to meet their potential.

Heraclitus, Fragment 28

“I searched for myself.” (Sweet 101; cp. DK 101, K 28)

In a quite literal sense, the self might be thought the easiest thing in the world to find. Indeed, why would you need to search for it? It’s always right there with you (or as you). How could you lose it?

The obvious point here, then, is that Heraclitus is not speaking literally. His search for the self aligns with that of many Ancient philosophers, who also did not view finding the self as easy: In fact, when asked what was difficult, Thales, the reputed first philosopher in Ancient Greece, replied “to know oneself” (LM II, p. 227) Indicating that the search for the self even had something of the character of a religious obligation in the Ancient world, the words “Know thyself” (gnothi seauton) were also famously inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi.

The search for the self presupposes that there is some dimension of the self below the surface. Not seldom the presumption is there is a “true self,” distinguished from the perhaps superficial or falsely understood self. At least there are hidden dimensions of the self.

But what are those dimensions? What do we find when we find the self? An understanding of the complexities of the human animal? An understanding of our individual strengths and weaknesses? A conduit to the the world that gives accounts of reality that will always be distorted? A conduit that has the possibility of achieving objectivity and truth? Is the “true self” some universal characteristic such that all true selves are the same? Is it an expression of atmen as in Hinduism, or of universal characteristics of mind a la Hegel or some expression of our “species being” a la young Marx? In Heraclitus, this is complicated by his ideas of flux.

Heraclitus famously notes that “nature loves to hide.” Certainly the search for the self exemplifies this. We are born fully dependent upon others to look after us, with no ability to speak or get around on our own. We grow and change throughout our lifetimes becoming more independent. We grow old, perhaps again becoming more dependent. Indeed, we change constantly, physicially in reference to what we eat, whether and how we exercise, mentally in reference to new experience, which provides us with new information to reflect on, new impulses for shaping our worldviews. What is the self in the midst of all this change? Assumedly against reflections like these, Cratylus, Heraclitus’ most famous follower, indicated the impermanence of all reality, including the self: In response to the Heraclitean view that one can’t step in the same river twice, he indicated that it is not possible to step in it even once, for both the self and the river are continuously changing.

And as Aristotle already acknowledged was known in ancient Greece, if there is nothing permanent in the self or the world, then the search for knowledge of any sort (obviously including self-knowledge) is futile (cp. Aristotle in the Metaphysics, 65.3; in LM III, pp 227f.).

Were we to follow in this direction yet somehow still muster up the ability to speak about “self-knowledge” at all, we might be led to a position a bit like that of Socrates, to embracing a very modest conclusion: that self-knowledge ought lead to an awareness of the limitations of one’s own knowledge. Wisdom then would consist in recognizing the limitations of the self–in an acknowledgement of how little we can know.

However, in the end Heraclitus isn’t so skeptical or so modest. All change occurs in accord with some logical and at least somewhat permanent principle(s) that can be known. Further, Heraclitus clearly views the self as linked to the rest of reality. The self opens up to the entire universe.

Many sources indicate Heraclitus is a proponent of panpsychism (see, e.g., Calcidius and Sextus Empiricus LM III, p.265). The individual soul has “a spark of the the stars’ substance” (see Macrobius, LM III, p. 255) Or the individual mind, the individual self, is linked to a larger objective or absolute mind (if we can borrow some language from Hegel without seeming to impose too much on our subject). As Heraclitus notes, “all things are one” (F 31).

Against this background, we can see the search for the self as thus opening up to a knowledge of the one reality to which the self is linked (cp. F 36). There is a certain characteristic of thinking which is common to all (cp. F 30, 31). Self-knowledge it appears will open up to knowledge of common principles and knowledge of the world. The self, for Heraclitus, is a conduit to the universe. But he is adamant that one doesn’t just turn inward, like a prophet, to learn what this one is to which we are linked. As we have seen, he thinks we get to this common world to which the self opens us through seeing, listening, through experience, through using our own reason when examining that world and hearing and examining accounts of it.

Heraclitus, Fragment 27

“Of all those whose accounts [logoi] I have heard, none has gone so far as this: to recognize what is wise, set apart from all.” (Kahn 27; cp. LM D43)

“Of all accounts I have heard no one has arrived at this: to discern that what is wise is separated from all things.” (S 108; also DK 108)

Though Heraclitus is often reputed as being self-taught, it seems a fundamental part of Heraclitus’ approach to knowledge was to listen to accounts of others–as he says, to listen, see, and learn from experience (F 14). But that would include the experience of others. Logos is universal. Various individuals through their experience and reflection have developed accounts (logoi) of reality. Surveying the knowledge of his time, Heraclitus learned much. But he found the thinkers all lacking something. Here we see one of the statements about what he thinks he is adding to the accounts of others. The wise is set apart from all. Or the wise is separated from all things. What does this mean?

In some passages Heraclitus speaks of the divine mind as alone being wise, and here, apparently as set apart. Is this a premonition of the divine mind as something akin to Aristotle’s unmoved mover–that is, to an idea that there is a perfect being, lacking in nothing, which we suppose exists unmoved and unaffected by the world around us, as perfect unto itself? Is this a premonition of a view that there is something like an eternal world of forms in Plato’s philosophy, set aside from all things that might participate in them?

It would at most be such a premonition of such things: What we can see in Heraclitus, clearly in any case, is that he thinks none have achieved sound judgment–the objective perspective of reality. This wise, objective view, would be broader than the natural subjective orientation of individual thinkers. No previous thinkers have reached this view. Does Heraclitus think he finally has? Perhaps. In various accounts Heraclitus and Heracletians are depicted as haughty, as convinced of the truth of their own opinions as if they were knowledge (see Plato, Theaetetus, LM R17; cp. Tatian, LM R78). In one Ancient epigram, albeit of an one whose accuracy is questioned, it is maintained Heraclitus said “Oh you, human being, I say that I, Heraclitus, am the only man to have discovered wisdom” (see LM III, p. 315).

We must, again, caution that there are questions of how true these depictions are of Heraclitus’ view. That said, Heraclitus judges the thought of many of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors harshly. They have not achieved wisdom. At the very least he clearly thinks he has taken us some steps closer to it.

Heraclitus’ philosophy is inspired by the desire to become wise, to rise above the inherited views of the individual subject. Heraclitus is a lover of wisdom, one who wants to achieve it. But does he get us where we need to go? We would hardly think so. Consequently, standing even much later than Heraclitus, we are likely to still have to say, “of all the accounts I have heard,” including Heraclitus’, none has been able “to discern what is wise.”

Yet we remain, as Heraclitus was, responsible for giving our own account of things; and here perhaps Heraclitus can still help. Though his approach is not fully developed, we might read Heraclitus’ approach as suggesting that wisdom will occur in a process in which individuals, reflecting on their own experience, develop their accounts of that. Others reflect on those accounts and develop accounts of their own. Do we collectively, perhaps in a kind of Hegelian spirit, come closer to adequate accounts?

Such a call for independent thinking–for giving our own account of things–is in any case aligned with the spirit of philosophy since the early Greeks. Few would think we’ll eventually find a final complete account. But can we progress toward ever-improved ones? More than 2500 years after Heraclitus, the search continues. For lovers of wisdom, mature thinking requires a review of accounts and a giving of our own account of things, with an intention of approaching an ever-more adequate account. To give up on that would be to give up on philosophy and to sink into dogmatism, on the one hand, or skepticism, on the other.

Heraclitus, Fragment 26

“[A possible reference to Pythagoras] Rhetoric is the prince of imposters” (S 81; cp. DK 31)

[[Pythagoras was the prince of imposters.]] (Kahn 26)

“[…] he is the chief of glib speakers.” (L&M D27)

This text, from Philodemus, refers directly to “rhetoric,” but various translators and interpreters see it as pointing to Pythagoras. Kahn suggests the term archēgos (here “prince”) can also refer to “founder,” hinting, with other texts, that Pythagoras, the founder of the Pythagorean school, is intended. Kahn suggests comparing the text to DK B28, “Justice will catch up not only with those who invent lies but also with those who swear to them.” This might implicate Pythagoras and his school (Kahn, p. 114), given Pythagoras’s sect had rights of initiation, strict doctrines and so on. In any case, various texts taken together do indicate that Heraclitus views Pythagoras as an imposter.

Our question might be what characteristic rhetoric, or rhetoricians, or Pythagoras in particular, have that would show them to be imposters or glib speakers. Heraclitus does not reserve his invective for classical religious thinkers and Pythagoras and his school, but in many texts he does attack them for a lack of true understanding. Hesiod, Homer, Pythagoras–all gain much knowledge but use it in ways that deceive others. From various texts we can gather Pythagoras thinks they are not just careless in the speech or sloppy thinkers (glib) but charlatans.

Heraclitus is clearly a moral thinker. He does not propose that we gain theoretical knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge has a fundamental moral purpose. A problem with the religious rhetoric and the learning of those who practiced in mystery cults and the like in ways similar to Pythagoras’ sect is that they claim a foundation for their knowledge, or a purpose to their it, that it doesn’t possess.

Those talented with words and possessing much information, but without a commitment to truth or justice, or, worse, who feign such a commitment but don’t have one, are not sages. They take something beautiful (knowledge) and twist it to uses that undermine the value of knowledge.

Heraclitus adopts a stance toward such thinkers much aligned with Socrates’ own stance against the Sophists. They use knowledge not for the common good or common purposes but for self-advancement in ways that detract from what is positive to the collective. They do it in the name of justice or the name of religion.

The main sense of Heraclitus’ views on this might be summed up in the words of Bertrand Russell: “Love of truth is the basis of all real virtue, and virtues based upon lies can only do harm.”

Heraclitus, Fragment 25

“Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, devoted himself to investigation more than all other men, and after he had made a selection of these writing [scil. probably: the writings of other people] he devised his own wisdom: much learning, evil artifice.” (LM D26)

“Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus pursued inquiry further than all other men and, choosing what he liked from these compositions, made a wisdom of his own: much learning, artful knavery.” (Kahn 25, DM 129)

“Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, practiced inquiry more than all people, and choosing from these writing he made a wisdom of his own–much learning, fraudulent dealing” (S 129).

Despite Heraclitus’ panpsychism, he expresses little love for most traditional or much new religious thinking of Ancient Greece. Pythagoras was among the most celebrated philosophers of the Antique period. He is attributed both with being “the first to bring to the Greeks philosophy in general” (Isocrates, Ausiris 14.4; qtd in L&M 4.25) and with being the first to use the term ‘philosophy’ and to call himself a ‘philosopher'” (Diogenese Laertes, L&M, 4.107). His teaching focused on mathematics and rational inquiry, yet was thoroughly esoteric.

He is said to have traveled very broadly and to have incorporated teaching from everywhere he went. It is said that he met with and learned from Thales, as well as Anaximander. Though Thales is said to have imparted “all the knowledge he could” (L&M 4.23), Pythagoras is also said, together with Thales, to have studied with Pherecydes in Syros (L&M 4.23). It is maintained that he studied geometry with the Egyptians. He gained knowledge of ethics at Delphi (DL 14.3; in L&M 4.25). He is said to have learned Orphic mysteries from Aglaophamus (Proclus, Platonic Theology; qtd. in L&M 25); and he was initiated into mysteries of Egyptian religion (qtd. in L&M 4.27).

He clearly made advancements to human understanding, yet he was steeped in ideas that appeared quite suspect to Heraclitus. It was claimed that he had descended into Hades. It was maintained that he remembered his earlier lives, indeed that his soul had wandered and could remember “all the plants and animals it had been in and everything that his soul had experienced in Hades and that other souls there endure” (L&M, 43). He was a miracle worker (L&M 49). He was even worshiped as a god (Justin, 14.13; qtd. in L&M 4.57).

The school that he founded, which is said to have lasted ten generations, was a sect devoted to theoretical learning, moral training, but also a strong indoctrination. There were levels of initiation. Learners who joined the school would initially be silent for five years. After being tested they would then belong to the “household” (Diogenes Laertius, in L&M 69). In the Pythagorean school, students were prohibited from eating animals, except for those that were allowed for sacrifices. Those were the animals into which the human soul does not migrate (Iambl. VP 71; in D&M 64f.). Pythagoreans were “to abstain from beans as though from human flesh…and from almost all creatures of the sea” (Porph. Abst. 1.26 L&M 4.63).

In a story surely apocryphal given its poetic (in)justice, Pythagoras is said to have died after the house where he was visiting Milo the Wrestler was set afire. He fled, but the jealous people who set the house ablaze caught up with him at a bean field when he refused to cross it. They there slit his throat (L&M 4.51ff). We might assume the tale is meant to sarcastically point out the absurdity of not eating beans, which were not consumed because they looked “like testicles or the gates of Hades” (L&M 4.123). Further Freudian takes on that, I will leave aside for now.

We see then side by side in Pythagoras and his students great learning and great dogmatism. Hippasus, who is said to have revealed how to draw the dodecahedron, was killed by the Pythagoreans, cast to sea (Iamblichus, On General mathematical Science 18.4; qtd. in L&M 4.131). Heraclitus here acknowledges the great learning, but points out the ill ends to which he sees the knowledge being put to use. Heraclitus, not less than the Pythagoreans, wants to connect knowledge and a virtuous good life. He sees philosophy not as an abstract theory but also as useful for orienting one’s life. But he here expresses a great skepticism of the direction that such a teaching can take in the hands of those willing to use that knowledge for “fraudulent dealing” or “knavery.” The term Heraclitus uses here, kakotechneiē, is noted by Kahn as being coined by Heraclitus, as the technē or art of doing evil (Kahn, p. 39). The point is that knowledge can be acquired and used within a system for multiple purposes. The goal of a sage, or true philosopher, is to use it in ways that are virtuous. The knave finds other purposes.