Heraclitus on Wisdom

Heraclitus is a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher still known more than 2,500 years after his days for such utterances as “All things change” and “You cannot step in the same river twice” (the latter is the most famous translation but perhaps not the most precise one). He held the view that reality is One, all is one, everything is permeated and guided by Logos. Moreover, this One is a unity of opposites present in everything. Without the opposites, there cannot be unity, the One, reality itself. To realise this, Heraclitus advises us, it takes wisdom. Intelligence alone is not enough. What can we learn from Heraclitus about wisdom?

Earth Yin-Yang1

He claims that a lot of learning and knowledge does not guarantee wisdom. For Heraclitus, only wisdom can recognise the unity of all the opposites: “Many who have learned from Hesiod the countless names of gods and monsters never understand that night and day are one”. Since the word philosophy itself translates as the love of wisdom (not knowledge or intelligence), it is intriguing to understand how Heraclitus uses the term. What is wisdom for Heraclitus? How is it related to his notion of Logos? 

Although the latter concept is frequently translated as Word or Reason, it must have held a broader meaning for Heraclitus than it does for us today. He places it at the centre of everything by saying that “all things follow from Logos” and that if you wish to attain wisdom, you should listen to Logos and “do what I have done: inquire within”. Therefore, it becomes clear that according to Heraclitus’ philosophy, wisdom and Logos cannot be fully expressed in words. The closest we can get with words will still not be the real thing. It is within our minds that we can attain an understanding of it.

“Of all the words yet spoken, none comes quite as far as wisdom, which is the action of the mind beyond all things that may be said.” 

Heraclitus

Nevertheless, Heraclitus did leave us some words to indicate the meaning he placed in the concepts of wisdom and Logos. He tells us: “For wisdom, listen not to me but to Logos, and know that all is one.”, and that: “Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeates all things.”

Given that everything follows from Logos, we can infer from these fragments that Heraclitus saw Logos and wisdom as representing the same thing: the oneness of mind that is the oneness of reality. To be wise is to recognize that all is one, that there is unity in opposition, and that this unity is reality. 

However, all these words are doomed to remain an eternal approach towards the true nature of reality, which can never be fully expressed in any words. Heraclitus reminds us: “Things keep their secrets”. Only after reaching the state of oneness of one’s mind, it is possible to align oneself with and grasp the oneness of All, of reality, Logos, the cosmic wisdom. How to achieve such a state? For that, I finish with advice that Heraclitus gives us from 25 centuries ago and that remains as relevant as ever: 

“All people ought to know themselves and everyone be wholly mindful. To be evenminded is the greatest virtue. Wisdom is to speak the truth and act in keeping with its nature.”  

Heraclitus

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Source used: “Fragments. The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus” translated by Brooks Haxton, Penguin Classics, Viking, 2001

1Image credit: By Donkey Hotey – https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/5727867400/in/photostream/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76795946

One thought on “Heraclitus on Wisdom

  1. Pingback: Reality as Being and Becoming – humanfactor

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