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Heraclitus

Now and then, the introductory essays appended to an Amazon book listing are downright good. This unsigned/unattributed “review” is connected with HERACLITUS: I went in search of myself…:

It’s a zoo out there: monkeys and donkeys, dogs, hogs, chickens and more. And of course, then there are lice, and lots of them.

It’s also a zoo within. Heraclitus is brutal about it. He compares us to all these animals (except the lice–and revealed in this book for the first time is why). We are called swine delighting in mire, cattle stuffing ourselves, asses preferring garbage over gold, and just as beasts we need to be “guided by blows.”

But it’s not all good news. Heraclitus also calls us oblivious: we are sleepers, fools, drunkards, absent, deaf, and yes, dead. Once dead, Heraclitus instructs that our corpse should be thrown out faster than dung. He says we don’t know how to listen and neither can we speak. We are deluded and believe our own opinions. We are absent while present. Almost certainly, like most people, we will forever fail to grasp what Heraclitus is talking about, as he concludes at the opening of his book.

But then, Heraclitus did not try to teach most people. Not even those few who realize that in all these fragments this is not just colorful or poetic imagery, but Heraclitus is actually talking to us, about us. He only wrote for those even more rare individuals who are ready to do something about our devastating condition of oblivion, our state of sleep.

If that is you, if that is me, then the remaining fragments of his book (all in this new edition) contain exhortations so incisive, so powerful that they–when actually used and lived–will “deeply dye our soul with a continuous stream of thought” as Marcus Aurelius said.

Marcus Aurelius kept Heraclitus’ sayings constantly in mind: In Marcus’ words: “They [these exhortations, these commands] are brief and fundamental because they are thus more memorable, and because they should take effect at once.” As we also read in his Meditations: “The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not lead me astray with pompous pride.”

Heraclitus exhorts us to “Rise up and become wakeful watchers of living men and corpses” and to “douse hubris faster and more thoroughly than a raging fire.” No matter the weariness that Heraclitus accepts as part of this struggle (and we must too), we have to start again, and again, an inner war: moment by moment to be beginners and answer the Delphic command “Know Thyself” by going in search of ourselves, to learn to re-cognite ourselves and then get to work: picking off our lice.

Rising from sleep, this time choosing gold over garbage.


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