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Nietzsche's Heraclitus

Selections (in blue) from Nietzsche's "On the Pathos of Truth" (1872)


"The boldest knights among those addicted to glory, those who believe they will find their coat of arms hanging on a constellation, must be sought among the philosophers. They address their efforts not to a "public," to the agitation of the masses and the cheering applause of their contemporaries; it is in their nature to travel the road alone. Their talent is the rarest and, in a certain respect, the most unnatural in nature, shutting itself off from and hostile even to kindred talents. The wall of their self-sufficiency must be hard as diamond not to be shattered and destroyed, for everything is on the move against them, man and nature. Their journey to immortality is more arduous and impeded than any other, and yet no one can be as sure as the philosopher about reaching his goal, since he knows not where to stand, if not on the wings of all ages; for a disregard of the present and the momentary is of the nature of philosophical contemplation. He has the truth; let the wheel of time roll where it fill, it can never escape the truth."

WHEN I came across these lines recently, I immediately recalled something I earlier wrote on the solitude of the thinker. (I apologize for the vanity). To be a philosopher, sad to say and still against all that clamoring that philosophy be social, out there, in touch with the world, especially with people--to philosophize would still mean having to be alone. Not only, though, in being physically alone; as if it were simply about that, although, as will be seen later, some form of reclusion is also necessary in all great thought--but more so in the manner that you speak to your "audience." That is to say, you should learn how to speak to no one. Or at least, to no one in particular. Because in doing so you then are able to speak to everyone. But hold on to that thought first.

Why speak to no one? Because speaking to a particular group of people, to audiences, to a specific public, to a particular time, all these particularities and tedious singling-out cannot but paradoxically diminish the possible audience a thinker or a writer may have. You talk to one person or one group exclusively, or target a class of people having this or that level of attainment (linguistic, social-political, education, etc.), you then rule out everybody else--the chance reader, the curious, the passerby, those who have gone, those still yet to come. It has always been said: Choose your market, limit yourself, go for the niche, specify, specialize, name your "target audience." But why not target everybody? Are not bombs or dynamite just as effective, even more so, than mines or snipers? Or why not target no one? Does the sun choose which stars are to be blinded by its galactic light?

Following Nietzsche, it could be nothing but the will to fame, as it were, which drives a philosopher to address audiences. And under the guise of "truth"! To consider who will listen, who will read us, who will face you, who will watch you--all these blast-freeze the dark fires of thought, they arrest and seize the serpents in the mind. Now you become self-conscious, you take a look at yourself in the mirror, you become mindful of what you say and what you do, you double-take, you doubt yourself, because horror of horrors now you have become a "self" when all along it was just you and the world of your thoughts. What was pure and virile and evil--what was you!--now become tempered, diluted, bowed-up for everyone's happy consumption.--Only to become "good" at best.

You lose yourself to the herd, the crowd, the audience, the public once you desire that they take notice of you, all the more when you seek their approval. This is why a great philosopher only talks to himself.


"Only in the most rugged mountain wasteland, however, can one get a chilling sense of the feeling of solitude that pervaded the recluse of the Ephesian temple of Artemis. No overwhelming feeling of sympathetic excitement, no craving, no desire to help or to save emanates from him--he is like a shining planet without an atmosphere. His eye, fiery and turned inward, looks lifeless and cold from without, as if just for the sake of appearance. All around him, waves of delusion and distortion crash into the fortress of his pride; he turns away in disgust. Yet even people with tender hearts shun such a tragic mask; in some remote sanctuary, amid the images of gods, in cold, magnificent architecture, such a figure might seem more intelligible. Among men, as man, Heraclitus was an enigma. . . ."

SELF-SUFFICIENCY of philosophy. Wisdom is self-sufficient not only in the sense that one can live and breathe with and through one's thoughts alone, without that craving to instruct others of its high truths, or without that terrible need for security by wanting to be instructed still. The philosopher also wants to be alone because he sees himself as the last person who can guide someone's life, the wrong man to fix a broken society, the worst man to "make things better." Wise men never come forward with a "solution" to a perplexity, as if to think was all about coming up with the answers, as if to live was all about vanquishing one's sorrows. Whatever a thinker sees, like those who can see ghosts, he keeps to himself: no point in frightening the blind and the ignorant. Thus the weight that thinking at most times punishes us with: never can deep thoughts be displaced or distributed; they are to be carried alone, and buried with you in a grave. For what does telling another accomplish?--but flattening your thoughts with words, explaining what does not need to be explained, lightening the burden by getting rid of it. So the wise man keeps silent and talks to no one--because "of great things one must be silent. . . . "

But there is another way, the Thinker adds: "or speak greatly." Thus Heraclitus, while keeping all his thoughts to himself all through his life, in the end finds an interlocutor whom, it can be assumed, he trusted could understand him: Artemis. It is told that Heraclitus buried his single book in her temple in Ephesia. Whom Heraclitus wanted to speak to apart from himself, was not another man, a people, a future time, a world, but only a goddess--of the hunt, of the wild, of the very wasteland in which he and his thoughts flowered. 


What is it really that drives us to speak, to want to be listened to, to teach, to be read? We say we want to contribute to learning, to education, to scholarship, to knowledge.--But behind these benevolent aims, are there not still baser motives, selfish desires, prejudiced intentions, and vain ends? If you do not will anything for yourself, strike your name out in all your works. Be Nobody and become the Words themselves. Only a nobody who wants nothing deserves to be heard; without a face he is invincible, without a goal sheer chaos, without a name a true riddle.

Such was the recluse and obscure Heraclitus. No one saw him, no one understood him, no one knew him. And even if he does not need us, we need him more than ever today!    


  1. Anonymous12/20/2010

    1. He frightens me – this creature who speaks to no one, whose anonymity is an epitome of benevolence, who speaks to a reified idol of a goddess. I would much rather be able to pin responsibility on an arrogant man than chase the ghost of the dead, who, even in his lifetime, almost never existed. At least, I have affinity with the former: I can talk to him, argue with him, envision a new world with him. The latter will pull me down to my grave too early, to cuddle with dead scrolls and romanticized ideas befitting only eternal silence.

    2. These “baser motives” and “vain ends” that drive a man to reveal his name in the beginning of every paragraph: do they not lose their potency and guiding force when the words have already come to life? The speaker’s voice and the writer’s letters are divorced from them when uttered to the other or fossilized on paper – they cease to be the property of their frail originators who have bequeathed us with their magic, even at the behest of their “selfish desires” (I would not quite reduce their works solely to that purpose, though).

    Ideas become more than these souls-unto-death: they become truths not because of the unprecedented will of a lone man, but because they have intoxicated the singular and the herd. The sheer reality is that the audience – an audience that cannot ever be targeted, limited, pleased, or enraged according to one’s own projection – holds even the solitary thinker at its mercy. And for a beloved notion to be more than who you are: that is the joy, the risk, and the peril of every thinker even after his demise. Did Karl Marx, or Ayn Rand, or Friedrich Nietzsche not both win and lose at the hands of their overzealous (mis)interpreters and rabid followers? Their fame is also their folly, but at least their suggestions have moved us from being naked Neanderthals to reflective Neanderthals armed with atomic bombs, a library, wine and cheese, and a little house on the prairie. We’re a miserable folk, but still, we are ever so slightly better. It would be Heraclitus’s due to celebrate this reality of change – of not stepping twice on the same river - after all.

    At hindsight, not all philosophers speak of “great things” - of eternal vases and grecian urns, of utopian visions and perennial religions. Right now, I think we are better off without them. But then again, there’s nothing wrong with adoring timely thinkers who “make sense”: they are the ones we need, and that distinction makes all the difference.

    (I like this post. It took me a while to respond, if only because I would not be able to reply with justice if I did so last week).


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