Heraclitus, Fragment 9 (D 35)


“Men who love wisdom (philosophos andres) must be good inquirers into many things indeed.” (Kahn 9; cp. W 3, DK & S 35, LM D40)

In contrast to the common view that Pythagoras was the first to use the term “philosophy,” Kahn notes that if this fragment is authentically from Heraclitus then it is the first use of the term “philosophy” (philosophos andres) in the Ancient world. Kahn counts it as authentic since it comes from Clement, who is generally a reliable source for accurate quotations (K, p. 105). Further, in various contexts Heraclitus does speak of sophon, wisdom; and Kahn argues it would be characteristic of how Heraclitus thinks to join that term with philo, as philo-sophos, to focus on the “ardent desire” for wisdom. The phrase may also be viewed as indicating “men who want to be sages.”(K, p. 105) Heraclitus had spoken of Thales and Bias as sages, despite his view that the Ionians are very incomplete in their thinking.

We now know philosophy as “love of wisdom” and philosophers as “lovers of wisdom.” But what is wisdom? What is required of it?

In various quotes, Heraclitus has been insistent that human knowledge is limited. Only divine knowledge allows “sound judgment.” Yet he still goes on to speak of wisdom in humans. Technically of course, someone who loves wisdom might not be someone who is wise. It might simply be someone who would like to be wise, unless of course it is impossible to love something that one does not know.

We might read Heraclitus as anticipating Socrates’ view that wisdom requires, at least as a first step, a recognition of the limitations of one’s knowledge — that is, it requires that one knows what one does not know. In the main the first fragments we have considered do speak of the limitations of human knowledge. Heraclitus speaks of those who live as if asleep (F1, F6), those who hear but are like the deaf (F1), those who mistakenly believe that their thinking is a private possession (F3, F6), those mired in their own opinions (F4), those who forget where the way leads (F5), those who appear to live only focused on the routine (F7) and of seekers of gold, who might be viewed as seekers of wisdom (F8).

He has been indicating in these various fragments what is needed for wisdom mostly by contrast with the characteristics of the majority, who have no wisdom. We see that those with sound judgment should have objectivity; they should know the principle or account that steers all things that occur in the world; they should be open to the “common” world of those awake. The wise need to be striving for a worldview that can be understood by all; and they must be devoted to common purposes.

In this fragment Heraclitus makes a positive statement about those who love wisdom: They “must be good inquirers into many things.” The first point here highlights the quality of the inquiry. There are good and bad ways of inquiring into things; those who love wisdom would employ good modes of inquiry. Beyond that, good inquiry here might also point to a moral quality of the inquirer. Perhaps a good inquirer must not only have an appropriate method for inquiry but also have a proper intention. Her inquiry, for example, would not be motivated by a narrowly self-interested short term benefit. This at least clearly aligns with Heraclitus’ views as expressed elsewhere: Those who strive for objectivity strive to know for its own sake; and they act in accordance with common purposes. This requires a certain magnanimity of soul–one that has been used since antique period to differentiate between the philosophers and sophists, for example. The former have aimed at objective truth and common goods; the latter have not.

We might contrast such inquirers with those Heraclitus calls “the poets of the people.” These poets channel a mob mentality. They learn for self-advantage and without a desire for objectivity; and they use what the knowledge they gain not for a “common purpose” but for a subjective one. In contrast to such “poets of the people,” those seeking objectivity would also use of knowledge not for private purposes but for common ones.

The second point here indicates a requisite breadth of the inquiry. Those who love wisdom must inquire into many things. A narrow knowledge will not make one wise. Modern technocrats, who know one field well, are not known for their wisdom, but for efficiency of thought in one area. For politics and in areas where the lives of so many are dramatically shaped, it is forever dangerous to have such technocrats in control. In steering a course of action, they lack the mental tools to consider the full ramifications of thought and action. The wise by contrast have a breadth of perspective.

Such a breadth of perspective has typically characterized the discipline of philosophy. It has fostered inquiry looking at foundational questions and ethical questions of relevance across the most diverse domains of knowledge and life. If philosophers have not known wisdom, many have at least often striven for it, appealing to logic of argument and evidence in the hope of achieving views that are justifiable and, in principle, able to be perceived as true (or at least sensible) by all.

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