Heraclitus, Fragment 54 (D 41)


“The one wise thing is to know, in sound judgment, how everything is guided in every case.” (here Waterfield 3; cp. DK B41, W 120, K 54)

The Wheelwright translation, 120: “Wisdom is one — to know the intelligence by which all things are steered through all things.”

“The wise is one, knowing the plan by which it steers all things through all (or: how all things are steered through all) (Kahn 54).

“One thing, what is wise: to know the thought (gnômê) that steers all things through all things.”

Fragment 2 has indicated the limitation of finite human intelligence, which does not possess “sound judgment.” By contrast, the divine intelligence alone has sound judgment. In Fragment 3, Heraclitus again speaks of sound judgment. The one wise thing requires thinking “in sound judgment”: wise judgment, however, we have learned, is divine not human. Is this then a statement about divine activity, a statement that the one wise thing is only possible for the divine nature, not for the human nature? Is wisdom then something to be had by humans at all?

Or is there a way that humans, who possess no sound judgment on their own, can come to sound judgment, by thinking with the divine? Are humans a mixture of natures, with a human yet also divine spark such that they might achieve wisdom by thinking with the divine, by somehow accessing a divine intelligence? Might the divine spark, of which Heraclitus elsewhere speaks, think through the human–like Atman or Brahman thinking through the individual self in Hinduism? There is something divine within the human that allows the human to know the guiding principle of all things.

It is not only Hinduism which speaks of a unity between the divine and human. Hegel too understands the individual human to stand in relationship with the Absolute. The absolute thinks itself through the individual. Indeed, we find the view of the human as linked to the eternal through soul also in Plato. The rational soul, as the eternal part of the self, is able to access the eternal and unchanging world of forms, something akin to a divine intelligence.

Here to think in sound judgment would be to think “in the divine nature” but not just to think of anything. Again, here there is a focus on action. The sound judgment is about what guides action, and not just particular action, but action “in everything.” All things are in flux, yet all things are guided in this flux by a principle. Is that contradictory? Would the principle then not be in flux? Are all things except the principle that guides action in flux? Or might the principle itself be in flux? Is it possible that a divine intelligence, guided by a sound and wise principle, learns? Would this be more akin to Bergson’s creative elan vital than a standard reading of Spinoza’s God/Nature? Or might we take it to represent analogously an eventually enlightened humanity learning and changing its principle in sound judgment over time? In any case, here the principle, or whatever the means of this guidance is, is something that guides not just in specific cases. It guides “in every case.”

The unfolding of reality, in flux, is said to occur in accordance with a principle (or some means) that we can infer the wise would know “in sound judgment” — which appears to be “in the divine nature.” Either that, or this is a statement is about a divine nature inaccessible to the human mind. That nature would perhaps, as the one wise thing, contemplate itself or its own principle, which guides everything in its unfolding. This has of course resonances of Aristotle’s unmoved mover. If this is a statement about the divine nature, we must again ask how Heraclitus would know what that nature is, since he would only have his own unsound judgment with which to reflect on that divine nature.

The “how” here refers to a principle or law that steers all things. Heraclitus appears to speak of the possibility of a divinizing of the human mind so that it can reflect on the principle or law that guides the unfolding of the universe (or perhaps of itself). Understood with a Hegelian sensibility, one might see this as a statement that the Absolute thinks itself through the concrete, or the concrete comes to think itself in connection with the Absolute. Heraclitus is thus to be understood as a “rational mystic.” The divine rational mind thinks itself through its concrete but rational individuated forms.

Is there a way to understand this that is not mystical, in reference to a striving for greater objectivity? I’ve briefly mentioned one possibility. I shall return to this.

FN (Kahn mentions that this is one of four references to sopohon as what “what is wise.” Cp. D. 108, D. 50, D 32, D 41). The various references do sometimes refer to a divine knowledge that surpasses what humans can know (D 32) and sometimes point to a possibility for a human and divine knowledge (D41) or a purely human form of knowledge (D 50). Sometimes there are references to another kind of knowledge that is connected to a plan for action (gnōmē). Some passages however refer to the “wise one alone” (K 118), which is depicted as “captain or pilot of the universe.” References to the “thunderbolt” (119, D64) or “luminous Zeus” (45, D 120) are similar. They are not explicit here but implicit in references to kybernan panter ,”steering all things.” (Kahn, p. 171)

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