Heraclitus, Fragment 118 (D 32)


“The one and only wise thing is and is not willing to be called by the name of Zeus” (here Waterfield 4; cp. D 32; W 119, K 118)

Sweet 32: “The wise is one, alone–unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name Zeus.”

Wheelwright 119: “Wisdom is one and unique; it is unwilling and yet willing to be called by the name of Zeus.”

“One thing, what is wise: it does not want and does want to be called only by the name of Zeus.” (LM D45)

The view expressed by Heraclitus at first hints at later negative theologians. Those among them who still name the divine nature caution that in doing so they are always falsifying it. To apply limited finite terms to the divine nature is to distort that which surpasses those limitations. It is to limit what is unlimited. Yet, Heraclitus has not said that the divine nature is unlimited. Perhaps it is only evasive. Nor is it clear that Heraclitus is as skeptical about the possibility of naming as all that.

The passage is also only partially reminiscent of the first line of the Tao te Ching, namely that “the Tao that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.” In the case of Heraclitus, the reluctance to name this divine nature is not as strong as the reluctance of Laozi to name the Tao.

Interestingly, the simultaneous reluctance and willingness to name wisdom is not attributed to Heraclitus, but to that which we may or may not name Zeus. Zeus or not Zeus is depicted here as having a will. Zeus or not Zeus is depicted as “the one and only wise one” or as “wisdom.” In Sweet’s depiction of this as “the wise is one,” we can see hints of later Neo-Platonism. It is the wise one who is unwilling and willing to be depicted as Zeus. As Hegel sees it, this One will become Two.

Given the depiction of wisdom as having a name and a will, we might wonder whether such a divine nature responds when addressed. Do we here have a divine being that answers to its name as the God of the Abrahamic traditions? Or do we have a non-personalized force? Heraclitus does, as will become more apparent, view it as possible for humans, with their divine spark, to have sound judgment–that is to think with this being or for this divine nature to think through the individual human. Indeed, if Heraclitus’ own words here are to be sensible, then it appears we must presume that he is somehow in a position to speak for what this wise one wants and doesn’t want. To know that, must Heraclitus be an oracle for that wise one–as a wise one through whom the wise one thinks, or speaks? That aside, for now, we still do not have clarity about whether definitive attributions of names or characteristics to such a divine nature clearly aligns with “sound judgment.” Perhaps they do and don’t. The allusiveness of the divine nature hinted at here leads to the suspicion that such namings could be conventional truths, and not unmasking any absolute determinations about the character of wisdom, or the wise one, or Zeus. But it does not seem that Heraclitus affirms this. His later comments about “the common world” of those who are awakened, about those who comprehend, appear to insinuate that consensus can be reached by all.

Nonetheless, it is not clear that Heraclitus goes the whole way with Hegel. Hegel understands himself as having integrated every proposition of Heraclitus’ view into his Logic. Yet we might still wonder whether Hegel’s willingness unreservedly to attach quite fixed determinations to the various Concepts of the Idea in the end oversteps Heraclitus’ own inclinations, as expressed here. Hegel shows no apprehension about naming. Heraclitus is a philosopher of the logos. But Heraclitus expresses a greater hesitancy to accept the absoluteness of our rational cataloging than Hegel. Is Heraclitus, the obscure, perhaps positioned somewhere between Hegel, on the one hand, and Meister Eckhart or Toaists and Buddhists, on the other? How far does he go in viewing naming as imposing categorizations that always somewhat uncomfortably fit?

In any case, for Heraclitus, the wise one seems ambivalent about accepting the absolute character of such namings. Might it be that attributing names is sound judgment, but knowing that they never fully fit is an equal part of sound judgment? Is it wisdom to know that we must be guided by namings, by intellectual articulations, but wisdom is also to know that we not dogmatically attach ourselves to these?

Kahn proposes a fruitful direction for interpretation. The term zēn used in this context to refer to Zeus mean “the cause of life.” Heraclitus, however, as a dialectician, means to emphasize that opposite side of life is death; and both are equal parts of the logos. It cannot be identified with one alone (Kahn 271).

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