Heraclitus, Fragment 59 (D 104)


“What wit or understanding do they have? They believe the poets of the people and take the mob as their teacher, not knowing that ‘the many are worthless’, good men are few.” (Kahn 59; DK B104; WF 7; W 91, K 59)

Here we see an early expression of the conflict between philosophers and poets that Plato develops. Or perhaps one should take care: Heraclitus’ concern here is with “the poets of the people.” Such poets will surely not be followers of the logos. They are more likely to be conduits of a mob.

Heraclitus speaks in fragment 6 of the moral ought to “follow what is common” or “the universal.” The poets of the people surely do not follow this universal. In that, they will be like most people. Interestingly the poets are not depicted as the teachers but rather, if anything, as being generally like others who “take the mob for their teacher.” The poets of the people are more conduits for unbridled self-interest or whipped up emotions than teachers of anything. They channel and perhaps reinforce the ideas of the mob.

Perhaps we can see a valuable comparison between such poets of the people and present generators of “celebrity politics” who learn to create “media spectacle” that draws attention to themselves and use that to elevate their status. In a mobocracy, they are found entertaining. They also though work to embolden the masses (cp. Kellner 2017).

Heraclitus does not note it here, but what he does say here has clear repercussions: We find ourselves in a world where, apparently, what should happen is not what will happen. The “mob,” “the worthless,” will inevitably impose their will upon the few, the good. It might be “worthless” individuals who do this; or more perniciously, it might be worthless governments that gain the reigns of power and institute mob rule or rule for themselves. His many references to the “common” world do show an awareness of how private views do affect all. Indeed, a fundamental problem is to operate on the basis of a private purpose when human action affects a common logos.

Heraclitus here reasserts his bleak view of the mass of men. While we moderns have simply tended to view Heraclitus, along with Plato and Aristotle, as wrong in their undermining of the majorities, the travesties of 20th century authoritarian regimes, which unfortunately show no signs of abetting in the 21st century, do emphasize the fragility of democratic governments. Mob rule is possible.

A few questions arise in light of these realities: How is this lack of the rightful use of free will to be reconciled with the view for example that “thunderbolt steers everything” (F39), that is, that the logos guides all? What are we to do in this condition where the mass of men will not do what they ought do? Can we ensure rule by the best? Should we retreat to a life of quietism?

According to early sources, Heraclitus did not opt for the political option but became increasingly misanthropic and embraced quietism. As Diogenes Laertius notes (IX 1, 5-7): “Eventually, becoming a hater of mankind, he retired into the mountains and stayed there nourishing himself on grass and roots–a mode of life that made him ill of dropsy” (cited in Wheelwright, 81). We clearly are not forced to accept the solution of Heraclitus.

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