Heraclitus, Fragment 21 (D 42)


“Indeed Homer deserves to be cast out of the contests and beaten with a staff, and Archilochus, too.” (Sweet 42, DK B42, W 93, K 21, WF T2)

Heraclitus continues here with a tirade against the poets of the people. His issue with them, as we see from F 7, is that they do not promote a common good, but only a private one. They do not encourage action in sync with a universal law, in alignment with the principles of those who are awakened. Rather, they channel the mob’s sentiment, which has no respect for logos. Their focus is on the individual private good, which they incorrectly perceive as separate from the common good or the universal logos.

Here the recommended punishment is emotional humiliation (being cast out) and physical pain (being beaten with a staff). The expulsion proposed is from festivals associated with athletic competitions in Ancient Greece (K, p.111), which had ancient equivalents of poetry slams. Poets might be grateful that Heraclitus apparently ceded his right as priest-king heir: It would not have been good to be a poet of the people in a Heraclitean state. But has Heraclitus only rejected a particular type of artist? Might he however see a value for another kind of poet–a poet not of the people but of the logos? Are indeed Heraclitus’ aphorisms often not closer to poetry than philosophy? He does not comment and explain. He leaves that to commentators. He speaks rather in riddles, and often in verse. Even this line is hyperbolic, literary–a bit like Nietzsche’s later quip “if you go to see the woman do not forget a whip.” As with the Nietzsche quote, we might question whether this is to be taken seriously, or whether it is tongue in cheek. Doesn’t he simply mean to verbally abuse such poets, to publicly insult them, to make a poetic, or shall we say, philosophical, point. His view is that sound judgment should move to embody the universal. Those poets who focus on the particular commit an error in thought. They encourage a kind of superficial and particularistic thinking that for its part contributes to egoistic action.

Though we of course will initially think of the parallels between Heraclitus and Plato on the poets, might we also consider similarities between what he notes and the Frankfurt School? The latter are open to Homeric wisdom from a distance. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the story of Ulysses and the Sirens clearly depicts how beauty and art came to be an experience of the ruling class. Ulysses hears the seductive beauty of the Siren voices. The oarsmen do not. But it is only their labor that enables Ulysses the pleasure. But the Frankfurt School is critical of art that does not keep a critical edge. In their case, it is to encourage social transformation. Benjamin and Adorno both contrast emancipatory art with art that serves as a distraction or that becomes a mere entertainment and that then, ideologically, supports an oppressive social system. Heraclitus, as a contemporary of Homer, does not have the temporal distance of Horkheimer and Adorno. He views the epics, and other poetry, in reference to their social effects at the time. He recognizes some thought as speaking the logos, as encouraging wisdom and virtue and other as discouraging it. In particular, he views some–philosophical–utterances embody the logos. Poetic utterances, which have so often been viewed as oracular, as speaking for a world beyond, but that do not do so–these Heraclitus finds particularly egregious. Their beauty is tainted by the falsity of their views and their negative effects, which are public not just private.

For Heraclitus it is the philosopher (the lover of wisdom) who sews unity and speaks for the logos. The poets of the people, who sew discord, speak for the mob. The value of their art is not separable from the truth or falsity of their perspectives.

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