Heraclitus, Fragment 13 (D 74)

“We should not listen like children to their parents.” (Kahn 12, DK 7/B74, S 74)

“We should not [act and speak] like the children of our parents, that is in ordinary language, in conformity with what we have received from tradition.” (LM R54)

This fragment is transmitted to us from Marcus Aurelius, as a part of a broader discussion. The Laks and Most translation provides it together with Fragments D100, D104, D3, D1. It comes particularly after D1, which states that we should not think and act like those sleeping.

Key philosophers since Heraclitus have repeated this call for individuals to free themselves from the encumbrances of tradition and think for themselves. We see one of the most elegant summons for this in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. But it is a clear motive behind Descartes’ methodological doubt and his call for building a worldview on the basis of “clear and distinct ideas.” It is fundamental to Kant’s views in “What is Englightenment?” Saupre Aude–his summons that we “Dare to Know”–is tied to the dare to think for ourselves and overcome the type of “self-imposed immaturity” that comes with reliance on authority and tradition. It is also the summons of Bertrand Russell when he speaks of the value of philosophy helping to expand our horizons and our freedom, connected as it is to facilitating our reflection on a plethora of options for thought and action.

Thinking for ourselves, embarking on our own, is of course what has brought the advancement of knowledge. We do not merely rely only on cultural memory and perpetuate the truths of old. We investigate the world and gain a different background understanding that affects perhaps our very experience of the world.

In the philosophical tradition, it has of course been viewed as the prerequisite for achieving truth. With the scientific method, we see a way to propel knowledge forward. But also in reference to moral and political thought, I think it can be successfully argued that it has brought increases in collective freedom. Within the Stoic tradition and, as apparent in some ways that this affected Descartes, such knowledge was also thought to allow us a certain freedom from emotions that might be oppressive. Our emotions are formed in part in relation to our beliefs. Overcoming superstitious and false beliefs can help us to become sovereign over our emotions rather than a victim to them. So rather than being susceptible to mob mentality, or other emotions that detract from true thinking and true living, as Heraclitus’ thinks many are, we might soberly achieve truth.

Children of course live with a comfort that their parents have all the answers to the world’s problems. But they also often live in fear. Their parents and other adults wield an authority over them and often enough threaten them with it. Generally, they are vulnerable and need protections. Overcoming our self-imposed immaturity may give rise to some angst, as it requires acknowledging that nobody has all of the answers to life’s questions and that there may be no protection from some dangers. But it can also relieve us of childish fears at least of superstitious belief.

But we might want to take care with this quote. The summons not to listen to our parents like children is not the same as the summons not to listen to our parents at all: Our traditions, our parents, may well have wisdom to teach us. Heraclitus is not stating that we need to reject all of that. However, we need to soberly access it as mature individuals who are responsible for our own views and our own actions. What is it to listen to our parents but not to do so, and not to act, and speak, like children? It is to show independence and courage, to think for ourselves and act with responsibility. Saupre aude!

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