Heraclitus, Fragment 16 (D 107)


“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for those who have barbarian souls.” (Sweet 107; cp. WF 27, DK B107, W 13, LM D33)

“Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for men if their souls do not understand the language.” (Kahn 16)

Our experience is generated not just by sensory perception. We are not recipients of raw data but of data affected by the lenses of our own worldviews, theories, insights, or lack of insights and the lives we lead.

Thomas Kuhn’s work on science emphasized, if nothing else, that we understand data in a larger framework. As systems theoreticians have gone on to show in other ways, in fact, we can pull and understand it variously within many different frameworks. We can view the same river, for example, as a part of an economic system (as a place for revenue for adventure sports), a political system (as a border), or a natural ecosystem (as a habitat for many species).

But what is it to understand perception not as a barbarian but as one who understands the language properly? In what we have seen already, Heraclitus hints at some characteristics of good inquiry, some characteristics of the wise. The wise are inquirers into many things. This provides them with a broad background understanding against which to interpret the new realities perceived (F 9). The wise will understand the principle in alignment with which everything occurs and which steers all things (F 1, F 54). They will understand natures and nature generally in reference to their ends or purposes (F 54). The wise will understand things not in reference to the musing of their private minds (their mere fantasies), but in reference to the “common” or universal (F 3).

The characteristics described above are part of sound judgment, which Heraclitus at times denies humans, but at other times indicates is possible for us. But how do we know what that right language really is, what the principle is, where our minds correctly track to the universal and where we are caught in the private?

In line with early religious readings of Heraclitus, there would have been an openness to allowing the divine mind to join with the human, to gain an awareness of grace as present in the world. A secular reading of that might be to gain an awareness of authenticity, of honesty in the world–to look and see such honesty and authenticity reflected in daily life, and to be guided in your learning by a desire somehow to be better or create a better world. The wise, in the view of Heraclitus, live for a common purpose, not their own private purpose. So it is sensible to view him as seeing knowledge as serving common or collective purposes, not just our own egoistic drives, our “private purpose” to use language of Heraclitus.

In any case, it is extremely important to keep in mind that Heraclitus is not a mere theoretical philosopher. He is at the same time a moral philosopher. Knowledge and morality are not separate for him, but intricately connected. Barbarian souls are not just the souls of philistines (who see but do not appreciate “culture” in some narrow sense). Barbarian souls are also those who do not even begin to correctly perceive goodness and truth–a truth not an abstract set of ideas but as a lived reality.

We do see clearly how those who not only have confused worldviews but confused lives can twist and reshape perceptions in the world in ways rationalizing things unspeakable. Here, too, though, we are left wondering how we can know that our ways of life and connected worldviews are not barbarian–that our own alleged wisdom is not rationalization for privilege.

Perhaps we can do little more than strive to be sages, as some of the Stoics later teach. We move toward the common. We strive toward sound judgment and sound living. We attempt to acquire a knowledge of many things and to act on that, so that our perspective for interpretation and action is broad rather than narrow.

Heraclitus was known as cantankerous. We could imagine him repudiating someone for having a barbarian soul. After all, he even wants to beat Homer with a staff. But the summons to not have a barbarian soul might be directed at each of us individually. The search will not be easy. Few will find the nuggets of wisdom that Heraclitus likens to gold. The earnest search is perhaps itself key.

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