Heraclitus, Fragment 18 (D 40)


“Much learning does not teach understanding. For it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataes.”

Great learning is important to Heraclitus. “Men who love wisdom,” he assures us in Fragment 9, “must be good inquirers into many things.” Yet as important as great learning is, it remains a merely necessary but insufficient condition for wisdom. What is sufficient? Heraclitus doesn’t explain that here. But the bar is high for those who essentially are to grasp the fundamental principle of divine understanding.

Some of those mentioned by Heraclitus as lacking understanding have contributed fundamentally to human civilization. Indeed, they had great renown already at the time Heraclitus was writing. Hesiod, along with Homer, played a fundamental role in establishing Greek religious customs. Like the various poets of antiquity, however, Hesiod did not explain his ideas. This is what Plato also later holds against the poets generally. They speak but know not of what they speak. Beyond that, Heraclitus finds the views of the gods proposed by the Greek poets to be pernicious: capricious gods like theirs are not expressions of a divine nature but of a mob mentality. At least he sees Homer as expressing such a mob mentality (F 21). Hesiod, he likely views similarly. Further, the learning associated with the poets is not a learning that is accompanied by self-reflection, and the critical acquisition of ideas, but is a rote learning, non-critical and non-reflective.

Hecataes was an author known in his time for “historie in literary form” (Kahn 108). Many such early Greek thinkers are not known for their ability to discriminate truth from fiction, so many passed on stories of the decendency of Greek Kings from gods and other mythology. Yet Hecates in fact is known for questioning much of this. Was he discriminating, but just not discriminating enough? Xenophanes is a philosopher who, in particular, shared Heraclitus criticism of Hesiod and Homer. He espoused a view of the divine that is a precursor to that of Parmenides and thought human knowledge must use theories to catalogue experience but did not think humans could know the truth. It is not clear here why Heraclitus questions the understanding of these two thinkers. They certainly do not have a view of the dialectic or reason that Heraclitus takes as the kernel for his view of understanding. Perhaps that is the fundamental reason for his criticism.

Pythagoras is the thinker it is most surprising to find on the list. Pythagoras is celebrated as one of the most important of Ancient philosophers. The first to refer to himself as a philosopher, Pythagoras made contributions to mathematics and has the well-known Pythagorian theorem named after him. He viewed reality itself as fundamentally mathematical. He is also known for having founded a mathematical and religious sect, influenced by the cult of Orpheus. In what way would Pythagoras have have failed to exhibit understanding? Heraclitus is a critic of the nonreflective character of much religious thought, but according to Clement of Alexandria, Heraclitus himself “took over most [scil. of his doctrines] from Orphius” (LM R80). Though Clement is known for being discriminating about what he reports, I’m not sure of the corroboration of this account. Many others maintain Heraclitus was only self-taught (Diogenes laertius, in LM P4, P5). He does seem a proponent of each needing to give his own account.

In any case, Heraclitus is rather harsh about Pythagoras and his school, which is thought to have integrated the Orphian mysteries. Hegel draws attention to Pythagoras’ role as Greece’s first teacher. But his school had secret initiations, secret rights. In their first years as initiates, his students lived in silence and learned many things, including Hesiod, by rote. Was Heraclitus critical of this style of learning? Heraclitus and Heracletians were known more for learning on their own (cp. Diogenes Laertius, in LM P4, P5)

Hegel, who is so inspired by Heraclitus, argues that Pythagoras’ focus on numbers also fails because it reduces the world to terms of the category of quantity. But what of the quality of objects? Here specifically Heraclitus does not give us enough information to know what exactly he finds troubling. What will become clearer to us as we investigate these Fragments is that Heraclitus views reality as fundamentally dialectical, as a whole comprised of complimentary opposites that guide the unfolding of world processes. While Pythagoras is viewed as developing a dialectic, might it be that the mathematical worldview alone does not clearly enough unmask some fundamental character of the world as a dialectic process? Is dialectical reason more broadly encompassing than mathematical reasoning? More will have to be said on Heraclitus’ view of understanding later.

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