Heraclitus, Fragment 26 (D 81)


“[A possible reference to Pythagoras] Rhetoric is the prince of impostors” (S 81; cp. DK 31)

[[Pythagoras was the prince of impostors.]] (Kahn 26)

“[…] he is the chief of glib speakers.” (L&M D27)

This text, from Philodemus, refers directly to “rhetoric,” but various translators and interpreters see it as pointing to Pythagoras. Kahn suggests the term archēgos (here “prince”) can also refer to “founder,” hinting, with other texts, that Pythagoras, the founder of the Pythagorean school, is intended. Kahn suggests comparing the text to DK B28, “Justice will catch up not only with those who invent lies but also with those who swear to them.” This might implicate Pythagoras and his school (Kahn, p. 114), given Pythagoras’s sect had rights of initiation, strict doctrines and so on. In any case, various texts taken together do indicate that Heraclitus views Pythagoras as an imposter.

Our question might be what characteristic rhetoric, or rhetoricians, or Pythagoras in particular, have that would show them to be imposters or glib speakers. Heraclitus does not reserve his invective for classical religious thinkers and Pythagoras and his school, but in many texts he does attack them for a lack of true understanding. Hesiod, Homer, Pythagoras–all gain much knowledge but use it in ways that deceive others. From various texts we can gather Pythagoras thinks they are not just careless in the speech or sloppy thinkers (glib) but charlatans.

Heraclitus is clearly a moral thinker. He does not propose that we gain theoretical knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge has a fundamental moral purpose. A problem with the religious rhetoric and the learning of those who practiced in mystery cults and the like in ways similar to Pythagoras’ sect is that they claim a foundation for their knowledge, or a purpose to their it, that it doesn’t possess.

Those talented with words and possessing much information, but without a commitment to truth or justice, or, worse, who feign such a commitment but don’t have one, are not sages. They take something beautiful (knowledge) and twist it to uses that undermine the value of knowledge.

Heraclitus adopts a stance toward such thinkers much aligned with Socrates’ own stance against the Sophists. They use knowledge not for the common good or common purposes but for self-advancement in ways that detract from what is positive to the collective. They do it in the name of justice or the name of religion.

The main sense of Heraclitus’ views on this might be summed up in the words of Bertrand Russell: “Love of truth is the basis of all real virtue, and virtues based upon lies can only do harm.”

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