Heraclitus, Fragment 27 (D 108)


“Of all those whose accounts [logoi] I have heard, none has gone so far as this: to recognize what is wise, set apart from all.” (Kahn 27; cp. LM D43)

“Of all accounts I have heard no one has arrived at this: to discern that what is wise is separated from all things.” (S 108; also DK 108)

Though Heraclitus is often reputed as being self-taught, it seems a fundamental part of Heraclitus’ approach to knowledge was to listen to accounts of others–as he says, to listen, see, and learn from experience (F 14). But that would include the experience of others. Logos is universal. Various individuals through their experience and reflection have developed accounts (logoi) of reality. Surveying the knowledge of his time, Heraclitus learned much. But he found the thinkers all lacking something. Here we see one of the statements about what he thinks he is adding to the accounts of others. The wise is set apart from all. Or the wise is separated from all things. What does this mean?

In some passages Heraclitus speaks of the divine mind as alone being wise, and here, apparently as set apart. Is this a premonition of the divine mind as something akin to Aristotle’s unmoved mover–that is, to an idea that there is a perfect being, lacking in nothing, which we suppose exists unmoved and unaffected by the world around us, as perfect unto itself? Is this a premonition of a view that there is something like an eternal world of forms in Plato’s philosophy, set aside from all things that might participate in them?

It would at most be such a premonition of such things: What we can see in Heraclitus, clearly in any case, is that he thinks none have achieved sound judgment–the objective perspective of reality. This wise, objective view, would be broader than the natural subjective orientation of individual thinkers. No previous thinkers have reached this view. Does Heraclitus think he finally has? Perhaps. In various accounts Heraclitus and Heracletians are depicted as haughty, as convinced of the truth of their own opinions as if they were knowledge (see Plato, Theaetetus, LM R17; cp. Tatian, LM R78). In one Ancient epigram, albeit of an one whose accuracy is questioned, it is maintained Heraclitus said “Oh you, human being, I say that I, Heraclitus, am the only man to have discovered wisdom” (see LM III, p. 315).

We must, again, caution that there are questions of how true these depictions are of Heraclitus’ view. That said, Heraclitus judges the thought of many of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors harshly. They have not achieved wisdom. At the very least he clearly thinks he has taken us some steps closer to it.

Heraclitus’ philosophy is inspired by the desire to become wise, to rise above the inherited views of the individual subject. Heraclitus is a lover of wisdom, one who wants to achieve it. But does he get us where we need to go? We would hardly think so. Consequently, standing even much later than Heraclitus, we are likely to still have to say, “of all the accounts I have heard,” including Heraclitus’, none has been able “to discern what is wise.”

Yet we remain, as Heraclitus was, responsible for giving our own account of things; and here perhaps Heraclitus can still help. Though his approach is not fully developed, we might read Heraclitus’ approach as suggesting that wisdom will occur in a process in which individuals, reflecting on their own experience, develop their accounts of that. Others reflect on those accounts and develop accounts of their own. Do we collectively, perhaps in a kind of Hegelian spirit, come closer to adequate accounts?

Such a call for independent thinking–for giving our own account of things–is in any case aligned with the spirit of philosophy since the early Greeks. Few would think we’ll eventually find a final complete account. But can we progress toward ever-improved ones? More than 2500 years after Heraclitus, the search continues. For lovers of wisdom, mature thinking requires a review of accounts and a giving of our own account of things, with an intention of approaching an ever-more adequate account. To give up on that would be to give up on philosophy and to sink into dogmatism, on the one hand, or skepticism, on the other.

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