Heraclitus, Fragment 33 (D 93)


“The Lord whose Oracle is in Delphi neither indicates clearly nor conceals, but gives a sign.” (Robinson 93; cp. DK & S 93; Kahn 33)

In his fragments Heraclitus writes of three gods, Zeus, Dionysus, and Apollo. Zeus, the overseer of the gods, was also thought to oversee human destiny. He is the god of law and social order. Dionysus was the god of fertility as well as wine and ecstasy. Here “the Lord whose Oracle is in Delphi” is a reference to Apollo. Apollo was the most worshiped of the Greek gods. Scholars think he was first known as the god of shepherds, but then later as the god of the arts, especially music, dance, poetry, as well as the god of medicine, and the god of prophecy. As a late development he was seen as god of the sun.

The Delphic Oracle was the most important Oracle of the Ancient world. It spoke obscurely. To understand it required active thought on behalf of the person towards whom the Oracle was addressed. It has been common to compare the obscure style of Heraclitus with that of the the Delphic Oracle. Heraclitus, known as the riddler, has indicated “nature loves to hide” (F10). His fragments do not explain ideas clearly. They point in a direction, but require thinking on behalf of those toward whom they are directed.

If anything points to the “death of the author” and the “life of the interpreter” as emphasized in much late 20th century literary theory it is the way that we are forced to handle Oracles or fragments like those of Heraclitus. The meaning is not clearly stated. It must be actively interpreted.

In the various fragments Heraclitus points to the lack of “sound judgment” in humans (F55). He speaks of wisdom as the need to recognize the wise as “set apart from all” (F27). Yet, he also thinks that some might approach such “sound judgement,” that people too have “claim to self-knowledge and sound thinking” (F29).

Heraclitus’ aphoristic approach to thought leads the reader to self-knowledge and self-reflection, but always by directing us to turn an eye and ear outward. The goal remains the same as that of the age old religion, of gaining divine judgment. Yet, even if Heraclitus, our teacher, still also speaks in riddles, like the prophets, the way toward wisdom proposed is not that of prophecy. Rather, as Heraclitus notes, the inquiry into many things is necessary for those who desire wisdom (F9). The way to wisdom is difficult, akin to the arduous task of digging up gold (F8). Pursuing it in the Heraclitian spirit requires “sight, hearing, [and] learning from experience” (F14).


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