Heraclitus, Fragment 125 (D 124)


“The fairest order in the world (‘the most beautiful kosmos‘) says Heraclitus, is a heap of random sweepings.” (K 125)

“The fairest order is a random pile of sweepings.” (Sweet 124; cp. D R 124)

Though this is a statement that fits with the philosophical temper of our own times, given the statement on “graspings” in Fragment 124 (D 10) and the various statements of Heraclitus on the lawful ordering of the cosmos, this fragment seems odd and unfitting.

Generally, the fragment is acknowledged to be partial and corrupted, thus unreliable as a full statement of Heraclitus’ views (cp. Robinson, p. 163). Perhaps the original was followed with a statement showing that this applies again merely to how the mass of men understand the world (as Heraclitus acknowledges in numerous places), but that a wise few will come to do what is possible for all but unachieved by most — to “think well”  (F 29 [D 116]).

Contrast Aristotle’s statement in Parts of Animals 345a 24, as he bids his reader to study nature: “Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in Nature’s works in the highest degree, and the resultant end of her generations and combinations is a form of the beautiful.”

In fact, Aristotle’s statement seems more aligned with what we would expect in Heraclitus, after an exploration of his Fragments. Aristotle even introduces his statement referencing Heraclitus: “Every realm of nature is marvelous; and as Heraclitus, when the strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace of the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.”

Though Heraclitus by no means shares Aristotle’s view that many people will manage to think well and he does not speak of nature explicitly as beautiful, there is much in Heraclitus that shows him philosophically aligned with Aristotle’s perspective here. With the exception of this (corrupted) quote, Heraclitus depicts the cosmos is ordered, structured, guided (F 119 [D 64]) and in principle comprehensible. Though Heraclitus does not speak of it as beautiful, as Aristotle does, he sometimes describes it using musical analogies of the lyre (F 79 [D 51]) or the musical unity of chords, with consonance and dissonance (F 75 [D 8]). While commentators have not included Aristotle’s testament to Heraclitus among Heraclitus’ fragments, it is clearly to be seen that Heraclitus speaks of nature as a whole as logos, and as divine, and he often speaks of individual gods. This, as Aristotle suggests, hints at nature’s beauty.

It is important to see that though Heraclitus views nature as a divine ordering, he does not view this deity as capricious or random. Heraclitus’ god, like Einstein’s, does not roll dice. In fact, what we see in Heraclitus is one one of the clearest rejections in Ancient Greece not only of the traditional view of the gods, but also of the rites and rituals meant to appease them (F 115-117 [D 5, D 14-15]; F 48B [D A13]). The gods do not breach laws of nature at the summons of magicians or at the smell of incense. They are either poetic figures used to characterize the law-likeness of the cosmos itself or are viewed as the real enforcers of those laws, who grant no special favors.

For Heraclitus the unity with the logos is inescapable. All that is is a part of it (F 36 [D 50], F 37 [D 30]), and the logos guides all (Cp. F 54 [D 41]). That is part of the true account of reality that most will not recognize  (F 1 [D1]). Nonetheless, Heraclitus suggests that some — extraordinarily rare — men will awaken to this truth, even while most be as asleep even when awake. Still, he bids us to awaken(F 5 [D71]). This means we are both to examine the world rationally, to find what is common to all (F 30 [D 114]) and to “fight for the law as for the city wall” (F 65 [D 44]). Unless we lose our way (F 5 [ D 71]), we will devote ourselves to rationally studying the cosmos and aligning our lives with its common law  — without ritual and rites, summons or incantations.




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