Friday, May 14, 2010


The ideas of Heraclitus on which I have so far laid stress, are general, philosophical, metaphysical; they glance at those first truths of existence, devanam prathama vratani, [The first laws of working of the Gods.] for which philosophy first seeks because they are the key to all other truths. But what is their practical effect on human life and aspiration? For that is in the end the real value of philosophy for man, to give him light on the nature of his being, the principles of his psychology, his relations with the world and with God, the fixed lines or the great possibilities of his destiny. It is the weakness of most European philosophy - not the ancient - that it lives too much in the clouds and seeks after pure metaphysical truth too exclusively for its own sake; therefore it has been a little barren because much too indirect in its bearing on life. It is the great distinction of Nietzsche among later European thinkers to have brought back something of the old dynamism and practical force into philosophy, although in the stress of this tendency he may have neglected unduly the dialectical and metaphysical side of philosophical thinking. No doubt, in seeking Truth we must seek it for its own sake first and not start with any preconceived practical aim and prepossession which would distort our disinterested view of things; but when Truth has been found, its bearing on life becomes of capital importance and is the solid justification of the labour spent in our research. Indian philosophy has always understood its double function; it has sought the Truth not only as an intellectual pleasure or the natural dharma of the reason, but in order to know how man may live by the Truth or strive after it; hence its intimate influence on the religion, the social ideas, the daily life of the people, its immense dynamic power on the mind and actions of Indian humanity. The Greek thinkers, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, the Stoics and Epicureans, had also this practical aim and dynamic force, but it acted only on the cultured few. That was because Greek philosophy, losing its ancient affiliation to the Mystics, separated itself from the popular religion; but as ordinarily Philosophy alone can give light to Religion and save it from crudeness, ignorance and superstition, so Religion alone can give, except for a few, spiritual passion and effective power to Philosophy and save it from becoming unsubstantial, abstract and sterile. It is a misfortune for both when the divine sisters part company.
But when we seek among Heraclitus' sayings for the human application of his great fundamental thoughts, we are disappointed. He gives us little direct guidance and on the whole leaves us to draw our own profit from the packed opulence of his first ideas. What may be called his aristocratic view of life, we might regard possibly as a moral result of his philosophical conception of Power as the nature of the original principle. He tells us that the many are bad, the few good and that one is to him equal to thousands, if he be the best. Power of knowledge, power of character, - character, he says, is man's divine force, - power and excellence generally are the things that prevail in human life and are supremely valuable, and these things in their high and pure degree are rare among men, they are the difficult attainment of the few. From that, true enough so far as it goes, we might deduce a social and political philosophy. But the democrat might well answer that if there is an eminent and concentrated virtue, knowledge and force in the one or the few, so too there is a diffused virtue, knowledge and force in the many which acting collectively may outweigh and exceed isolated or rare excellences. If the king, the sage, the best are Vishnu himself, as old Indian thought also affirmed, to a degree to which the ordinary man, prakrito janah, cannot pretend, so also are "the five", the group, the people.
The Divine is samashti as well as vyashti, manifested in the collectivity as well as in the individual, and the justice on which Heraclitus insists demands that both should have their effect and their value; they depend indeed and draw on each other for the effectuation of their excellences.
Other sayings of Heraclitus are interesting enough, as when he affirms the divine element in human laws, - and that is also a profound and fruitful sentence.
His views on the popular religion are interesting, but move on the surface and do not carry us very far even on the surface. He rejects with a violent contempt the current degradation of the old mystic formulas and turns from them to the true mysteries, those of Nature and of our being, that Nature which, as he says, loves to be hidden, is full of mysteries, ever occult. It is a sign that the lore of the early Mystics had been lost, the spiritual sense had departed out of their symbols, even as in Vedic India; but there took place in Greece no new and powerful movement which could, as in India, replace them by new symbols, new and more philosophic restatements of their hidden truths, new disciplines, schools of Yoga. Attempts, such as that of Pythagoras, were made; but Greece at large followed the turn given by Heraclitus, developed the cult of the reason and left the remnants of the old occult religion to become a solemn superstition and a conventional pomp.
Doubly interesting is his condemnation of animal sacrifice; it is, he says, a vain attempt at purification by defilement of oneself with blood, as if we were to cleanse mud-stained feet with mud. Here we see the same trend of revolt against an ancient and universal religious practice as that which destroyed in India the sacrificial system of the Vedic religion, - although Buddha's great impulse of compassion was absent from the mind of Heraclitus: pity could never have become a powerful motive among the old Mediterranean races. But the language of Heraclitus shows us that the ancient system of sacrifice in Greece and in India was not a mere barbaric propitiation of savage deities, as modern inquiry has falsely concluded; it had a psychological significance, purification of the soul as well as propitiation of higher and helpful powers, and was therefore in all probability mystic and symbolical; for purification was, as we know, one of the master ideas of the ancient Mysteries. In India of the Gita, in the development of Judaism by the prophets and by Jesus, while the old physical symbols were discouraged and especially the blood-rite, the psychological idea of sacrifice was saved, emphasised and equipped with subtler symbols, such as the Christian Eucharist and the offerings of the devout in the Shaiva or Vaishnava temples. But Greece with its rational bent and its insufficient religious sense was unable to save its religion; it tended towards that sharp division between philosophy and science on one side and religion on the other which has been so peculiar a characteristic of the European mind. Here too Heraclitus was, as in so many other directions, a forerunner, an indicator of the natural bent of occidental thought.
Equally striking is his condemnation of idol-worship, one of the earliest in human history, - "he who prays to an image is chattering to a stone wall." The intolerant violence of this protestant rationalism and positivism makes Heraclitus again a precursor of a whole movement of the human mind. It is not indeed a religious protest such as that of Mahomed against the naturalistic, Pagan and idolatrous polytheism of the Arabs or of the Protestants against the aesthetic and emotional saint-worship of the Catholic Church, its Mariolatry and use of images and elaborate ritual; its motive is philosophic, rational, psychological. Heraclitus was not indeed a pure rationalist. He believes in the Gods, but as psychological presences, cosmic powers, and he is too impatient of the grossness of the physical image, its hold on the senses, its obscuration of the psychological significance of the godheads to see that it is not to the stone, but to the divine person figured in the stone that the prayer is offered. It is noticeable that in his conception of the gods he is kin to the old Vedic seers, though not at all a religious mystic in his temperament. The Vedic religion seems to have excluded physical images and it was the protestant movements of Jainism and Buddhism which either introduced or at least popularised and made general the worship of images in India. Here too Heraclitus prepares the way for the destruction of the old religion, the reign of pure philosophy and reason and the void which was filled up by Christianity; for man cannot live by reason alone. When it was too late, some attempt was made to re-spiritualise the old religion, and there was the remarkable effort of Julian and Libanius to set up a regenerated Paganism against triumphant Christianity; but the attempt was too unsubstantial, too purely philosophic, empty of the dynamic power of the religious spirit. Europe had killed its old creeds beyond revival and had to turn for its religion to Asia.
Thus, for the general life of man Heraclitus has nothing to give us beyond his hint of an aristocratic principle in society and politics, - and we may note that this aristocratic bent was very strong in almost all the subsequent Greek philosophers.
In religion his influence tended to the destruction of the old creed without effectively putting anything more profound in its place; though not himself a pure rationalist, he prepared the way for philosophic rationalism. But even without religion philosophy by itself can give us at least some light on the spiritual destiny of man, some hope of the infinite, some ideal perfection after which we can strive. Plato who was influenced by Heraclitus, tried to do this for us; his thought sought after God, tried to seize the ideal, had its hope of a perfect human society.
We know how the Neo-platonists developed his ideas under the influence of the East and how they affected Christianity. The Stoics, still more directly the intellectual descendants of Heraclitus, arrived at very remarkable and fruitful ideas of human possibility and a powerful psychological discipline, - as we should say in India, a Yoga, - by which they hoped to realise their ideal. But what has Heraclitus himself to give us? Nothing directly; we have to gather for ourselves whatever we can from his first principles and his cryptic sentences.
Heraclitus was regarded in ancient times as a pessimistic thinker and we have one or two sayings of his from which we can, if we like, deduce the old vain gospel of the vanity of things. Time, he says, is playing draughts like a child, amusing itself with counters, building castles on the sea-shore only to throw them down again. If that is the last word, then all human effort and aspiration are vain.
But on what primary philosophical conception does this discouraging sentence depend? Everything turns on that; for in itself this is no more than an assertion of a self-evident fact, the mutability of things and the recurrent transiency of forms.
But if the principles which express themselves in forms are eternal or if there is a Spirit in things which finds its account in the mutations and evolutions of Time and if that Spirit dwells in the human being as the immortal and infinite power of his soul, then no conclusion of the vanity of the world or the vanity of human existence arises. If indeed the original and eternal principle of Fire is a purely physical substance or force, then, truly, since all the great play and effort of consciousness in us must sink and dissolve into that, there can be no permanent spiritual value in our being, much less in our works. But we have seen that Heraclitus' Fire cannot be a purely physical or inconscient principle. Does he then mean that all our existence is merely a continual changeable Becoming, a play or Lila with no purpose in it except the playing and no end except the conviction of the vanity of all cosmic activity by its relapse into the indistinguishable unity of the original principle or substance? For even if that principle, the One to which the many return, be not merely physical or not really physical at all, but spiritual, we may still, like the Mayavadins, affirm the vanity of the world and of our human existence, precisely because the one is not eternal and the other has no eventual aim except its own self-abolition after the conviction of the vanity and unreality of all its temporal interests and purposes. Is the conviction of the world by the one absolute Fire such a conviction of the vanity of all the temporal and relative values of the Many? That is one sense in which we can understand the thought of Heraclitus. His idea of all things as born of war and existing by strife might, if it stood by itself, lead us to adopt, even if he himself did not clearly arrive at, that conclusion. For if all is a continual struggle of forces, its best aspect only a violent justice and the highest harmony only a tension of opposites without any hope of a divine reconciliation, its end a conviction and destruction by eternal Fire, all our ideal hopes and aspirations are out of place; they have no foundation in the truth of things. But there is another side to the thought of Heraclitus. He says indeed that all things come into being "according to strife", by the clash of forces, are governed by the determining justice of war. He says farther that all is utterly determined, fated. But what then determines? The justice of a clash of forces is not fate; forces in conflict determine indeed, but from moment to moment, according to a constantly changing balance always modifiable by the arising of new forces. If there is predetermination, an inevitable fate in things, then there must be some power behind the conflict which determines them, fixes their measures. What is that power? Heraclitus tells us; all indeed comes into being according to strife, but also all things come into being according to Reason, kat' erin but also kata ton logon. What is this Logos? It is not an inconscient reason in things, for his Fire is not merely an inconscient force, it is Zeus and eternity.
Fire, Zeus is Force, but it is also an Intelligence; let us say then that it is an intelligent Force which is the origin and master of things. Nor can this Logos be identical in its nature with the human reason; for that is an individual and therefore relative and partial judgment and intelligence which can only seize on relative truth, not on the true truth of things, but the Logos is one and universal, an absolute reason therefore combining and managing all the relativities of the many.
Was not then Philo justified in deducing from this idea of an intelligent Force originating and governing the world, Zeus and Fire, his interpretation of the Logos as "the divine dynamic, the energy and the self-revelation of God"? Heraclitus might not so have phrased it, might not have seen all that his thought contained, but it does contain this sense when his different sayings are fathomed and put together in their consequences.
We get very near the Indian conception of Brahman, the cause, origin and substance of all things, an absolute Existence whose nature is consciousness (Chit) manifesting itself as Force (Tapas, Shakti) and moving in the world of his own being as the Seer and Thinker, kavir manishi, an immanent Knowledge-Will in all, vijñanamaya purusha, who is the Lord or Godhead, ish, ishvara, deva, and has ordained all things according to their nature from years sempiternal, - Heraclitus' "measures" which the Sun is forced to observe, his "things are utterly determined." This Knowledge-Will is the Logos. The Stoics spoke of it as a seed Logos, spermatikos, reproduced in conscious beings as a number of seed Logoi; and this at once reminds us of the Vedantic prajña purusha, the supreme Intelligence who is the Lord and dwells in the sleep-state holding all things in a seed of dense consciousness which works out through the perceptions of the subtle Purusha, the mental Being. Vijnana is indeed a consciousness which sees things, not as the human reason sees them in parts and pieces, in separated and aggregated relations, but in the original reason of their existence and law of their existence, their primal and total truth; therefore it is the seed Logos, the originative and determinant conscious force working as supreme Intelligence and Will. The Vedic seers called it the Truth-consciousness and believed that men also could become truth-conscious, enter into the divine Reason and Will and by the Truth become immortals, anthropoi athanatoi.
Does the thought of Heraclitus admit of any such hope as the Vedic seers held and hymned with so triumphant a confidence? or does it even give ground for any aspiration to some kind of a divine supermanhood such as his disciples the Stoics so sternly laboured for or as that of which Nietzsche, the modern Heraclitus, drew a too crude and violent figure? His saying that man is kindled and extinguished as light disappears into night, is commonplace and discouraging enough. But this may after all be only true of the apparent man. Is it possible for man in his becoming to raise his present fixed measures? to elevate his mental, relative, individual reason into direct communion with or direct participation in the divine and absolute reason? to inspire and raise the values of his human force to the higher values of the divine force? to become aware like the gods of an absolute good and an absolute beauty? to lift this mortal to the nature of immortality? Against his melancholy image of human transiency we have that remarkable and cryptic sentence, "the gods are mortals, men immortals", which, taken literally, might mean that the gods are powers that perish and replace each other and the soul of man alone is immortal, but must at least mean that there is in man behind his outward transiency an immortal spirit. We have too his saying, "thou canst not find the limits of the soul", and we have the profoundest of all Heraclitus' utterances, "the kingdom is of the child." If man is in his real being an infinite and immortal spirit, there is surely no reason why he should not awaken to his immortality, arise towards the consciousness of the universal, one and absolute, live in a higher self-realisation. "I have sought for myself" says Heraclitus; and what was it that he found? But there is one great gap and defect whether in his knowledge of things or his knowledge of the self of man. We see in how many directions the deep divining eye of Heraclitus anticipated the largest and profoundest generalisations of Science and Philosophy and how even his more superficial thoughts indicate later powerful tendencies of the occidental mind, how too some of his ideas influenced such profound and fruitful thinkers as Plato, the Stoics, the Neo-platonists. But in his defect also he is a forerunner; it illustrates the great deficiency of later European thought, such of it at least as has not been profoundly influenced by Asiatic religions or Asiatic mysticism. I have tried to show how often his thought touches and is almost identical with the Vedic and Vedantic. But his knowledge of the truth of things stopped with the vision of the universal reason and the universal force; he seems to have summed up the principle of things in these two first terms, the aspect of consciousness, the aspect of power, a supreme intelligence and a supreme energy. The eye of Indian thought saw a third aspect of the Self and of Brahman; besides the universal consciousness active in divine knowledge, besides the universal force active in divine will, it saw the universal delight active in divine love and joy. European thought, following the line of Heraclitus' thinking, has fixed itself on reason and on force and made them the principles towards whose perfection our being has to aspire. Force is the first aspect of the world, war, the clash of energies; the second aspect, reason, emerges out of the appearance of force in which it is at first hidden and reveals itself as a certain justice, a certain harmony, a certain determining intelligence and reason in things; the third aspect is a deeper secret behind these two, universal delight, love, beauty which taking up the other two can establish something higher than justice, better than harmony, truer than reason, - unity and bliss, the ecstasy of our fulfilled existence. Of this last secret power Western thought has only seen two lower aspects, pleasure and aesthetic beauty; it has missed the spiritual beauty and the spiritual delight. For that reason Europe has never been able to develop a powerful religion of its own; it has been obliged to turn to Asia. Science takes possession of the measures and utilities of Force; rational philosophy pursues reason to its last subtleties; but inspired philosophy and religion can seize hold of the highest secret, uttamam rahasyam.
Heraclitus might have seen it if he had carried his vision a little farther. Force by itself can only produce a balance of forces, the strife that is justice; in that strife there takes place a constant exchange and, once this need of exchange is seen, there arises the possibility of modifying and replacing war by reason as the determinant principle of the exchange. This is the second effort of man, of which Heraclitus did not clearly see the possibility. From exchange we can rise to the highest possible idea of interchange, a mutual dependency of self-giving as the hidden secret of life; from that can grow the power of Love replacing strife and exceeding the cold balance of reason. There is the gate of the divine ecstasy.
Heraclitus could not see it, and yet his one saying about the kingdom of the child touches, almost reaches the heart of the secret. For this kingdom is evidently spiritual, it is the crown, the mastery to which the perfected man arrives; and the perfect man is a divine child! He is the soul which awakens to the divine play, accepts it without fear or reserve, gives itself up in a spiritual purity to the Divine, allows the careful and troubled force of man to be freed from care and grief and become the joyous play of the divine Will, his relative and stumbling reason to be replaced by that divine knowledge which to the Greek, the rational man, is foolishness, and the laborious pleasure-seeking of the bound mentality to lose itself in the spontaneity of the divine Ananda; "for of such is the kingdom of heaven." The Paramhansa, the liberated man, is in his soul balavat, even as if a child.

Sri Aurobindo

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