Friday, March 4, 2011

The Heraclitus-Jesus Connection

I intend to show a connection between the philosophy of Heraclitus and the preaching of Jesus Christ, particularly in regard to Heraclitus' principle of Many acting as though they are asleep and Heraclitus' teaching regarding the Logos.
The philosophy of Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC) begins with the principle of the Logos λóγος (reason). His writings begin with the statement in Fragment 1:
Of the Logos which is as I describe it to men always proves to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this Logos men are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and how it is; but the rest of men fail to notice when they do after they wake up as they forget what they do when asleep.
He later states “Human disposition does not have true judgment, but divine disposition does.” (Fragment 78)
There are numerous examples in the New Testament where the people, including His own disciples, do not understand Jesus’ own words in regard to Jesus’ relationship to God the Father. Jesus asked his disciples who the people say that the Son of Man is. After giving the answer of the average person, Simon Peter professes Jesus to be the Christ and Jesus gives Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Immediately following this profession of faith, Peter is told by Jesus to “Get behind me, Satan” because he fails to understand that Jesus must suffer and be killed. (Mt. 16:21-24).
For Heraclitus, the Wise is the ordering principle. The lover of the Wise, the philosopher, sees and understands this principle. The philosopher is attuned to the divine disposition mentioned in Fragment 78. Heraclitus also refers to The Just. Opposing is understood as a form of relating. There is harmony and structure to the universe.
The idea of the Logos as harmony is present in the New Testament, particularly in the Prologue to the Gospel according to John. The Prologue states:
In the beginning was the Word (Λóγος), and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (1:1-5)
The question of the origin and/or background of the Johannine Logos is one of the oldest and richest issues in NT scholarship, and a belief in a connection between Heraclitus and John, the author of the Gospel, goes all the way back to early Fathers. Most notably, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) found antecedents for this Logos Christology in Heraclitus (as well as in Epicharmus and the Stoics), and Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) proclaimed Heraclitus worthy of being a Christian. Many modern commentators cite Heraclitus and/or Stoicism, which thought of itself as passing on the Logos doctrine of Heraclitus as at least relevant background for the Johannine Logos, and some are persuaded of a positive and direct relationship.1
For Heraclitus the order in the world is a kind of thinking. The invisible order is called the word (logos). Thought is part of this ordering principle. Fire equals thinking so it matters most for Heraclitus. For Heraclitus the Logos is identified in some way with underlying fire (Frg. 30), it may also be identified with the divine law (Frg. 114), it is in some way appropriately called “Zeus” (Frg. 32), and it is regarded as the coincidence of opposites as is also God (Frg. 67). John’s identification of the Logos with God is the straightforward and unambiguous “the Logos was God” (Jn. 1:1) 2
Several times in the New Testament, Jesus is referred to the Light of the World. He preaches against putting one’s light under a bushel basket instead of on the lamp stand where it can provide light for the entire household. This light is understood to be the teachings of Jesus. They are not meant to be hidden, but proclaimed to the “Many” who are unaware of the Good News. Fire was equated with receiving the Holy Spirit which allows one to proclaim the Good News to others.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly, a sound came from Heaven like the rush of a mighty wind and it filled all the house where they were sitting. There appeared to them tongues, as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
This fire from the Holy Spirit allowed the disciples to participate in the divine disposition which provides true judgment. Heraclitus relates Logos to the “everlasting fire” (Frg. 30), the “never setting” sun (Frg. 16), and the “lightning bolt” (Frg. 64). In John the Logos is identified outright with light (1:4-5, 8), and the dualism of light/darkness is present throughout. 3
Heraclitus speaks of sleeping and dreaming as the life lived by most people. The philosopher, according to Heraclitus, is aware since he focuses on the cosmos (common).
The philosopher wishes to become a citizen of the world (cosmopolitan). The Many are seen as idiots because they are worlds unto themselves and are like sleepwalkers.
What is striking here is not so much the self-assurance (not to mention, arrogance) of the thinker who regards “other men” as sleepwalkers, but the almost epistemic isolation of a man trying to convey the vision of an obvious and immediate truth to men who stagger past, unable to notice what they are doing all day long, as if it were a dream they cannot grasp or hold on to. The image of sleep (which will elsewhere provide a kind of link between life and death) serves here to give a more drastic expression to the idea of cognitive alienation. Coming as it does at the very beginning, this paradoxical conception of the human condition as a state of deepest ignorance in the face of an immediately accessible truth serve to define the basic framework within which the specific doctrines must be understood.4
While Jesus does not use the phrase “sleepwalking” to describe the people He encounters, St. Paul makes direct reference to sleepers when he states, “…for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’” (Eph. 5:14) It could be argued that this passage refers to a future resurrection; however, given the context it seems obvious that St. Paul is speaking about how the people of Ephesus are to live their lives in the present.
The idea of a state of deepest ignorance in the face of an immediately accessible truth can be seen in the passage known as the Bread of Life Discourse. This discourse recorded in John 6:25-70 presents us with Jesus’ clear statement that He is the Bread of Life and uses the account of God providing Manna in the desert to show that He is the true bread which will provide His followers with eternal life. Instead of understanding the message, many of those who were present ceased following Jesus from that moment on. Jesus is so concerned that He even asks His disciples if they too will leave Him. Simon Peter once again professes faith by referring to Jesus as the Holy One of God. This is the same Simon Peter who later denies that he knows Jesus after being confronted by a young girl.
Heraclitus states that those who seek wisdom hear the voice of harmony which is lost to most. Hearing and responding to the voice allows one to enter into the loving of wisdom. Unfortunately, too few respond to this invitation.
Jesus referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd and the sheep hear their master’s voice and respond. Hearing and responding to the voice of God allows one to enter into the Divine Mystery which leads to Eternal Life. Jesus also makes reference to the wide and narrow gate. Wide is the gate that leads to perdition, while narrow is the gate leads to the Kingdom. Unfortunately, all too few have responded to the message properly by virtue of the way most people have chosen to live their lives.
The message of the cosmos according to Heraclitus is that “all things are one”. The cosmos is a society. The same can be said of the Church. While it is true that the Church is a community (society) where many are gathered into one through baptism and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity, this gathering happens through a “a calling out” from the world.
The theme of sleep can provide a type of link between life and death. In Fragment 96, Heraclitus states, “Corpses should be thrown out quicker than dung.” It suggests that what awaits men at death is what awaits their excrement and the offal of their farm animals. For Heraclitus and other sense of death and other continuation of life must be concerned not with the corpse but with the element that had abandoned it: the psyche or life-spirit.5 Why is this important? In Fragment 21, it states, “All the things we see when awake are death, even as all we see in slumber are sleep.”
Since sleep and waking are opposite states, if what we see awake is death, then what we see asleep should be life or so the symmetry of the clauses leads us to expect. However, when we reach the last word, we find not life, but sleep.” 7 Heraclitus does not appear to be identifying life with the dream world, so why does he state this fragment as he does? Unless we know what life is, we cannot understand the definition of death; what does it exclude? Since much of what we see awake is alive in the ordinary sense, in what extraordinary sense does death include this visible realm of living plants and animals?6
Death was not part of God’s original plan for mankind, but came about as a result of the direct act of disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Jesus frequently tells His disciples to be awake for the Master’s return. Death is equated with separation from God which is what mankind will suffer if we refuse to live our lives in accordance with the Gospel.
While Heraclitus may have had many valuable insights in terms of the knowledge which was available to him, he was not a Christian. The comparisons between Jesus and Heraclitus are meant to be just that, simply comparisons. It is not my intention to present Jesus Christ as a disciple of Heraclitus in the same way that Cratylus was a disciple of Heraclitus.
Heraclitus states, “All things come into being according to the Logos” (Frg. 1); John states, “All things came into being through Him”, i.e. the Logos (1:3). For Heraclitus it is necessary to follow the Logos” (Frg. 2); John says that only those “believing in His name” are children of God. (1:12). Heraclitus says, “All things come into being according to the Logos” (Frg. 1); John says, “All things come into being through Him.” (1:3) Heraclitus says that the Logos is “common to all” (Frg. 2) and related to it the “never setting” sun (Frg. 16); John says of his Logos that it “illumines every man” (1:9) and is “life that was the light of men” (1:4). Heraclitus says that “men fail to understand” the Logos (Frg. 1); according to John, “the darkness never grasped the light of the Logos (1:5). Heraclitus says, further, that men “lack experience” of the Logos (Frg. 1); according to John, “The world did not know Him.” (1:10)7 These are a few more of the parallelisms which show a connection between the Logos doctrine in the teachings of Heraclitus and the teaching of the Logos in the Prologue to the Gospel according to John.
The truth of the Gospel can be understood through natural reason to a certain extent, as can be seen through the comparisons made; however, it is an act of faith to be able to put these truths into practice in one’s daily life. I accept Heraclitus’ view that the Many are sleepwalkers while the few seek after wisdom and respond to its voice.
Christianity teaches us that this “voice of wisdom” is, in fact, the voice of Jesus Christ Himself. While the philosopher is a lover of wisdom, the Christian is a lover of Love Itself.

End Notes

1 Miller, Edward L. The Logos of Heraclitus: Updating the Report (Harvard Theological Review 74:2, p. 173
2 Miller, p. 174  
3 Miller, p. 174  
4 Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 99  
5 Kahn, p. 213  
6 Kahn, p. 213  
7 Miller, p. 174  

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