Heraclitus The Happy

“They call you the Weeping Philosopher,” I said sometime during the wee hours that first night I got there.

“Nincompoops!” he said. “I’m one of the happiest people I know.”

The map is deceiving, how far east you must travel to get to Ephesus. Rome is right there, with Athens a hoplite’s skip away, and then, it seems, there’s Ephesus, where Heraclitus makes his home, which, by the way, is situated along the Mediterranean facing west, due west. He has a lovely cedar patio for a roof, complete with a fireplace surrounded by cedar furniture with down-padded cushions and a servant always in attendance to fetch us more wine and the occasional morsel of cheese and bread. Nevertheless, when you deplane in Athens, Ephesus is still a long way to the east, especially once you board the oxcart that gets you through the mists of time. The names are all Greek, but the land is all Anatolia. Moreover, there’s a distinctive gilding to everything, every road, every building, every conversation. The din of the Mediterranean West gives way to something more polite, measured, neighborly.

We propped our feet up on the railing while we listened to the ocean wash the rocks below, and I said, “Happy people don’t hate Athens like you do.”

Without looking at me, he put down his skin of wine, took his station at the railing, lifted his chiton, and urinated into the ocean. “I think ‘hatred’ is a rather weak attempt at capturing my utter contempt for those Athenian scum-sucking pigs,” he said. “Did you see how the wind pushed my golden river a few degrees to the south? Follow that river, and you’ll find Athens, where you’ll agree that micturition is only the smallest font of their many and varied stenches.” Then he added, “Besides, I’m not a philosopher. Philosophers have to know too much. Moreover, you’ve had too much to drink, and you’ve become a terrible guest. By sleeping you may help work out those things coming to pass in the world. So do us both a favor, all right?”

The next morning came at midday, and I had a headache. I was in no mood to eat, talk, or drink, so I sat under the sun, watching the ocean roll in from Athens.

“Wet soul?!?” I heard him shout, to my great discomfort. “The soul needs to be dried out by wine, as I told you, but it has a saturation point, whereupon it becomes wet again.”

“I feel like death,” I croaked.

“Perhaps your soul is not as wet as I thought,” he said. “You’re in good shape, then.” And he sat down, eating a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and, I think, grass. Between bites, he pontificated. “Cyrus brought friendship, you see, not conquest. There was virtually no war. The Haxamanis literally says, in Persian, ‘Having a friend’s mind,’ and that’s what they were all about. They settled affairs in their own country, working their way west while folding nations into their friendship like folding whipped goat’s milk into honey-beaten egg yolks.”

Cyrus the Great Standard
The standard of Cyrus the Great

He paused for a moment. “Grated nutmeg on top. Can you taste it? Delicious.” Whatever it was I was tasting at the moment was bilious, so I bade him continue.

“When they arrived here, in these parts, they met their first real resistance.”

“Because Hellas is hella!” I said. He ignored me, scraping the bottom of his bowl of grass-yogurt with his spoon.

“Athens, in the meantime, was having one bacchanal after another, their noble aristocracy dancing before their idols upon the backs of the farmers their families enslaved only two generations hence. Cyrus desired to set them free and end usury.”

“End usury? How would business get done?”

“Usury, the Haxamanis say, is the Lie. Debt is a force pushing forward deception, both on the part of the lender and the borrower, and the Lie, when it comes to property, creates slavery and imprisons innocent men. How can a man pursue arete when he is imprisoned by the Lie? How can he be human when he is on a leash?”

Very sobering, I thought to myself. I asked, “How did the resistance go?”

“We here, thankfully, are Persian, but only for the moment. Ionians are as witless as Atticans, driving off anyone with any sense at all. My teacher Xenophanes has made himself naked with them, to my great shame. We Greeks want our slaves. Darius will spill much Greek blood to set them free, but we will spill much Persian blood to keep them. Those Dionysian feasts are something to behold; and they call him ‘The Liberator.'”

“Haven’t you said that ‘all things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself’?”

“Something like that,” he replied. “But who wants that?”

“I thought you would.”

“Perhaps I do. So it comes, the injustice of war to make the injustice of slavery come to an end, and then we will have justice for a time, while they grapple with one another, intertwined, for mastery.”

For some time while Heraclitus was lecturing I felt in my belly a compassion that had sprung for the farmers who had been enslaved, and it rose. There it was again, much higher, manifesting itself next to the beating within my breast. It was hatred.

 


 Fragments Consulted

 

It needs be that by having inquired well of very many things men are philosophers —On Nature, Fragment XLIX

Those who sleep are laborers and co-laborers of the things coming to pass in the world —Fragment XC

Stupidity is better to conceal, but it’s quite the labor when relaxing also with some wine. —Fragment CVIII

A dry soul is wisest and best —Fragment LXXIV

All things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself. —Fragment XXVI

9 thoughts on “Heraclitus The Happy

    1. David Duke

      In this one I was trying to learn the context of his obscure sayings. He was living in very strange times, even from his perspective.

  1. Jessica

    So far I’m getting “frequent alcohol consumption is bad [stick with the plants]”, but I’m guessing there’s more than a little confirmation bias in there. 😉

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