Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper

To get to Heraclitus’ hovel, drive east, way east, and onto some back roads, back to about 500 B.C.E., hang a right toward the Mediterranean, which belongs to Persia at the moment, and look for the sun-blessed property with the open-aired architecture gilded with flames overlooking the sea, and you’re there. When I went to visit, the only radio station I could coax into my ox-cart was some hippie-rock music, blaring Edwin Starr’s version of “War.” What is it good for? (Primal and thrusting grunt), absolutely nothin’; say it again! That was provocative enough, I think, to fetch the old man, and he came storming down the stairs from his deck-patio, bounding over his novelty river to walk at too brisk a pace for my comfort straight at me, shouting to be heard over the radio:

War is for the common good, and strife is the right order of things. In fact, all things come to pass according to strife and are actually made useful.

“All things?” I asked. At that very moment (let the reader understand that I swear by all that is holy and good: what I’m about to tell you really happened), “War” came to an end, yielding to John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Before I could manage to switch off the radio, the old man spoke:

If I didn’t already know that justice comes from injustice, I would drown myself in my own river for despair.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We all really hate that song.”

“All of you?” he asked.

“Well, only the dead like it.”


“Indeed,” he said, perking up.

The immortal are mortals, the mortal immortals, by actually living the death of those and by actually dying the life of the others.

I stared at him, and the blankness of my mind became apparent on my face. He showed mercy to me, saying, “Wanna come in?”

We climbed atop his hovel which staved off the sea and invited in the air, sat down together around a fire pit, and he handed me a skin of wine. “You know,” he said. “You can never drink the same wine twice.” He chuckled at his own joke while I took a drink, staring at him while he stared at the sea. “Bowdlerizing my hard work,” he mumbled. “There’s lots more wine where that came from.”

“It’s good,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Life is good, if you’re willing to die like that grape. Taste how good it is! You are that grape.” He leaned over to me, whispering, “Be the grape.” I began to suspect he had had a skin or two already. “That wine,” he continued, “will dry out your soul; then you’ll be ready to live the death of those who are mortal.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult, with a headache like that.”

“No more difficult than standing in front of an advancing army.”

“So we’re back to that again,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, waving his hand toward the sea. “Everybody gets so upset about war, the cruelty of it all, the pain, the destruction. Generally speaking, however, you’re on one side of the advancing army or the other. You can’t have a life without strife. Now, most of us enjoy a life in behalf of someone who died. Hopefully our army was able to make more live per death than their army, but cruelty, pain, destruction–the injustice of war–burns away infestations of injustice so that justice is born anew.”

“So we should wish for war?”

He sighed, “It’s a metaphor, dummy. Warfare and strife is a part of every day life. ‘Real’ warfare is a pedagogue, a headmaster of pain and inevitability, to teach us what it is we are experiencing from the moment our dreams cease until they commence again. And then we lie down to sleep forevermore, joining the chorus of the waters.”

“War is just a metaphor?”

“Just?” he repeated. “Aren’t you listening? The little indignities of this daily life gather themselves up until they are an army marching from town to town, turning over every stone, smashing down every door, and burning every stump and every field of stubble. Thus it must be; if it is not so, the little indignities persevere, as blight perseveres in the soil over the coldest and cruelest winter. Only all-consuming fire restores the garden. This town, in fact, is built upon heaps of rubble and ash, great kings whose names are forgotten causing men to throw down every stone and every skull because of some forgotten injustice. How much more beautiful are the sunsets from these heights, thanks to the cruelty of war, like the time I accidentally smashed a potted plant at the marketplace!”

“Potted plant?”

“You’re the one who thinks that war is just a metaphor,” he said. “In my own mind I was entirely justified to knock down the potted plant. She had it placed in too precarious a spot, and I refused to replace the pot–neither the plant, be it damned to everlasting perdition–nor did I apologize to that gap-toothed, gray-bearded old lady, wretched beast. She had the nerve to drag me before the magistrate, whereupon I argued my case that I ought to have been able to have had the freedom to move my elbow to acquire the necessary silver from my coin purse in exchange for some delicious dates–and I used every other kind of wince-inducing syntax to make the case that I was too dignified to be brought so low by such a waste of vapors, this market-making she-monster. The magistrate looks at her, looks at me, and says, ‘I find in favor of the plaintiff; moreover, your recalcitrance earns you the opportunity to pay her court fee as well as yours.’ Oh, the indignity!”

“What did you do?”

“I paid the fine,” he said, “and the court fees. What else was I gonna do?” He looked over at me. I was looking at him, waiting for him to impart some profundity. “Drink your wine,” he said. I lifted the skin to my mouth and swallowed. He turned his chair toward me, saying, “Do you get it?”

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Heraclitus, My Old Friend

When I first shook hands with Heraclitus, I was bewildered at his ability to ponder and to obscure. I was a wee lad of nineteen tender years, indeed, twenty-two years ago, delighting in my first summer away from home on a small college campus in Chicago, taking an introductory course in the Classical Era, when my doddering old professor introduced me to Heraclitus, a towering figure who winked his eye at you, inviting you into the sweet talk of impermanence from beneath affected furrowed brow. I didn’t get it.

One matriculates to small colleges, I suppose, to reinforce hardcore fundamentalistic objectivism. I just wanted the truth, not the journey. Why should I go to all that trouble when someone can just serve the truth to me in one of those expensive textbooks? Yes, yes, we get it, “One can never step into the same river twice.” Now can we get away from this aging hippie and on to the real philosophers?

Indeed, he is no aging hippie nor is he a philosopher. He belongs to that class of ancient professional thinker known as the Wise Man. Fragment I from his work On Nature indicates as much, saying, “It is wise for those who hear, not me, but the Logos, to confess all things are one.” I think he fits right in here at Sweet Talk, and–who knows?–if he hadn’t tried to treat his dropsy with a liniment of cow manure and baking himself in the sun, he might have been able to join our crew this day.

Pronounced "HeraCLETUS."
Pronounced “HeraCLETUS.”

After twenty-two years I was embarrassed that I hadn’t stopped in to say hello to the old codger, and when I did, I learned that I had learned a few things, and that his invitation into the sweet talk of impermanence is actually something I get, after a few years of my trying to step into that ever-moving river. Well, I may not understand it all as well as he does, but I get it. Take a second look at Fragment I.

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The Grape of Heraclitus

In the summer it must be fabulous to be a grape, surrounded by all your cluster mates, chatting it up about your wonderful color and fragrance, soaking in the long days of sun and ocean breeze to enhance both, wondering why some grapes are plumper than others, but otherwise enjoying the surety and certainty of the stasis of being a grape. After all, what else do you know? You are approaching the ideal of grape. Perhaps you’ve heard whispers along the vine of something called “wine,” and “pressing,” but those have no meaning to you.

As Adam Gurri notes in this week’s melancholic post (melancholic for me, at least) at The Umlaut, the finger comes to pick you, at the appointed time and season, that which you cannot know. At this time you will learn what pressing is, and you will learn that it is not at all pleasant, along with you and all your mates. You will protest against the injustice of it all, the disruption of this revolution, but you will not be heard, not your voice nor those of the millions being processed with you.

Through the screen you are pressed, and then what are you? Are you a grape?

No, you are joy for posterity, the gladdening of hearts.