by Shri Aurobindo
The philosophy and thought of the Greeks is perhaps the most intellectually stimulating, the most fruitful of clarities the world has yet had. Indian philosophy was intuitive in its beginnings, stimulative rather to the deeper vision of things,– nothing more exalted and profound, more revelatory of the depths and the heights, more powerful to open unending vistas has ever been conceived than the divine and inspired Word, the mantra of Veda and Vedanta. When that philosophy became intellectual, precise, founded on the human reason, it became also rigidly logical, enamoured of fixity and system, desirous of a sort of geometry of thought. The ancient Greek mind had instead a kind of fluid precision, a flexibly inquiring logic; acuteness and the wide-open eye of the intellect were its leading characteristics and by this power in it it determined the whole character and field of subsequent European thinking. Nor is any Greek thinker more directly stimulating than the aphoristic philosopher Heraclitus; and yet he keeps and adds to this more modern intellectual stimulativeness something of the antique psychic and intuitive vision and word of the older Mystics. The trend to rationalism is there, but not yet that fluid clarity of the reasoning mind which was the creation of the Sophists.
Professor R. D. Ranade has recently published a small treatise on the philosophy of Heraclitus. From the paging of the treatise it seems to be an excerpt, but from what there is nothing to tell. It is perhaps too much to hope that it is from a series of essays on philosophers or a history of philosophy by this perfect writer and scholar. At any rate such a work from such a hand would be a priceless gain. For Professor Ranade possesses in a superlative degree the rare gift of easy and yet adequate exposition; but he has more than this, for he can give a fascinating interest to subjects like philology and philosophy which to the ordinary reader seem harsh, dry, difficult and repellent. He joins to a luminous clarity, lucidity and charm of expression an equal luminousness and just clarity of presentation and that perfect manner in both native to the Greek and French language and mind, but rare in the English tongue. In these seventeen pages he has presented the thought of the old enigmatic Ephesian with a clearness and sufficiency which leaves us charmed, enlightened and satisfied.
On one or two difficult points I am inclined to differ with the conclusions he adopts. He rejects positively Pfleiderer’s view of Heraclitus as a mystic, which is certainly exaggerated and, as stated, a misconception; but it seems to me that there is behind that misconception a certain truth. Heraclitus’ abuse of the mysteries of his time is not very conclusive in this respect; for what he reviles is those aspects of obscure magic, physical ecstasy, sensual excitement which the Mysteries had put on in some at least of their final developments as the process of degeneration increased which made a century later even the Eleusinian a butt for the dangerous mockeries of Alcibiades and his companions. His complaint is that the secret rites which the populace held in ignorant and superstitious reverence “unholily mysticise what are held among men as mysteries.” He rebels against the darkness of the Dionysian ecstasy in the approach to the secrets of Nature; but there is a luminous Apollonian as well as an obscure and sometimes dangerous Dionysian mysticism, a Dakshina as well as a Vama Marga of the mystic Tantra. And though no partaker in or supporter of any kind of rites or mummery, Heraclitus still strikes one as at least an intellectual child of the Mystics and of mysticism, although perhaps a rebel son in the house of his mother. He has something of the mystic style, something of the intuitive Apollonian inlook into the secrets of existence.
Certainly, as Mr. Ranade says, mere aphorism is not mysticism; aphorism and epigram are often enough, perhaps usually a condensed or a pregnant effort of the intellect. But Heraclitus’ style, as Mr. Ranade himself describes it, is not only aphoristic and epigrammatic but cryptic, and this cryptic character is not merely the self-willed obscurity of an intellectual thinker affecting an excessive condensation of his thought or a too closely-packed burden of suggestiveness. It is enigmatic in the style of the mystics, enigmatic in the manner of their thought which sought to express the riddle of existence in the very language of the riddle. What for instance is the “ever-living Fire” in which he finds the primary and imperishable substance of the universe and identifies it in succession with Zeus and with eternity? or what should we understand by “the thunderbolt which steers all things”? To interpret this fire as merely a material force of heat and flame or simply a metaphor for being which is eternal becoming is, it seems to me, to miss the character of Heraclitus’ utterances. It includes both these ideas and everything that connects them. But then we get back at once to the Vedic language and turn of thought; we are reminded of the Vedic Fire which is hymned as the upbuilder of the worlds, the secret Immortal in men and things, the periphery of the gods, Agni who “becomes” all around the other immortals, himself becomes and contains all the gods; we are reminded of the Vedic thunderbolt, that electric Fire, of the Sun who is the true Light, the Eye, the wonderful weapon of the divine pathfinders Mitra and Varuna. It is the same cryptic form of language, the same brief and abundant method of thought even; though the conceptions are not identical, there is a clear kinship.
The mystical language has always this disadvantage that it readily becomes obscure, meaningless or even misleading to those who have not the secret and to posterity a riddle. Mr. Ranade tells us that it is impossible to make out what Heraclitus meant when he said, “The gods are mortals, men immortals.” But is it quite impossible if we do not cut off this thinker from the earlier thought of the mystics? The Vedic Rishi also invokes the Dawn, “O goddess and human”; the gods in the Veda are constantly addressed as “men”, the same words are traditionally applied to indicate men and immortals. The immanence of the immortal principle in man, the descent of the gods into the workings of mortality was almost the fundamental idea of the mystics. Heraclitus, likewise, seems to recognise the inextricable unity of the eternal and the transitory, that which is for ever and yet seems to exist only in this strife and change which is a continual dying. The gods manifest themselves as things that continually change and perish; man is in principle an eternal being. Heraclitus does not really deal in barren antitheses; his method is a statement of antinomies and an adumbrating of their reconciliation in the very terms of opposition. Thus when he says that the name of the bow (biós) is life (bíos), but its work is death, obviously he intends no mere barren play upon words; he speaks of that principle of war, father of all and king of all, which makes cosmic existence an apparent process of life, but an actual process of death. The Upanishads seized hold of the same truth when they declared life to be the dominion of King Death, described it as the opposite of immortality and even related that all life and existence here were first created by Death for his food.
Unless we bear in mind this pregnant and symbolic character of Heraclitus’ language we are likely to sterilise his thought by giving it a too literal sense. Heraclitus praises the “dry soul” as the wisest and best, but, he says, it is a pleasure and satisfaction to souls to become moist. This inclination of the soul to its natural delight in a sort of wine-drenched laxity must be discouraged; for Dionysus the wine-god and Hades, the Lord of Death, the Lord of the dark underworld, are one and the same deity. Professor Ranade takes this eulogy of the dry soul as praise of the dry light of reason; he finds in it a proof that Heraclitus was a rationalist and not a mystic: yet strangely enough he takes the parallel and opposite expressions about the moist soul and Dionysus in a quite different and material sense, as an ethical disapprobation of wine-drinking. Surely, it cannot be so; Heraclitus cannot mean by the dry soul the reason of a sober man and by a moist soul the non-reason or bewildered reason of the drunkard; nor when he says that Hades and Dionysus are the same, is he simply discouraging the drinking of wine as fatal to the health! Evidently he employs here, as always, a figurative and symbolic language because he has to convey a deeper thought for which he finds ordinary language too poor and superficial.
Heraclitus is using the old language of the Mysteries, though in his own new way and for his own individual purpose, when he speaks of Hades and Dionysus and the everliving Fire or of the Furies, the succourers of Justice who will find out the Sun if he oversteps his measure. We miss his sense, if we see in these names of the gods only the poorer superficial meanings of the popular mythological religion.When Heraclitus speaks of the dry or the moist soul, it is of the soul and not the intellect that he is thinking, psuchē and not nous. Psuchē corresponds roughly to the cetas or citta of Indian psychology, nous to buddhi; the dry soul of the Greek thinker to the purified heart-consciousness, śuddha citta, of the Indian psychologists, which in their experience was the first basis for a purified intellect, viśuddha buddhi. The moist soul is that which allows itself to be perturbed by the impure wine of sense ecstasy, emotional excitement, an obscure impulse and inspiration whose source is from a dark underworld. Dionysus is the god of this wine-born ecstasy, the god of the Bacchic mysteries,– of the “walkers in the night, mages, bacchanals, mystics”: therefore Heraclitus says that Dionysus and Hades are one. In an opposite sense the ecstatic devotee of the Bhakti path in India reproaches the exclusive seeker by the way of thought-discernment with his “dry knowledge”, using Heraclitus’ epithet, but with a pejorative and not a laudatory significance.
To ignore the influence of the mystic thought and its methods of self-expression on the intellectual thinking of the Greeks from Pythagoras to Plato is to falsify the historical procession of the human mind. It was enveloped at first in the symbolic, intuitive, esoteric style and discipline of the Mystics,– Vedic and Vedantic seers, Orphic secret teachers, Egyptian priests. From that veil it emerged along the path of a metaphysical philosophy still related to the Mystics by the source of its fundamental ideas, its first aphoristic and cryptic style, its attempt to seize directly upon truth by intellectual vision rather than arrive at it by careful ratiocination, but nevertheless intellectual in its method and aim. This is the first period of the Darshanas in India, in Greece of the early intellectual thinkers. Afterwards came the full tide of philosophic rationalism, Buddha or the Buddhists and the logical philosophers in India, in Greece the Sophists and Socrates with all their splendid progeny; with them the intellectual method did not indeed begin, but came to its own and grew to its fullness. Heraclitus belongs to the transition, not to the noontide of the reason; he is even its most characteristic representative. Hence his cryptic style, hence his brief and burdened thought and the difficulty we feel when we try to clarify and entirely rationalise his significances. The ignoring of the Mystics, our pristine fathers, pūrve pitaraḥ, is the great defect of the modern account of our thought-evolution.