Gods of Wisdom

The wise (sophos) is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus. —Heraclitus

Zarathashtra worshiped something he called “Lord Wisdom” (Mazda). He called his religion Mazdayasna, which translates to “worship of wisdom.” Heraclitus might have been the first Greek to advocate philos-sophia, or “love of wisdom.”

Heraclitus and Zarathashtra made a God of wisdom. What might they have meant? “Wisdom” is such a commonly used word with secondary shades of meaning. The greek word “sophia” is no less versatile. Heaven only knows the full breadth of the Avestan “Mazda”.

My fat little Oxford Dictionary of Current English provides the following definition:

wisdom • n. 1 the quality of being wise. 2 the body of knowledge and experience that develops within a specified society or period: oriental wisdom.

Alright, so wisdom is primarily a derivative of the adjective wise. That sounds about right. What is wise?

wise • adj. 1 having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment. …

I believe this definition does a fair job of breaking wisdom down into its particulars.


Good judgment is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of what we think of when we hear the word wisdom. It is necessary because the notion of wisdom depends upon a notion of rationality.

Choice (Action)

Wisdom cannot be automatic or mechanical. It must involve choice. To suggest that any process can be consider wise if that process was not an outcome of some decision is to propose a concept other than wisdom.

Hence, one might rightly say that if freedom is an illusion, so is wisdom.

Action (and wise inaction) are critical to wisdom, of course, but one might argue that so long as wisdom is embodied, it seems that action and inaction are implied in the idea of choice.

Experience & Knowledge

Experience and knowledge are also necessary to the definition, and I don’t think that personal experience and acquired (or a priori) knowledge merge into one, nor do I think that wisdom can be seen as implying one to the exclusion of the other.


The adjective good is crucial to the adjective wise, and I don’t think that any specific definition of what is good is necessary to require this. What is wise is dependent upon what is good, regardless of what good is established to be.

To suggest that wisdom could be defined in an amoral context, using a broad, philosophical meaning of moral (ethical, virtuous), would be to violate the general meaning of wisdom, for the word wise must imply judgment that serves the good. To put it simply, it is generally understood that wisdom is a good, virtuous thing. Let’s remember: we are attempting to understand a word, rather than describing an actual phenomenon.

To summarize, wisdom consists of:

  • reason (judgment)
  • choice; action/inaction
  • direct experience
  • knowledge (innate & acquired)
  • goodness

Can we rightly use these concepts to describe the thought of Heraclitus and Zarathushtra?

With respect to Heraclitus: reason, knowledge, and direct experience were crucial, but the roles of choice and goodness in his thought are debatable. Choice may be permissible to his pantheistic God. The fragments of Heraclitus do not seem fatalistic in their social arguments, so one might claim that choice goes without saying. As for goodness, Heraclitus claims that good and evil are not universal aspects of existence. But would it not have been paradoxical for Heraclitus to tout the virtue of his Logos without considering the Logos—in some sense—good? When he spoke of a universal sophos, he must have been implying a higher good.

Regardless of what attributes the actual Zarathushtra acscribed to his God Ahura Mazda, it can fairly safely be claimed that notions of choice and goodness are fundamental to his religion. There is substantial evidence that Zoroastrianism values reason, but I am not so sure that knowledge and experience are fundamental to Zoroastrianism. Some Zoroastrians may claim that their religion values knowledge, and that it is a very empirical religion, but I am dubious on the suggestion that any traditional religion can be called empirical. Still, if we posit that Zarathushtra, be he real or myth, did worship wisdom to the exclusion of all else, we must incorporate a respect for knowledge and direct experience into his religion, for is it not evident that knowledge and experience are the chief elements of the most primitive notions of wisdom?

Haunted by Heraclitus

Heraclitus is not merely turning in his grave, he’s haunting his inspirations.

It appears that an image of a painting that was inspired by Heraclitus’ aphorism the way up is the way down somehow underwent a vertical flip somewhere out on the aether, such that the way up is quite literally the way down:

Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'

The Up-Way Up

(How Maisner painted it)

Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'

The Up-Way Down

(how I found it)

I encountered this painting by Bernard Maisner on the online Harvard Square Library. I came across the image on the right while searching for an abstract representation of the theme of the aphorism. When I posted it, I asked for Maisner’s permission, and—to make a short story shorter—he very gracefully noted that the image was upside down.

It turns out that the orientation of the actual painting is significant, as it contains text that is somewhat more readable when up-side-up.

Ethos as Destiny

This is a continuation of our reflections on character as destiny.

We left this discussion having stripped down the self to nothing but her choices, but that was not where I wished to leave her. I would sooner clothe her in all the particulars of the universe than leave her a naked abstraction.

Heraclitus of Ephesus

Charles H. Kahn breaks down Heraclitus’ epigram ethos anthropoi daimon as follows:

‘character, for man [is his] daimon’. The meaning of the sentence depends on the meaning given to daimon.

As discussed before, we could read this as it has often been read, as the pronouncement of an inspirational speaker: yes, you are the master of your own destiny!, or a Kahn puts it, the cause is not in the stars but in ourselves. That may be how Heraclitus meant it, but as I have argued previously, it sounds a little out of character (pardon the pun) for a man whose mantra appears to have been all things are one.

Kahn suggests two basic definitions for daimon:

  1. one’s destiny, fortune; one’s prosperity or misfortune
  2. a god, divinity, or angel; one who distributes or assigns a portion

I believe both of these definitions are equally appropriate, and I’m not terribly concerned with drawing a distinction between them. My concern is whether Heraclitus intended to suggest that character is the lone causative agent by some causational unfolding of one’s personal destiny, or rather, whether Heraclitus may have meant that character, as is said of virtue, is a destiny—a fortune—unto itself.

Though Kahn does not address this issue directly as it pertains to this specific epigram, he does discuss it in relation to another aphorism.

But if everything that goes up must come down again, since there is no transmundane realm, no escape from the cosmic cycle …, one might question the coherence of this conception of the soul’s path upwards to celestial light or fire as a ‘greater destiny’ … where is there any ultimate difference of principle between the nobler and the baser fate, where in the long run is there any advantage allotted to wiser lives or better deaths?

Here we see Kahn confronting Heraclitus, and demanding consistency of him. If we do so, we must suspect that daimon must mean something other than one’s ultimate condition at the moment of death (or ascension).

Kahn continues …

This is the specifically Heraclitean form of a general question that any monistic system of ethics must face. And Heraclitus would surely have answered like Spinoza: the beatitude which rewards a life of excellence is the quality of that life itself; in his own words ‘man’s character is his fate’, his daimon for good fortune or for bad.

Hence, we might reword the phrase a touch:

Character, for man, is his fortune. —Heraclitus

… and we might be reminded of something that was said 500 years later:

Virtue is its own reward —Ovid

I think I prefer the non-compensatory language of Heraclitus, ambiguous as it is.

Roll over Herakleitos

Man’s character is his fate.

“Ethos anthropoi daimon.” What could an old Greek and subject of the Persian Empire have meant by such a declaration? Many modern folk seem inclined to replace the implicit verb “is” with an explicit “determines”. It only makes sense to the modern liberal mind: a man’s character determines his destiny. How else could character relate to the unfolding of events, I suppose that they reason, but that is the rationale of a modern—and somewhat Western—mindset.

As an American, I am accustomed to the mantra of self-determination: “you can be anything you want to be”. I do my best not to repeat it. I certainly have my doubts that a pre-socratic Greek could have been proposing such a doctrine by putting the words ἔθος (disposition, character, custom, habit), ανθρωπος (man, mankind), and δαίμων (divine power, angel, fate, etc.) together.

He might have meant “a man’s custom is his angel,” or maybe “disposition is destiny.” Who can say for sure?

Maisner's 'The Way Up Is the Way Down'
Bernard Maisner, The Way Up Is the Way Down – Heraclitus

We might strive to acquaint ourselves with the man, as obscured as he is by the ravages of time, before attempting to fit his words together. We ought to also consider what his words might have meant to a subject of the Persian Empire who lived before much of what we recognize as western philosophy was even born.

Heraclitus is known most as the philosopher of change. There is little doubt that change was a big part of his philosophy, but there is considerable dispute as to whether change was the centerpiece of his thought. I am inclined to side with those who see Heraclitus as a philosopher of universal unity and interdependence. When he spoke of change, he spoke of it not as arbitrary flux, but as the result of a harmonious dialectic of opposing principles, or forces. Given that, one can hardly see the Heraclitus who summarized his own thought as “all things are one” as a prophet of self-determination or radical individualism, or even of personal determinism.

So what might be a more likely interpretation? I would like to read the aphorism with an eye for irony, which I believe to be warranted given the general pattern of Heraclitean epigrams. If we take the word daimon to mean destiny, we should ask ourselves what Heraclitus might have meant by the word. Would he have meant the final destination of a man, at the moment of death perhaps? The words of Heraclitus give us a strong impression that he did not believe in ultimate destinations. In light of this, I believe it is reasonable to suggest that destiny must be seen as something fulfilled, in an immediate sense. Furthermore, a man who made it clear that he was aware of the external forces that can exert themselves upon a man, could hardly have believed that a man is impervious to external influence. Given these points, it seems to me that Heraclitus must have meant that a man’s character is his destiny, with destiny taken to mean the fulfillment of oneself; that is, not so much that one’s choices determine what one becomes, but rather one’s choices define what one is.

“I am my choices.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” — Albus Dumbledore

Does birthplace or name define a person? Hair color, or height? Coordination? Intelligence? Personality? Are these things characteristics, or circumstances? When we look at such so-called characteristics, we soon see them as our personal environment rather than characteristics that we can claim to be our own. Ultimately, the sum of these characteristics is the sum of our environment: existence itself. All things are one.

All that remains for the individual are one’s choices.

One cannot expect to change anything, but one can choose to change anything.

This is a rather stoic definition of personal destiny, but I think a stoic interpretation might be true to Heraclitus, given his evident awareness of the interdependence of things, and stoicism seems appropriate given the homage the stoics often paid to Heraclitus.

Heraclitus Down Under

Here’s Alan Saunders, host of the Australian program The Philosopher’s Zone, reflecting on the influence of Heraclitus on Australian philosophers John Anderson and John Passmore.

I find that what Passmore talks about most is not so much Anderson as Anderson’s lectures on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and in fact not so much Anderson’s lectures on Heraclitus as Heraclitus himself. About Anderson, I’m still a bit in the dark, but Passmore has convinced me of why Heraclitus mattered to him and why Heraclitus ought to matter to me.

As presented in ‘Memoirs of a Semi-Detached Australian’, Heraclitus is a philosopher of flux: change, the conflict of contrary things, is the essence of life. We cannot impose order from above; order emerges, in the way that it should emerge in democratic societies, when, as Passmore puts it, ‘contrary interests achieve a degree of balance without losing their distinctiveness.’

“Balance” is an apt enough term, I suppose, but I might have used “harmony.” The key here is that socially and politically, there is no one universal foundational truth. Truth is emergent.

Saunders continues, explaining how Heraclitus saw us as distinct, yet entangled to the point that we compose a kind of social organism that transcends individualistic notions such as active and passive individuals.

But however distinct we may be, we are inevitably entangled in all that lies around us. We can be spectators, says Passmore, but even a spectator can have an effect on the game: the way I look at you may have consequences for you and your behaviour.

Such a social dialectic has been infamously misinterpreted by Marxists to undermine the individual in society. Where they have failed to follow a truly dialectical model is in imposing a universal foundation upon society, and not allowing change to emerge organically, in a free society. The individual must be defended against all powers, whether those powers be kings or mobs, for the collective to thrive.

And what I see when I see you, or what you see when you see me, will be the result of whatever information we have and our earlier histories, all of which makes for a complex tangle of relations, which is why, Passmore remarks, Heraclitus warns us to expect the unexpected. We can never possess certain knowledge or make entirely reliable predictions.

This is a useful philosophy to have. I for one find it entirely congenial, and it tends to encourage a certain pluralism, or at least anti-dogmatism, of outlook…

See Ockham’s Razor, Aug 22, 2004

I agree with Saunders, though I do regret that dialectical thinking has too often been made the servant of dogmatism. Self-professed dialecticians since Hegel have oft as not failed to go the distance with the Heraclitean dialectic, and settled for the comfortable security of foundationalism. By employing dialectical thinking as a philosophical PR representative for universals, they have missed the point at best, and have at worst been guilty of philosophical deceit.

This reminds me of how Heraclitus, having evident respect for the genius of Pythagoras, called him “the prince of impostors.” Pythagoras was a mathematical genius who has had great influence on western thought, science, and Heraclitus as well, but who enslaved his genius to a dogmatic agenda.

“Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus pursued inquiry further than all other men, but choosing only what he liked from these compositions, made a wisdom of his own: much learning, artful knavery.” —Heraclitus

From Annihilation to Immortality

I admit to having been baffled by Nietzsche’s references to the doctrine of “eternal return” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. What did he mean when he asked how believing in such a doctrine would impact our lives? What difference would it make, I wondered, if I occurred once or a million times? From the perspective of eternity, is an identical repeat any kind of return at all? It seems no different to me than living once in eternity. Continue reading

Offender of the Faithful?

This blog got its name “Idol Chatter” for a reason, or even a couple of reasons. First of all, the blogger is a rather militant unitarian (note lowercase ‘u’). Secondly, he tries not to take his own chatter too seriously.

By “unitarian” is here meant anyone who recognizes the tendency of leaders, doctrines, and ideologies to become idols that stand in the way of our search for truth. Idolatry, according to this school of thought, is a mighty sly shape-shifting devil. As a former Unitarian minister once challenged us:

“We boast our emancipation from many superstitions; but if we have broken any idols, it is through a transfer of the idolatry.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Similarly, a Greek philosopher once cautioned:

“It is wise to listen not to me, but to the Logos, …” — Heraclitus

I use the term “unitarian” because this cautious mode of thinking is embodied in the Unitarian tradition, in which some Christians long ago determined that worshiping Jesus is missing the message of Jesus, who did not forbid blasphemy against himself, but rather forbade blasphemy against “the spirit”. It is the spirit of the message that gives life, he said, not the flesh of the messenger; not even the letter of the message.

In this sense, we can see that Jesus, whom some identify with the Logos, was not so different from Nietzsche’s anti-prophet Zarathustra:

“All the names of good and evil are parables: they do not declare, but only hint. Whoever among you seeks knowledge of them is a fool!” — Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The Great Iconoclast

Imagine if you will a medieval man, centuries after Christ, who was familiar with Judaism and Christianity. Imagine that this man was impressed by the Judaic aversion to idolatry, but also recognized Christ as a man—or messenger—of Truth. Imagine that he rejected the Trinity, and the notion that Jesus is God. Imagine that this man became quite well known for his opinion that Jesus is not God, such that we might consider him the first Unitarian. Imagine that he was a man of his time, and realizing the efficacy of power, mustered an army and ordered that army to pursue idolators and smash idols to the ends of the earth.

Let us call this man, for lack of a better name, Muhammad. Maybe this man was so single-minded about smashing idols that he might be called a prophet. Perhaps he was such a dedicated Unitarian that he rejected the very possibility of any religion other than the religion of Unitarianism, going so far as to call himself “the Seal of the Prophets”:

“Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Apostle of God, and the seal of the prophets: and God knoweth all things.” Qur’an (Rodwell translation)

Let us further imagine that this man was seen by by his enemies as a militant religious fanatic and his followers as a crusader for his god Allah. Perhaps we can imagine that they had him wrong. Perhaps we can imagine that he was after something more fundamental, and that the rest—his doctrines, methods, and even his personal beliefs—was all circumstantial.

Idolatry in Islam

The man in the painting is not going bowling. If we look closely enough, we find that even Muhammad was an idolator; but who isn’t? Shall Muslims be permitted to rise above the man? Not if they continue to idolize him.

It is commonly understood that Islam means “submission”, but submission to what? Submission to Islam? Certainly not. That would be circular, would it not? It has always been understood to mean “submission to God”; but what is God? Is God to be taken as the Islamic image of God, “Allah”, or is God to be taken as that ultimate, unknowable creative essence behind—or within—things? Perhaps the core meaning of Islam is “submission to no idol, however subtle”.

“Seek knowledge even unto China” — Muhammad

If we were to take this as the essence of Islam, could this not be a religion of the future? Could we go so far as to say that Islam is faith in Reason? If this seems like too much of a stretch, can we at least see how Islam might be seen as a medieval attempt to free humanity of idolatry?

Let the true Muslims step forward to smash the idols of Islam.