S.Ph. Essays and Explorations

Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring-Summer 2016

Nietzsche and Heraclitus:
Notes on Stars without an Atmosphere 

Niketas Siniossoglou

[The following was written in the summer of 2015 in a country oscillating between socio-economic disaster and a descent into a state of perpetual incomplete nihilism.  The latter prevailed.] 

Nietzschean dream
I awake estranged from everyone. Words have lost their meaning; they sound indifferent and homonymous. The word No appears to mean Yes, or rather: Yes and No are malleable, ephemeral, and transparent. A decades-old or perhaps centuries-old movement of miry clay has resulted in a miscarriage of words. Iinquire whether anyone still holds the resources needed for a direct, sincere affirmation of life—a Yes that is definitively and essentially affirmative—or a No that is definitively and essentially negative—words bursting forth splendour like a crystal. I am told that formulations of this sort are incomprehensible; they are too metaphorical and, in the end, nonsensical, at least according to the elenctic criteria of analytical philosophy and common sense.

I am left hanging—speechless and astonished at the same time—as noon rapidly approaches. I have no idea where to turn. This is what some ancients might call νεοστασία: standing numb. As I see it, I have nowhere to set my foot either: a giant oilcloth of patterned catch-phrases and signs is stretched as far as my eye can see. This verbal carpet is thin, vile, and milky; its plasticity, indeed, impressive! I lift up one edge and take a peek underneath. I can see an increased share of communal wretchedness breathing deeply, a huge growth of ugliness, petit-bourgeois bragging and lying perpetuated in an anodyne way—as if it were the most natural thing in the world: who knows whence it came and how old it is. An insatiable State watches over this neoplasm and feeds it; in return for its opportune vigilance, the State is itself magnified. It occurs to me that occasionally the beast and its food coincide.

Now I am surrounded by exhortations, words of consolation and apologies swiftly carried around me. I suspect an outbreak of and mass addiction to moraline. For example, the alibi of ‘social and democratic sensitivity,’ or of ‘social justice’ ostensibly re-baptize whomever boastfully claims them into morally superior beings. These are creditable expressions, you see, and carry such a good name! Pretexts employing such a popular vocabulary are conveniently idolized—they are elevated into pseudo-gods. This is how immorality is turned into institutionalized morality. For example, when one serves the interests of a rotten priesthood yet manages to persuade everyone else that he is serving those of the people! What a fraud!

As the day goes by, the converts to the trickster’s use of words (‘political,’ some call it) are ever growing in numbers and strength. They even try to persuade me that their handling of words has a soothing and stress-relieving effect. Their point is that communal participation in a pseudonymous morality washes off the loneliness of excellence. Here you have the benefits of our conceptual Babylon! Resentful and fatigued, I realize that I am far from becoming who I am. I can barely take one step, and I immediately sense the weight of my body as impossible to bear. Apparently this state of continuing clash with others and protracted opposition to their ideas and language causes weariness and acedia. I need to distance myself in order to get a grip.

I imagine Nietzsche having had my dream; possibly around 1883, at the time he was working on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, nauseated by the linguistic confusion (Sprachverwirrung) affecting the very understanding of good and evil (KSA 4.62.1) and disgusted by the proliferation of “pretty words” (KSA 4. 77.2: schöne Worte), which he would later call “beautiful, twinkling, tinkling, festive words” (KSA 5.230.9).[1] As early as 1872/3 he was at a loss over “the philosopher caught in the nets of language” (KSA 7.463.5: Der Philosoph in den Netzen der Sprache angefangen), and by 1874 he was studying the malady of words (KSA 1.329: die Krankheit der Worte) in his second Untimely Meditation, possessing abundant evidence on the abuse of moraline, that substance responsible for the alternation of resentment and hypocrisy by means of discourse. Nietzsche could hardly find refuge in academia, let alone contemporary politics: both were controlled by the powerful clan of the “Albinos of concepts” (KSA 6.184: die Begriffs-Albinos), who were responsible for the procreation of “conceptual dragons” (KSA 1.329: Begriffs-Drachen) and pseudo- philosophies. Even dear friend Wagner was eventually shown to be but an idol among others. Nietzsche was cornered—to all appearances he was disillusioned with academic scholarship and the people; in reality, things were far worse: he was disillusioned with the application of language and being-in-history as such.

Upon closer scrutiny though, Nietzsche was far from alone. His texts form a system of signals devised to attract like-minded people in the future, as well as align his own self within a constellation of philosophers and wise men from the past. It is the latter who first experienced a type of ancient loneliness (Einsamkeit), reflected and kindled in Nietzsche’s modern loneliness. Its main bearer is Heraclitus, that “star without atmosphere,” as Nietzsche already calls himin Über das Pathos der Wahrheit (1872), a short “introduction to an unwritten book” devoted to Cosima Wagner (KSA 1.755-760). The essay transmits tenets of a purely Heraclitean worldview and conveys a clear message: there is a way to cause ruptures in one's being-in-history and open up to what lies well beyond our purely historical manner of being. Heraclitus is hailed as the first to have provided the proper remedial formula. He stands for those “rare moments” that “instantaneously illuminate everything” (plötzliche Erleuchtungen), those instances, I believe, that very much resemble what Plato had in mind with his notorious ξαίφνης and Nietzsche/Zarathustra with his Augenblick. These instantaneous moments allow the individual to enter the constellation of certain men who “live in a solar system of their own,” men whom it “is crucial to know … have existed” (KSA 1.757.3; 758.3): they are “stars without an atmosphere” (KSA 1.758.14-15), and it is their company that might allow me to re-claim a mode of being that is normally deemed long-lost and unreachable: for both the State as well as contemporary communities have irreversibly moved in a very different direction.

Georges Battaille wrote that Heraclitus was revealed to Nietzsche as his double, “a being of which Nietzsche was not but a shadow.”[2] Bataille might have had in mind Nietzsche’s own statement in Ecce Homo: “I generally feel warmer and in better spirits in his [Heraclitus’s] company than anywhere else.” Heraclitus appealed to Nietzsche owing to their shared affiliation to an underlying common worldview, the elements of which I present in what follows. At the outset though, it is equally significant that both Nietzsche and Heraclitus philosophize with metaphors. The contrast between metaphorical discourse, on the one hand, and syllogistic or apodeictic discourse, on the other, wrote Sarah Kofman, reflects that between two different types of philosopher: the Heraclitean versus the Aristotelian philosopher, one that may also be presented as the opposition between two archetypal figures: Dionysus and Socrates. Nietzsche’s falling back on Heraclitean metaphor is a conscious move in the hope of re-investing language with a presumably lost ability for greater precision, simplicity, and directness. In more technical terms, the underlying premise authorizing Nietzsche’s move stems from his radical reversal of a key Aristotelean proposition that is, as it happens, the hallmark of Western philosophy: Aristotle thought that metaphors refer to concepts, which means that concepts come before metaphors. Contrariwise, Nietzsche posited that concepts refer to metaphors, rather than the other way around—which means that a metaphorically captured truth is communicable more fully and with greater success than one analyzed by means of Aristotle’s Organon.[3] Kofman's reading may be further strengthened by Nietzsche’s own statement in the Notebooks: “it is not the pure drive for knowledge that decides, but the aesthetic drive: the poorly supported philosophy of Heraclitus has greater artistic value than all the propositions of Aristotle” (KSA 7.444.23-26). This note originated in the summer of 1872, that is, almost contemporaneously with On the Pathos of Truth, and testifies to a conscious conversion to Heraclitean expression. To philosophize, then, requires a type of discourse that, as the Delphic maxim goes and Heraclitus repeats, οτε λέγει οτε κρύπτει, λλ σημαίνει (DK 22Β93). Nietzsche makes a note of this Delphic/Heraclitean maxim and appears perplexed by its meaning in On the Passion for Truth (KSA 1.759.6) as well as in the Untimely Meditations (KSA 1.333.1-5). Where does such an oracular and Heraclitean logos point to, he asks, what does it really reveal, and where does it lead us? The only way to find out is to philosophize metaphorically—just as Heraclitus did.

Of Old and New Ephesians
Beyond the common preference for metaphor extend particular eclectic affinities between Nietzsche and Heraclitus. To begin with, both are philosophers of the single human being and individual existence. In a provocatively anti-Aristotelian manner they advocate a radical intellectual aristocratism that is profoundly anti-political: man in his core is more than ‘a political animal’ and exercises the right to withdraw from the polis (KSA 6.106.12-21: “what is great in civilisation was a-political, in fact anti-political”). The more communities fail, the more imperative it becomes to turn inward and cease training one’s voice for the sake of sounding like others. In the past this outlook sheltered many who suspected that mediocrity and hypocrisy are not contingent political phenomena, but a natural disposition of human communities. The majority naturally tends to baptize as rational what is merely useful and serves its interests at any one point—here is an idea that deeply perplexed Thucydides as well Nietzsche. Necessarily, then, nothing shared in common is really rare; nothing ordinary and mediocre (mittelmässig) is really fascinating; and nothing appropriate to a herd can ennoble the soul of the individual. As Nietzsche puts it: “none of the great Greek philosophers carries the people with him”—and Heraclitus, the philosopher who “rejects the people from the outset,” serves as the example par excellence (KSA 7.544.1-14).

Nietzsche and Heraclitus do not recommend yet another experimentation with public discourse; rather, a self-reflective, interior conversation with oneself. It is thus that highly metaphorical and demanding tropes are substituted for the indolent talk of Old and New Ephesians. The shift inward concerns form as well as content.  In place of the hypocritical concern for others and “pretty words” (schöne Worte), Nietzsche and Heraclitus recommend my sincere relation to my own self:

You crowd around your neighbor and you have pretty words for it. But I say to you: your love of the neighbor is your bad love of yourselves. (KSA 4.77.2-4)

Take, for example, a bunch of pretty words reiterated ad nauseam these days: at these times of crisis ‘intellectuals,’ ‘men of letters,’ and ‘artists’ should ‘stand up,’ ‘speak up,’ and ‘assume their responsibilities as members of society.’ More often than not, the public announcement of such anodyne clichés does not serve the community, but rather the narcissism and self-aggrandizement of ambitious professionals. These are the retailers of ‘the crisis’ that they ostensibly condemn in shock and awe: the merchants of the modern crisis. This triggers Nietzsche’s disgust (in the third Untimely Meditation) with the lobbying intelligentsia and pseudo-philosophical columnists who consistently degrade philosophy into journalism. Do not sell off your ‘art’ and ‘thought’ to the herd, he urges, for thus you perpetuate the desolation of philosophy and art. In the same vein, Nietzsche repudiates the Viertelsphilosphen of today, the “Quadrant-philosophers” or “quarter philosophers” (KSA 1.357.3-11). These are the organic intellectuals (to apply here a Gramscian expression), who appear to speak seriously when in reality are totally incapacitated from fighting against the malady of History, for they are the actual carriers of that malady. Quarter-philosophers devour each other “and cannot even digest themselves” (KSA 4.63.4-5), that is, they are appropriating to their own causes culture, politics, in the end language. What vulgarity and insatiability!

Nietzsche calls the whole lot of this opportune and instrumental application of language and thinking Afterphilosophie: possible translations are backside philosophy and bastard philosophy—the term signifies second-class or low philosophy, yet its real associations are less academically correct: a more apt rendering is anal philosophy (from German After-: anus).[4] Nietzsche attacks the prevailing, current, and dominant intelligentsia as an Afterphilosophie “recognised by the State”:

Every philosophy which believes that the problem of being in the world (das Problem des Daseins) is touched on, let alone solved, by a political event is a joke- and After-philosophie. (KSA 1.365.7-9, 421.23-31)

Quarter-philosophers excel in taming and eventually ridiculing philosophy because they use philosophy professionally—that is, in order to climb up the ladder. Contrariwise, members of the constellation of “stars with no atmosphere” regard the experience of truth as a raw, violent, and terrible experience. Arthur Schopenhauer serves as such a counter-example (KSA 2.427.14-15) against the current of die Hegelei, a man who conformed to some of the genuine presuppositions of philosophy:

These, then, are some of the conditions under which the philosophical genius can at any rate come into existence in our time despite the forces working against it: free manliness of character, early knowledge of mankind, no scholarly education, no narrow patriotism, no necessity for bread-winning, no ties with the state—in short, freedom and again freedom: that wonderful and perilous element in which the Greek philosophers were able to grow up. (KSA 1.411-19-27)

In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky has the ephemeral representatives of the Church sending Christ away: for there is no need for Christ now that they are in charge. In a similar manner, Nietzsche has the Quarter-philosophers experience no need whatsoever for the return of genuine philosophy. Besides, the State and its intellectuals are merely continuing from where the Church with its theologians stopped.

The function of the fierce and inflammatory tone of Nietzsche’s attacks on the academic, clerical, and socio-political establishment cannot be adequately dealt with here. What matters is that the preference for these means of expression forms an integral part of his claiming an epochê, that is, an exemption from to-day. This radical mode of thinking and writing presupposes the passage from the language of the State to that of the individual human being, as well as the passage from one’s neighbor to one’s self, from what is outside to what is inside, from hypocritical political engagement to a sincere self-distancing from the polis. In a nutshell, radical aristocratism transfers back to the individual all that was so conveniently passed over to State and Church: responsibility for one’s self.

διζησάμην μεωυτόν
How am I to assume this responsibility if forgetful of my own self? We are always only in our own company, says Nietzsche in the Gay Science (KSA 3.498.25-8: wir sind stets nur in unserer Gesellschaft). My self is the actual front rank from which I move on, rather than any political party, community, or group. Nietzsche opts for the German word Selbstsucht: not really selfishness, but rather self-regard and immersion into one's self. Selbstsucht recalls Selbstsuche, the search for the self: διζησάμην μευωτόν (I inquired of myself) is the guiding maxim of Heraclitus (DK 22B101), one that Nietzsche considers in On the Pathos of Truth as slandered and misused for centuries. The Christian is ever vigilant against his own selfishness; the socialist is ever vigilant against the selfishness of others. In both cases the love for one's self is demonized. By contrast, Nietzsche retrieves for self-love precisely the good that the early Christians projected on to love for one's neighbor: the way to break existing political communities asunder and break through the limits of a crooked self.

In Heraclitus, then, Nietzsche traces the archetypal version of such a self-regard (Eigenliebe) that is a love for truth (KSA 1.759.17: Liebe zur Wahrheit). Self-regard provides the impetus for arriving at an inalienable core that I must constantly observe and keep safe in order not to lose myself: “I will remain my own” (Ich will mein bleiben!) is the conclusion, says Nietzsche, commenting on Schopenhauer's dreadful endeavor of self-inspection, one that calls for descending into the depths of Being-in-this-world (KSA 1.374.5-8: in die Tiefe des Daseins hinabtauchen).

There is only one way to remain my own, and this is to become who I am. Γέννοιο οος σσ μαθών, as Pindar put it (III.72), a motto that Nietzsche transcribes as be who you are in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and in Gay Science (KSA 4.297.17: Werde, der du bist!), and eventually chooses as the motto of Ecce Homo (KSA 6.255: How one becomes who he is [Wie man wird, was man ist]).[5] The meaning is twofold. First, that the way forward is a progression inward; and second, that the sustainment of the self while being within history (what Plato might call σωτηρία—the Greek idea of salvation as resilience) amounts to a state of alertness and movement. Nietzsche and Heraclitus are the philosophers of power and becoming: nothing ever is for everything resides in a state of perpetual becoming, according to the summary of that ancient worldview that Socrates presents in Plato's Theaetetus (152d: στι μν γρ οδέποτ' οδέν, ε δ γίγνεται). Plato credits this outlook to a whole series of wise men from Homer to his own time, as if this were the genuine ancient Greek worldview. Socrates' ironic reconstruction of what his predecessors believed appears to have thus anticipated Nietzsche’s view on the birth of Hellenic thought, most famously presented in his nostalgia for the Dionysian and Heraclitean sixth century BC in the Birth of Tragedy (KSA 1.14-30). Homer, notes Socrates in the Theaetetus, makes Ocean and Tethys the begetters of gods. Flux is inscribed in the mythical origins of the universe. Nietzsche-cum-Heraclitus descends into, or rather returns to, these origins without any hint of Socratic irony:

To affirm the passing away and destruction that is crucial for a Dionysian philosophy, saying yes to opposition and war, ‘becoming’ along with a radical rejection of the very concept of ‘being’—all this is more closely related to me than anything else people have thought so far. The doctrine of the ‘eternal return,’ which is to say the unconditional infinitely repeated cycle of all things—this is Zarathustra’s doctrine, but ultimately it is nothing Heraclitus couldn't have said too. (KSA 6.313.2-12)

Yet Nietzsche knows that it is impossible to enter twice the river of the history of philosophy. The first tragic philosopher could not be any other than him: Nietzsche/Zarathustra. Nowhere does this claim to novelty emerge more clearly than in Section 8 of the ‘Old and New Tablets’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There, the concept of Heraclitean flux is no longer restricted to its original context of pre-Platonic hylozoism; rather, it is extended to cover the moral and political circumstance of modern masses. Nietzsche’s re-politicizing of Heraclitus’s theory of flux deserves to be quoted at length:

     If timbers span the water, if footbridges and railings leap over the river, then surely the one who says ‘Everything is in flux’ has no credibility.
    Instead, even the dummies contradict him. “What?” say the dummies, “everything is supposed to be in flux? But the timbers and the railings are over the river!
Over the river everything is firm, all the values of things, the bridges, concepts, all ‘good’ and ‘evil’—all this is firm!”
But when the hard winter comes, the beast-tamer of rivers, then even the wittiest learn to mistrust, and, sure enough, then not only the dummies say: “Should everything not—stand still?”
Basically everything stands still”—that is a real winter doctrine, a good thing for sterile times, a good comfort for hibernators and stove huggers.
Basically everything stands still”—but against this preaches the thaw wind!
The thaw wind, a bull that is no plowing bull—a raging bull, a destroyer that breaks ice with its wrathful horns! But ice—breaks footbridges!
Yes my brothers, is everything not now in flux? Have all railings and footbridges not fallen into the water? Who could still hang on to ‘good’ and ‘evil’?
Woe to us! Hail to us! The thaw wind is blowing!”—Preach me this, oh my brothers, in all the streets.
(KSA 4.252.1-27)

Everything always flows deep underground. It is only in the shared surface that I may allow myself to be fooled by things. For it is there that I am persuaded that those dominant and yet ephemeral concepts ostensibly tie communities together:

Madness (Irrsinn) is rare in the individual—but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule. (KSA 5.100.9-10)

How odd, then, are these masses and their political factions! How to explain that they are so easily deceived and yet hardly react? Nietzsche’s reply in On Truth and Error from an extra-moral sense (1873) is that in the end men are not really concerned that they are deceived or lied to; the only thing that really puts them in a state of genuine rage and fury is direct personal damage. To be sure, men are attracted to truth, just not enough—they stop halfway to truth, just as they are encountering aspects of truth that are contingent and partial. These are ‘truths’ appropriate to selfish and interest-driven beings, as one may infer from an analysis of their usage of language (KSA 1.878.4-16). The masses have unlearned nostalgia. They know no more how to let themselves be driven by what lies before and under the lies of language. The upshot is, as one reads in Beyond Good and Evil, that “we are, from the bottom up and across the ages, used to lying” (KSA 5.114.6-7: Wir sind von Grund aus, von Alters her—an's Lüge gewöhnt).

In Daybreak Nietzsche applies the neologism Schein-Egoismus to describe this collective mode of affirming a merely limited or partial truth, or even creating it, that is: pseudo-egoism. The outbreak of pseudo-egoism is made possible by appeals to a fictional ‘humanity’ that authorizes the cultivation and growth of a phantom of the true ego within individual minds. Nietzsche describes a spectral and merely conceptual humanity, a monstrous Abstractum that tacitly takes over and controls the life of the majority. Individual men and their communities are absorbed and accommodated within this spectral apparition until individual selfhood drains away. Beliefs and habits form a grotesque network: people, says Nietzsche,

dwell in a fog of impersonal, semi-personal opinions, and arbitrary, as it were poetical, evaluations, the one forever in the head of someone else, and the head of this someone else again in the heads of others: a strange world of phantasms.

Collectively approved conceptualizations are substituted for variants of individual existence to the point of “all these people, unknown to themselves” sharing the experience of the same conceptual simulacrum.  It is now very hard for the individual (der Einzelne) to rise against this networked world and oppose “a genuine ego” capable of sabotaging the altogether fictional yet prevalent specter of pseudo-egoism. The reason is that “every alteration effected to this abstraction [of man] by the judgments of individual powerful figures (such as princes and philosophers) produces an extraordinary and grossly disproportionate effect on the great majority” (KSA 3.92.27-93.19).

With the individual unknowingly trapped in a simulated world, we should not, of course, expect the State to acknowledge any obligation to remind individuals of what was originally at stake. On the contrary, “the State never has any use for truth as such, but only for truth which is useful to the State, more precisely, for anything whatever that is useful to its interests whether it be truth, half-truth, or error” (KSA 1.422.17-19). The State resembles a water-mill that mechanically reduces and modifies the power of the water that moves it. In so doing, the State functions as a bulwark against any force threatening to advance beyond the meeting of its prosaic needs (KSA 1.389.1-9). It is thus that the individual is transformed from a bursting torrent to a quiet water-tank.

Heraclitus denounced the πονηρν πολιτείαν (DK 22Α1) of the Ephesians and withdrew to the temple of Artemis, where he spent his time playing with children. Heraclitus, says Nietzsche in a crucial passage in the Genealogy of Morals (KSA 5.353.15-31), sought thus to flee from what we too seek to flee today: the nonsense talk of Ephesians, their democracy, their political endeavors. Heraclitus became an anchorite. And we would do well to put ourselves too in the shoes of a modern Heraclitus: “Why are we lacking such temples?” That selfsame Heraclitean need for “a pause from today” persists. Like Heraclitus, we want to bring today to its end. Let it cease, Nietzsche demands, for it is in the face of to-day that we constantly defend ourselves, and are thus incapable of talking naturally, being, rather, obliged always to raise our voice in the hope of being heard:

That which Heraclitus avoided, however, is still the same as that which we shun today: the noise and democratic chatter of the Ephesians, their politics, their 1atest news of the ‘Empire’ (the Persian, you understand), their market business of ‘today’—for we philosophers need to be spared one thing above all: everything to do with ‘today.’ We reverence what is still, cold, noble, distant, past, and in general everything in the face of which the soul does not have to defend itself and wrap itself up—what one can speak to without speaking aloud. (KSA 5.353.30)

Nietzsche found no new temple of Artemis, nor peace from the torrents of loud talk. The democratic chatter and market business of today proved unstoppable. Consolation and refuge are to be found in a different course of action. Nietzsche sees himself as digging tunnels in the linguistic constructions of the New Ephesians, hiding there and moving underground like the marmot, exercising himself in a type of linguistic disobedience (KSA 5.169.9-19). There are many words, he says in Beyond Good and Evil, words that make a nice noise and tinkle. These words provide the prime matter for exclamations that make one swell with pride: ‘love for truth,’ ‘sacrifice for knowledge,’ and so on. But we know in all the secrecy (in aller Heimlichkeit) “of a hermit's conscience that even this dignified verbal pageantry belongs among the false old finery, debris, and gold dust of human vanity.” The goal then is to move under this masquerade and painted surface, in order to bring to light the elementary text of homo natura, that is, to retrieve the texture of the natural condition of man: to translate man back to the language of nature (KSA 5.169.20). 

One year later, Nietzsche adds a prologue to the new edition of Daybreak (1887), in which he begins with more or less the selfsame metaphors and remarks. He sees himself as “a subterranean man at work”—Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero springs to mind—a man who opens up holes and tunnels like a lonely mole. He works surreptitiously in order to undermine, and knows how to find his way out of the political labyrinths of rhetoric and persuasion—this is a “hazardous enterprise” undertaken in solitude. Only he who has eyes for such work in the depths can see Nietzsche at work (KSA 3.11.1-19). Loneliness, strife, metaphor: these are the three main points of confluence between Nietzsche and Heraclitus authorizing versions of a solitary, quarrelsome, and yet dynamic attempt at shifting the ordinary nexus of social and eventually linguistic relations.

Heraclitus and Nietzsche are fascinated by the overflow of becoming; yet they despair at the overflow of their own black bile. On the one hand, they are philosophers of strife in a world not made by any personal godhead (DK 22B30: οτε τις θεν οτε νθρώπων ποίησεν); on the other, their resilience is decreasing. Melancholy burdens both, even if Nietzsche left behind a voluminous body of works,  whereas Heraclitus, according to the testimony of Theophrastus, left some of his works unfinished, and wrote others in a non-systematic manner (DK 22A1), what we might call ‘untimely.’ Apparently, the co-existence with either Old or New Ephesians is barely bearable. Πολλοί κακοί, ολίγοι δ γαθοί (DK 22Β104) says Heraclitus quoting Bias (“the many are base, while the few are noble”), and Nietzsche rebels against the Herdentier time and again.

Both experience the de-sacralization of the world. Traditional mysteries, says Heraclitus, take place in an unholy way (DK 22Β14, νιερωστί): “the mysteries traditionally practiced by men are celebrated in an unholy manner.” InZarathustra's version of this experience, “what was once called secret and secrecy of deep souls, todaybelongs to the street trumpeters and other butterflies” (KSA 4.233.19-21). Men do not know how to hear or talk, says Heraclitus (DK 22Β19: κοσαι οκ πιστάμενοι οδ επεν), they are disconnected from the wisdom of the world. Zarathustra feels the same: “everyone talks among them”, and yet “everything is betrayed.” Men do not know how to talk authentically and listen any more, says Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, showing an eclectic kinship with Heraclitus’s solitude. Good ears are rare, ears well trained and capable of assimilating a philosophy that is unheard of (KSA 6.290.25, 304.19):

the fact that people do not hear me these days, that they do not know how to accept anything I say, these facts are not only understandable, they even strike me as the way things should be. (KSA 6.298.13-16)

There is a proliferation of empty talk that exhausts things: everything gets talked to death (KSA 4.233.16: Alles bei ihnen redet, alles wird zerredet). This rupture with the community goes as far as Heraclitean misanthropy (DK 22A1: κα τέλος μισανθρωπήσας). In Homer’s Wettkampf (KSA 1.782-792), yet another small prologue to a book that was never written, Nietzsche transmits Heraclitus’s notorious dictum: all adult Ephesians would do well to go and hang themselves and leave the city to the children, for they have exiled Hermodorus, who reached excellence (DK 22Β121). A few years later, Nietzsche/Zarathustra more or less prescribed the same remedy to the half-dead New Ephesians around him (KSA 4.93-6). In the case of both Nietzsche and Heraclitus, misanthropy stems from a love for man and the original potential now lost. The more deeply a single human being (der Einzelne) achieves individuation by turning against the community to the point of misanthropy, the more he exposes like a Satyr “the lying caricature of the ‘man of culture’” (KSA 1.58.20-28 and 59.1: Culturlüge), and hence the more productively he contributes to a civilization that is genuine and tragic (KSA 9.99.24-25), that is, a civilization that ceases to be led from the nose by the State.

γχιβάται — those who come near
Words work like water-clocks. Their meaning appears to us tired and exhausted within this or that historical context; yet once we dare turn upside down their habitual signification, words become again relatable and young. As it happens, in some cases this unabashed reversal ushers in words finally recollecting the original meaning they had lost in decades or centuries of re-applications and re-uses.

Homer’s Wettkampf (1872) is one among Nietzsche’s first experimentations and improvisations with this idea; it is also a fierce denunciation of the anodyne and utilitarian study of antiquity that is typical of modern (and post-modern) scholarship (KSA 1.783-792). His main point is that the genuine ancient Greek worldview was progressively perverted by a crooked yet dominant version of philology. Today we have substituted the values of modern philanthropy and ‘humanism’ (Humanität), he says, for the Greek primeval and extra-moral quality of ‘being human’ (das Menschliche). ‘Humanism’ not only sidestepped ‘being human,’ but reversed its value from positive to negative: thus, ‘humanism’ constantly undermines words and ideas that the Greeks approved as presuppositions of any contest for superiority (μιλλα), such asρις (strife), χθρα (enmity), and even envy (φθόνος). An unnatural and hypocritical moralising was substituted for the original significance of these words.

Nietzsche’s point is both philologically and philosophically defensible. Take for example the application of the word aretê in the Platonic context. The term is commonly rendered by 'virtue' as if its significance was reduced to the realm of moral conduct. In reality, the meaning of Plato's aretê is much closer to excellence, and the individual struggle for differentiation and distinction. From a more philosophical viewpoint, consider the following example: these days we cherish the moral virtue of restraining our passions. We are addicted to a culture of moderation. One is instinctively taken aback by disputation and quarrel. Nobody approves of contentious persons, and we often claim a moral advantage in being more ‘moderate’ than others. Strife, then, acquires a negative value, just as we saw with egoism.  We thus hardly acknowledge that a generalized state of moderation in all things and thoughts is in itself profoundly immoderate, in fact, a very stark form of violence—the violence of uniformity or non-distinction: a strifeless existence has no potential or future. For their part, the Greeks appreciated that neither philosophy, politics, nor art are at all possible with one accord; rather, variance and struggle are a proprium of becoming who you are, and struggle (Wettkampf) presupposes strife. In Homer’s Wettkampf, Nietzsche is in the same vein as Heraclitus: all things happen according to strife (DK 22Β8: πάντα κατ ριν γίνεσθαι). In all things the slightest movement amounts to a disentanglement from the present, and hence is in a certain tension or strife with the present. It is strife, then, that rapidly moves the world forward as well as individual human beings, at the same time that strife holds them together. By contrast, we now experience a world that is not at all the heir of the ancient one; rather it is its complete reversal:

There is nothing the modern man fears more in an artist than the individual impetus of his struggle; contrariwise, the Greeks acknowledged the artist only as carrier of his personal struggle.  (KSA 1.790.19-21)

Bereft of strife, the individual human being is trapped in a fine-spun pseudo-community that early on makes of man a caricature of Achilles in the parable of Zeno of Elea: the dumbfounded Achilles cannot reach the tortoise because his every step opens up a new abyss before his feet. Similarly, I stare at an abyss whenever I contemplate the attempt to take a real step forward—for too long have I remained trapped in those presumably safe conceptual havens, wrapped up tightly in multiple layers of concepts, and have overslept in their nets. How then to walk on my own towards what is “more near and tangible”? Nietzsche and Heraclitus sound in accord once more: they are attracted by proximity and feel trapped in what is abstract. The things of which there is sight, hearing, experience, I prefer (DK 22B55: σσων ψις κο μάθησις, τατα γ προτιμέω). The reason that the individual in antiquity enjoyed more freedom than today, says Nietzsche in Homer’s Wettkampf, is that his goals were closer and more tangible (KSA 1.790.4-5: näher und greifbarer).

Nietzsche and Heraclitus are γχιβάται: they ever come near and approximate to what is (DK 22B122: γχιβασίην ράκλειτος). Coming near or approximating to reality presupposes one's distance from appearances—γχιβασία is allowed only by performing a previous breach with a conceptual and linguistic cloud that is too flexible and malleable to be anything at all. Mutatis mutandis, every single existence that really comes close in the Heraclitean sense is openly or covertly contentious, and therefore truly worthy of love.

The real struggle is neither with others, nor with the State or a world that is crooked or even inverted (verkehrte Welt); rather, it is a struggle with one’s own self: those who live life most beautifully are those who defy it, Nietzsche says in On the Pathos of Truth, or, as Zarathustra puts it in the culmination of his quest to achieve communication: man is something that must be overcome (KSA 4.332.16). The identity of every single human being is held together by his constant effort to override the self. Strife is an affirmation of the self. 

We have reached the crux of the matter. Both Heraclitus and Nietzsche see identity in difference, and harmony in variance (DK 22B8: κ τν διαφερόντων καλλίστην ρμονίαν). Men do not understand, says Heraclitus, that a thing may be at odds with its own self and only for this reason agree with itself—this is the pattern of harmony turning about (παλίντροπος ρμονία) found, for example, in the vibrating bow or lyre, whence harmony rests upon tension and extension (DK 22Β51).

Existence is as παλίντροπος as a bow. Against all efforts of logic and theology to tie existence to a consistent paradigm of cause and consequence, existence in its full extension and potential cannot but contradict itself. Existence remains permanently at odds with itself: each instance disappears into the next like a snake devouring its tail and forever digesting itself. With those two little words: es war (that was), writes Nietzsche in 1873, “begins the struggle, all the pain, and life is inaugurated as a never-ending Imperfectum” that oscillates between past and present (KSA 7.677.27-34).

The name of the bow is Life (βίος), but its work is death (τ ον τόξ νομα βίος, ργον δ θάνατος, DK 22Β48), says Heraclitus. The phenomenon of palintropia eventually finds its way within the actual words I employ to describe that phenomenon—or is it that palintropia is co-natural with the actual vibe of words?  For the word βιός in Homer stands for the bow, but it may equally be taken to refer to βίος, that is, the particular mode of life or manner of living (LSJ s.v. βίος Ι). Like all Being, words are palintropic.

I am a wave in Nietzsche’s “necessary game of waves that is becoming” (KSA 2.396.9-10). The likeness between the words wave (Welle) and will (Wille) underscores their shared tendency to consume and expend, as well as be expendable:

Will and Wave.— How greedily this wave approaches, as if it were after something! How it crawls with terrifying haste into the inmost nooks of this labyrinthine cliff! It seems that it is trying to anticipate someone; it seems that something of value, high value, must be hidden there.—And now it comes back, a little more slowly but still white with excitement; is it disappointed? Has it found what it looked for? Does it pretend to be disappointed?—But already another wave is approaching, still more greedily and savagely than the first, and its soul, too, seems to be full of secrets and the lust to dig up treasures. (KSA 3.546.7-17)

What is the goal of that restless and yet melancholic undertow of existence? Towards what heights of fascination and despair is Nietzsche striving when running over the waves? I swim in the highest wave, he says in a note from 1881 (KSA 9.602.13). To what end? There is no goal at all. Thus live waves—thus live we who will (die Wollenden)—more I shall not say. The flux goes on and on through the mesh of language, science, morality, theology, and history. The turning about of things is ceaseless; it always manages to shake off all ephemeral attempts at utilitarian appropriation or valorization on behalf of culture or politics. I can only affirm with all my might and will the abyssal and flowing share of existence. The alternative would be to turn a blind eye to it and expend my life forever in its shadow.

Replete with life, the on-going game of palintropia resists intellectual abstractions. It is impossible to translate the undulation of being into organized discourse, or distribute its meaning by means of linguistic vehicles. Human consciousness, says Nietzsche, developed out of the urge to communicate. And yet everything that surfaces in consciousness, hence everything that is communicable or “assumes the form of words, namely signs of communication,” in which he counts gestures or eye movements, is the product of an incomplete translation.  I am inescapably trapped in a vicious circle of communicating only what is not absolutely or properly mine (das Nicht-Individuelle), hence what is ultimately alien to the deeper core of myself:

Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that. But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be. (KSA 3.592.33-593.2)

This thought is a Trojan horse. No philosopher putting trust in words and grammar should allow it in—for then I shall be at a loss, incapable of getting a grip on things or myself. For how am I even to speak about a self that is minimal and individual to such a degree that it might be damaged by even my slightest attempt at relation and comprehension, metaphor or translation? My innermost being is also the most fragile. The attempt to render the constant turning about of the self communicable ends in a language game and despair. The endeavor ultimately fails: it is impossible to bottle the ego’s undertow, let alone turn its drive into a manipulatable source of energy for the benefit and pleasure of others.

This is the first consequence of assuming a Heraclitean worldview: palintropic flux surpasses human sense perception as well as cognition, and hence aborts the attempt at establishing an adaequatio intellectus et rei. Neither Heraclitus nor Nietzsche allow for any absolute epistemic point of reference authorizing the safe and rigid distinction between phenomena and reality. What philosophers conveniently call ‘phenomena’ span categories and logical tools and exemplify a remarkable tenacity and resilience—with the effect that ‘phenomena’ remain things in the view of all philosophy, theology, or morality. And yet elsewhere Heraclitus and Nietzsche somehow assume a clear distinction between the discourse of the Ephesians and a presumably hidden truth which is precisely that which causes Heraclitus and Nietzsche to differ and deviate from the “many” (hoi polloi). How are the two positions at all compatible?  The paradox reminds us of Socrates: the man who knew nothing and yet somehow knew that aretê was knowledge and that it was not to be found among hoi polloi. The only way to solve the paradox is to assume with Plotinus that “certainly that which is altogether without a share in the good would not ever seek the good” (Enn. III.5-45-6: ο γρ δ τ πάμπαν μοιρον το γαθο τ γαθν ν ποτε ζητήσειεν). The very drive to become who I am presupposes a pre-reflective grasp of what it is that I am.

Heraclitean flux, then, does not imply relativism. On the contrary, it calls for dark yet firm knowledge. Wisdom is one thing: to know the will that steers all things through all (DK 22Β41: εναι γρ ν τ σοφόν, πίστασθαι γνώμην, τέη κυβέρνησε πάντα δι πάντων). The Greek word γνώμη does not here stand for one’s belief or judgement, rather for will, disposition, inclination (LSJ s.v. γνώμη ΙΙ).[6] The Nietzschean will to power is a version of the Heraclitean γνώμη/will, which neither discloses nor conceals meaning, but is naturally manifested like a child’s play. Life [or: eternity] is a child at play, moving pieces in a game: the kingdom is a child’s (DK 22B52: αἰὼν πας στι παίζων, πεσσεύων). Nietzsche’s/Zarathustra’s vision is one of humanity becoming child-like again (KSA 2.143.4: Die Menschheit zu verkindlichen), not in any naïve and agreeable sense of the word child, but insofar as childhood resides beyond civilization—it is extra-moral and raw.

Nietzsche, Cratylus, and fire
The philosopher Cratylus, who belongs to the company “of those claiming to Heraclitise” (τν φασκόντων ρακλειτίζειν), as Aristotle has it, developed the “most extreme version” (κροτάτη δόξα) of the idea “that the whole of nature was in motion”: apparently Cratylus concluded that he was incapable of expressing any thought at all in speech, and confined himself to pointing with his finger. (TEGP 167 = Arist. Metaph. 1010A7-15). Is the extreme consequence of surrendering myself to becoming Cratylus' speechlessness—or his absurdity?

In the second Untimely Meditation Nietzsche deals with Cratylus, albeit without expressly naming him. He does not see in Cratylus’s case anything resembling a wise man or Zen master, but a man so helplessly immersed in the present, that is, addicted to “feeling historically,” that he is eventually rendered a mere plaything of becoming. Cratylus appears to have lost the safety-net of forgetfulness. Without forgetfulness, says Nietzsche, I hardly possess any means of protecting myself against my full exposure to being-in-history. It is lêthê then, the ability to forget, that allows me to endure my being in history, just as sleep allows me to repair my body and mind: “a man who wanted to feel historically through and through would be one forcibly deprived of sleep.” To be unable to forget is to collapse into a state of numbness:  

Imagine the most extreme example possible of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming: like a pupil of Heraclitus, he would in the end hardly dare to raise his finger. (KSA 1.250.14-22)

Often I feel deprived of sleep; and I despair over the Heraclitean view of things. I am taken over by a very Hellenic pessimism and to no avail do I struggle to forget. Today turns into a torrent consuming everything in a ceaseless flux of baseness and abjectness. Indiscriminately, words, actions, and things add up like the building blocks of an abominable tower of Babel, waiting for the angel of history to redeem them—that is, if they are at all worthy of redemption. Being in history is my sinking into a grim, glutinous, and marshy ground.

Is forgetfulness my sole weapon against the Cratylus disease? In On the Pathos of Truth, Nietzsche indirectly suggests a complementary course of action, which he elaborates in the second Untimely Meditation. His remedy relies on the doctrine that life is realized instantaneously—rather than progressively, teleologically, or historically. There is no ‘end’ or goal of history; only moments that are indeed final, insofar as in them the world appears perfected. These moments are short-lived and scattered, yet ferocious, excessive, and fully accomplished. The temporal distance between these instantaneous moments may appear as great as the solitude of their individual carriers: for it is these men who the instantaneous moments connect, individual human beings who appear to have been as ephemeral as anything else within the flow of history, yet they manifested what Nietzsche calls Genius.

My only priority is to safeguard my kinship with these instantaneous moments—to maintain the possibility of my mooring to them with sympathetic ties that span the continuum of history. Paragraph 314 of Daybreak contains a very good formulation of this idea—and exemplifies some very Heraclitean points of reference:

In the midst of the ocean of becoming we awake on a little island no bigger than a boat, we adventurers and birds of passage, and look around us for a few moments: as sharply and as inquisitively as possible, for how soon may a wind not blow us away or a wave not sweep across the little island, so that nothing more is left of us! But here, on this little space, we find other birds of passage and hear of others still who have been here before—and thus we live a precarious minute of knowing and divining, amid joyful beating of wings and chirping with one another, and in spirit we adventure out over the ocean, no less proud than the ocean itself. (KSA 3.227.3-14)

We have already witnessed Nietzsche riding the waves; but now he is surrounded by waves: restricted to a small island that will not itself stay there for long, he strives to experience a precious moment spanning past, present, and future. The strained relation to waves exemplifies the opposed or palintropic tropes of existence. Affirming both, I stay who I am and at the same time I become who I am—thus forever and inescapably full of strife and disquietude.  

In the meantime, I observe how the clerical and political flocks, as well as their shepherds, repeatedly fail to meet the current circumstances—they do whatever occurs to them  (Crito 44d). The louder they fail, the clearer I hear Nietzsche’s call for a passage from the communal view of history to my individual engagement with the stars without an atmosphere. I feel the urge to trigger past moments of splendor: the Hindu legislator Manu, Heraclitus, Homer, Pindar, Thucydides, Napoleon, Schopenhauer, Goethe, R.W. Emerson are Nietzsche’s brief signals to the real ridge of history. There might be others; yet here is Nietzsche’s message for dire times: kinship with fully experienced moments of the past cures the malady of history and relieves its ephemeral texture. Only my individual self may open those gates that the State and all sorts of failed communities have so long ago shut in my face: “Whatever in nature and in history is of my own kind speaks to me, spurs me on, and comforts me; the rest I do not hear or forget right away” (KSA 3.498.25-8).

The normal flow of history, it seems, hinders the ordinary flow of life. I need to exit the river of history in order to enter the river of life.  Only in the company of my own self do I realize that I am with someone else. Who is that?

Thousands of years, says Nietzsche, may instantaneously become meaningful owing to the appearance of a single human being. The fulfilment of an individual existence justifies the passing by of armies of “fragmentary men” (KSA 11.24-8: Bruchstück-Menschen). This is Heraclitus’s point: ες μο μύριοι, ἐὰν ριστος ι: one man is worth ten thousand to me, if he is superior (DK 22Β49). Only in the modern context does Nietzsche’s Heraclitean aristocratism give me cause for concern: for he argues that human beings are not in themselves carriers of dignity (Würde), but only insofar as they successfully exemplify Genius. This is the full reversal of Kant’s moral philosophy. Nietzsche appears to see men as means towards an end (KSA 1.776.4-8)—the means for retrieving the inner-self that they themselves have frittered away.

In this vein Nietzsche re-invigorates modern philosophy with a quality appropriate to Heraclitus’s hylozoistic worldview and alien to modern moral philosophy: interval fluctuation. Heraclitus’s first principle is “an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures” (DK 22Β30: πρ είζωον, πτόμενον μέτρα κα ποσβεννύμενον μέτρα). Nietzsche’s Genius is an intellectual and spiritual fire, increasing and decreasing according to the fluctuations of history. The constant alteration of Genius implies my ability to shift from the passive, linear, and homogeneous perception of history to an interventionist and energetic relation to the highest moments of what was arbitrarily labelled ‘the past.’ After all, this is the latent meaning of Nietzsche’s appropriation of the tenet of Heraclitean metaphorical language—fire:

Yes, I know from where I came!
Ever hungry like a flame,
I consume myself and glow.
Light grows all that I conceive,
Ashes everything I leave:
Flame I am assuredly
(KSA 3.367.15-20)

To read Heraclitus alongside Nietzsche is to participate in a fiery constellation of minds that seemingly are asphyxiated within community and yet invite me to breathe in their thoughts. When I do so, I am genuinely surprised. The more inward I turn, the less alone I become. Gustav Landauer is the Nietzschean philosopher who best understood this paradox, resolving it in terms of a movement from separation to community: the more inward I turn, the less alone I am (durch Absonderung our Gemeinschaft). In Landauer’s words: “since the world has disintegrated into pieces and has become alienated from itself, we have to flee into mystic seclusion in order to become one with it again.”[7]  This is one of Nietzsche’s messages, and, as it happens, this is Heraclitus’s message too. Self-exemption from community is seemingly an anti-political move; in reality, it is a presupposition for establishing a genuine connection with what lies beyond today. Solitude leads the way to communion. But in contrast with Christian asceticism, the Heraclitean and Nietzschean anchorite does not find consolation in any personal godhead; he remains forever unassimilable and alien to the dominant discourse of mainstream religion and politics.


Niketas Siniossoglou
National Hellenic Research Foundation


[Editor's note: The original Greek version of this essay appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Athens Review of Books.]

I have used the following English translations with occasional modifications: F. Nietzsche, Writings from the Early Notebooks, eds. R. Geuss, A. Nehamas, trans. L. Löb, Cambridge: CUP 2009; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. A. Del Carro, Cambridge: CUP 2006; The Gay Science with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. W. Kaufmann, R.J. Hollingdale, New York: Vintage Books 1974; On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann, R.J. Hollingdale, New York: Vintage Books 1989;  The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, trans. J. Norman, Cambridge: CUP 2005;  Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: CUP 1997; Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: CUP 1997;  Beyond Good and Evil, trans. J. Norman, Cambridge: CUP 2002;  The Gay Science, ed. B. Williams, trans. J. Nauckhoff, A. Del Caro, Cambridge: CUP 2001. For the fragments of Heraclitus I use the latest edition and translation of D.W. Graham, The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics, Part 1, Cambridge: CUP 2010, but I conform to the conventional reference system of Diels-Kranz.

[2] G. Battaille, Oeuvres Complètes I, Paris: Gallimard 1970, p. 466.

[3] S. Kofman, Nietzsche and Metaphor, trans. D. Large, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1993, pp. 19-20.

[4] For the origin, meaning, and translations of the terms Afterphilosophie and Afterphilologie (“Filologia anale,” “Bastard scholarship”), see P. Hummel, “Pseudologie,” in Hummel (ed.), Pseudologie: Etudes sur la fausseté dans la langue et dans la pensée, Paris: Philologicum 2010, pp. 22-29.

[5] See here Histrorischer und kritischer Kommentar zu Friedrich Nietzsches Werke, v. 6/2, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 2013, p. 354.

[6] LSJ s.v. γνώμη ΙΙ.2, cf. the English translation by D.W. Graham, The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy, Part 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2010, p.149: Wisdom is one thing: to know the will that steers all things through all.

[7] G. Landauer, “Through separation to community,” in Landauer, Revolution: And Other Political Writings, ed. and translated by Richard J.F. Day, Oakland: PM Press, pp.95-108, here: 105.