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Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Ethics, and Imperatives

Daniel Peterson '08


Friedrich Nietzsche, as both a classicist and a philosopher, draws upon several ancient sources for philosophical inspiration.  One of these sources is Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic philosopher whose inclusion is particularly notable due to his relative obscurity.  Nietzsche's affinity for Heraclitus's writings results in a striking similarity between Nietzsche's own thought and his interpretation of Heraclitus's extant fragments; however, whether this similarity is a consequence of Nietzsche misinterpreting Heraclitus to be more in line with his own beliefs than he actually was or whether Nietzsche simply takes several cues from Heraclitus in formulating his own philosophy remains unclear.  Therefore, I will examine one aspect of Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus, specifically the portion concerning ethics, to determine whether Nietzsche's views of Heraclitus are correct or unfounded.  As I will explain, Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitean ethics hinges on two principles: that wisdom is the basis of morality and that no ethical imperative exists.  The first of these statements I will show to be well-supported by the writings of Heraclitus, and the second statement I will show to be both unfounded and fallacious. 


Before examining Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus's morality in depth, one must first examine Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus's writings in general.  Nietzsche's interpretation is presented in his two works Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks[1] (TAG) and The Pre-Platonic Philosophers[2] (PP).  In these works, Nietzsche explains Heraclitus's views on several concepts, of which wisdom is one of the most important.  Nietzsche addresses wisdom first in his interpretations, explaining that Heraclitus viewed the majority of people as completely ignorant of the truth of the universe that he believed he possessed.  Heraclitus, as Nietzsche describes him, was misunderstood by the populace and frustrated by the ignorance which he felt led to many devastating effects on the world around him.  For this reason, Nietzsche posits that Heraclitus viewed wisdom as the most precious moral good.


How does one understand Nietzsche's view of Heraclitean ethics in light of his interpretation of Heraclitean wisdom?  If one were to follow the example of May and assert that "Nietzsche recognizes, with Heraclitus, that the good and the bad are the same,"[3] one might conclude that, in Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus, there is no distinction between good and evil.  This interpretation, however, ignores Nietzsche's many statements concerning the existence of morality for Heraclitus, such as "...the sameness of justice [and] injustice, and good [and] bad, is completely un-Heraclitean.  It is a consequence that he did not draw" (PP 69) and "It would be entirely mistaken to pile up objections against Heraclitus, as has [Max] Heinze, that he has no ethic..." (PP 73).  Therefore, Nietzsche clearly believes that Heraclitus distinguished between good and evil despite Heraclitus's seemingly paradoxical claims that other such opposites are truly the same thing.


If there is a moral distinction that Nietzsche sees in Heraclitus, then, what is it?  As I have already suggested, the answer lies in the devastating effects that Nietzsche believes Heraclitus to have seen in ignorance: "Do guilt, injustice, contradiction and suffering exist in the world?  They do, proclaims Heraclitus, but only for the limited human mind which sees things apart but not connected, not for the con-tuitive god" (TAG 61).  This is a loaded statement: not only does Nietzsche here posit the existence of a unified Heraclitean god (an assertion that he supports with quotes from the writings of Heraclitus later in the work), but Nietzsche also draws the connection between wisdom and positive consequences. Nietzsche says that, for Heraclitus, many of the evils that plague mankind, such as suffering, injustice, and contradiction, arise from ignorance.  This view is supported by his definition of wisdom for Heraclitus: "To become one with this intuitive intelligence, not somehow to do this with dynamic things, is wisdom" (PP 71).  Wisdom, then, is linked with a perfection associated with timelessness while ignorance is associated with evil consequences.  Nietzsche thus views Heraclitus as arguing that all evil things come from a lack of knowledge since knowledge is the only true "good," and thus knowledge forms the basis of Heraclitean ethics.


Nietzsche's view of morality in Heraclitus is well-supported by several of the fragments relating Heraclitus's views about ethics and knowledge.  For example, Heraclitus wrote: "Bad men are the adversaries of the true" (B.133)[4].  This fragment sets up an interesting parallel: no longer are bad men the adversaries of the good, as we might expect, but of the true, and so by linking the moral opposite of evil with truth, Heraclitus implies that goodness necessitates wisdom.  Nietzsche's point is further supported by another fragment dealing with the relationship between wisdom and morality: "What intelligence or understanding have they?  They believe the people's bards, and use as their teacher the populace, not knowing that 'the majority are bad, and the good are few'" (B.104).  In this passage, the majority of people are characterized as both "bad" and "lacking understanding," providing another link between morality and wisdom in Heraclitus's writings.  The implication in this passage is that those who lack understanding cannot be good, and, since the majority of people lack understanding, they must be bad.  Fragment 104 does not dive into a lengthy explication of Heraclitus's conception of morality, but it still suggests knowledge as the basis of his moral philosophy. Nietzsche uses the same fragment to the same effect on page 59 of The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, though he does not offer any interpretation of the passage here. 


Another fragment that supports the claim that Heraclitean morality finds its basis in knowledge is fragment 118: "A dry soul is wisest and best" (B.118).  This passage again links the two concepts of "wise" and "good" by claiming that the same thing is both wisest and best for human beings.  Another interesting component of this passage is its association of the "dry" soul with what is best and wisest.  For Heraclitus, fire was associated with the good because it served as the governing principle of his cosmology.  Water, on the other hand, had evil connotations since it was the force most opposed to fire's divine guidance.  Therefore, by using the word "dry", Heraclitus was linking the concepts of fire and morality together to show that divinity, fire, is good, and that wisdom is understanding the flux that fire embodies.  This passage thus supports both of Nietzsche's claims about Heraclitus's views on knowledge and morality as well.  Further evidence for Nietzsche's interpretation is provided by fragment 112: "Moderation is the greatest virtue, and wisdom is to speak the truth and to act according to nature..." (B.112). This fragment suggests that there are some qualities (such as speaking the truth and acting moderately) that are inherently "better."  Of course, wisdom is only one of these qualities, but its inclusion in fragment 112 is plausible evidence for the idea that wisdom provides a suitable ethical basis for Heraclitus's morality.  These and other such fragments show that, just as Nietzsche argues, goodness for Heraclitus finds its basis in wisdom.


What would lead May to state "Nietzsche recognizes, with Heraclitus, that the good and the bad are the same,"[5] and conclude that Nietzsche did not see any ethical distinctions within the writings of Heraclitus?  There are, in fact, several times where Nietzsche makes statements that would seem to support May's claim, such as in the following quote: "We find it very characteristic also that Heraclitus does not acknowledge an ethic with imperatives.  Indeed, the entire universal law is everything, including the individual human being" (PP 73).  What May misses here, however, is the distinction between ethical imperatives and morality.  Nietzsche has already commented that Heraclitus's philosophy is ethical in nature and distinguishes between good and bad, but he has not made any statements concerning whether Heraclitus believed that one must do that which is good and refrain from that which is bad.  All Nietzsche's statements like "...the sameness of justice [and] injustice, and good [and] bad, is completely un-Heraclitean.  It is a consequence that he did not draw" (PP 69) mean is that an ethic exists for Heraclitus, not that human beings are necessarily bound to follow such ethical laws as guidelines for their lives.  Nietzsche's quote from page 73 of The Pre-Platonic Philosophers concerns not ethics themselves but ethical imperatives, a distinction seldom made among those who frequently take as a given the step "x must do what is good" in the proof "y is good, x must do what is good, therefore x must do y".  Nietzsche does not take this premise as a given in his own moral philosophy, as shown by the claims he makes in his work On the Genealogy of Morals which do suggest that there is no ethical imperative urging humankind towards one kind of morally superior action or another; it is reasonable, then, that Nietzsche should not take such imperatives as self-evident for Heraclitus.


How does Nietzsche's view of the presence of ethics but lack of an ethical imperative fit into Nietzsche's perspective on Heraclitus's philosophy?  Before answering this question, it is necessary to understand Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus's philosophy on being and becoming.  In Nietzsche's interpretation, being is a static, eternal entity that exists in a changeless state of perfection.  Becoming, on the other hand, is flux that reveals the transient nature of the world as we observe it.  Nietzsche posits that Heraclitus's great contribution was in attributing to becoming the properties of being; that is, Heraclitus posited that the unchanging, universal law that governs the universe is instability.  Becoming, according to Nietzsche, is what Heraclitus called justice, and it is embodied by the fire that serves as the focus for Heraclitus's cosmology.  It is interesting to note here that Nietzsche takes Heraclitus seriously as a scientist concerning his claims, even those concerning fire, by bringing in scientific resources from his day to support Heraclitus's claims.   Nietzsche concludes with several final observations about Heraclitus's views of the governance of the universe, drawing upon Heraclitus's fragment 52, "Time is a child playing a game of draughts; the kingship is in the hands of a child" (B.52).  From this passage, Nietzsche concludes that Heraclitus viewed his universal law as superior but random and disharmonious, thus again affirming Nietzsche's belief in becoming as Heraclitus's conception of justice.


Nietzsche relates these concepts of eternal, universal law with Heraclitus's ethics in the following passage, which he begins by quoting Max Heinze (with whose interpretation of Heraclitus Nietzsche disagreed in a previously-cited passage on page 73 of The Pre-Platonic Philosophers):

"What should justice punish if the eternal universal law and Logos determine all things?"  This is pure error!  There exists no clash.  To the contrary, insofar as humanity is fiery, it is rational; insofar as he is watery, he is irrational.  There is no necessity, qua human being, that he must acknowledge Logos. (PP 74)


This passage describes Nietzsche's conception of the lack of moral necessity in the writings of Heraclitus.  According to Nietzsche, Heraclitus's writings are purely descriptive accounts; their purpose is not to suggest how people ought to live, but rather to describe how people do live.  By charging that Heraclitus rejected ethical imperatives, Nietzsche is making a statement about Heraclitus's worldview: it is not simply that Heraclitus did not make claims about how things ought to be, he could not even make such a claim because there are no imperative "oughts" in his universe.  Actions, decisions, and events can still be good and evil in this view, but there is no longer any impetus for the evil to be rejected and the good to be accepted.


By accepting the Nietzschean claim that Heraclitus abandoned ethical imperatives, other aspects of Nietzsche's interpretation are illuminated as well.  Nietzsche sees previously-cited fragment 52 as making a claim similar to his assertion that Heraclitus does not recognize an ethical imperative; because becoming has attained the status of being in Heraclitus's vision of the universe, life seems random because Heraclitus has destroyed the universal, rational commands that dictate order in the universe.  Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus's universal principle places it outside the law of a higher jurisdiction; rather than having gods that are required to abide by the same ethical standard that human beings are, Heraclitus posited a ruling force subject to no constraints; in the absence of this ethical standard, becoming is unlimited!  The phrase "had to occur" is replaced by "happened to occur" in this view of the universe.  This interpretation also explains why Nietzsche takes Heraclitus seriously as a scientist; because all that can be said about Heraclitus's universe is descriptive, not prescriptive, in nature, Heraclitus had the moral neutrality of a scientist observing an experiment.


Nietzsche does not simply state this interpretation of Heraclitus without citing textual evidence, so I will now turn to this evidence to see which fragments Nietzsche draws upon to support his interpretation.  First, he cites fragment 119: "Character for man is destiny" (B.119) to support his interpretation; Nietzsche claims that Heraclitus believed that a person's character is innate and determines his future character and his judgment, and thus that there cannot be any sort of impetus to change because one's fate is already decided.  Nietzsche's interpretation, however, is certainly not the only interpretation of the text.  Charles Kahn writes the following concerning this passage: "His [Man's] lot is determined by the kind of person he is, by the kind of choices he habitually makes."[6]  The things that define character in Kahn's interpretation, then, are ones that could be changed for the better with the help of ethical imperatives, and thus a definition of character more aligned with Kahn than with Nietzsche would deny the validity of the conclusions that Nietzsche draws.


The next fragment Nietzsche cites for support is, in fact, a mistranslation.  He quotes, "To rejoice at mire is the essence of humanity" (PP 73), which is translated as "Do not revel in mud" (B.13) by Freeman.  Nietzsche's interpretation supports his view regarding ethical imperatives in Heraclitus since the fragment defines an "essence" of humanity.  Since the word "essence" seems to share the same basic qualities as his interpretation of the word "character" in fragment 119, Heraclitus again seems to have proposed that the human race is essentially fated to be evil and there is nothing that one can do to escape this fate.  Thus, Nietzsche's translation is clearly descriptive.  The alternative translation, however, suggests the exact opposite since it is in fact an imperative statement.  Fragment 13 no longer simply describes the state of humankind, it now gives a prescriptive moral command to its readers.  Thus, the very fragment that Nietzsche cites for support in this passage directly contradicts his claim when translated properly.


Finally, Nietzsche turns to fragment 107 for the final support for his claim that Heraclitus denied an ethical imperative, translating the fragment as "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men having muddied souls" (PP 73).   Freeman translates this fragment as "The eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have barbarian souls" (B.107).  The difference between these two translations is essential.  It is conceivable that almost anyone could have a "muddied soul," especially given the role of water as the antithesis to Heraclitus's divine and all-controlling fire.  "Muddied souls," then, seem to be people with evil dispositions, and by saying that their "eyes and ears are bad witnesses," Heraclitus would appear to be saying that those born evil lack the means of ever improving themselves, thus making ethical imperatives pointless.  However, in the alternative translation, the word "barbarian" is used, which traditionally means "non-Greek" and carries with it a connotation of ignorance due to a lack of education.  The alternative translation, then, suggests that those who are ignorant of things will not be able to view them properly, which is a statement about knowledge as opposed to ethics.  Kahn supports this interpretation with his slightly different translation of the passage as "Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for men if their souls do not understand the language"[7] since once again the focus is on knowledge and understanding rather than ethics explicitly.  Thus, Nietzsche's final piece of textual evidence for his view, if translated correctly, does not support his interpretation.


From the above examples, it is clear that Nietzsche's textual evidence for his perspective is somewhat lacking since most of it only supports his interpretation if parts of the passages he cites are mistranslated; however, Nietzsche's view, though perhaps ill-supported by his own quotes, is an interesting one, and it certainly explains a great deal about Heraclitus's ethics and views on becoming if it is correct.  Yet there is one type of evidence that could dismantle Nietzsche's interpretation: the presence of ethical imperatives among the fragments of Heraclitus.  I have already identified one such fragment in the correct translation of fragment 13, and if other such prescriptive passages exist, the validity of Nietzsche's claim must be dismissed outright.

One such passage is fragment 73: "We must not act and speak like men asleep" (B.73).  The use of the word "must" in this passage indicates that Heraclitus is appealing to some sort of ethical imperative.  The passage is an example of Heraclitus moving beyond his description of the universe to prescribe moral actions to those who would seek to improve themselves.  Another such passage is fragment 80: "One should know that war is general and jurisdiction is strife, and everything comes about by way of strife and necessity" (B.80).  Once again, by using the word "should," Heraclitus turns this statement about knowledge into an ethical imperative, thus providing further evidence that Nietzsche's interpretation is ill-founded.


If Nietzsche is wrong about ethical imperatives, then how are we to interpret Heraclitus's perspective on ethics?  The answer lies in the character of the fragments cited to discredit Niezsche's claim, for these all share a common theme: wisdom.  Fragment 13, "Do not revel in mud" (B.13), suggests that one ought to enjoy things that are truly good instead of taking pleasure in base things.  How is one able to do such a thing? Fragments 73 and 80 provide an answer, since they say that people ought not act "like men asleep" and ought to know certain things.  These fragments suggest that true wisdom, which will wake people up from their slumber of ignorance and reveal to them the nature of strife, necessity, and the universe in general, lies at the center of Heraclitus's ethical imperative.  This agrees with Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus concerning wisdom; for Heraclitus, Nietzsche says, knowledge defines what is good, and, if an ethical imperative exists, it also clearly defines the good, so my characterization of Heraclitus's ethical imperative as wisdom both refutes Nietzsche's claim about Heraclitus's views on the ethical imperative and supports Nietzsche's claim about wisdom providing the basis for morality in Heraclitus.


Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitean ethics can thus be broken into two components: the first, which is supported by the extant fragments of Heraclitus, states that wisdom is the good by which ethics are defined for Heraclitus; the second claim, which is unfounded, states that Heraclitus denies the existence of an ethical imperative.  This second view on Heraclitean ethics, though wrong, is certainly an enlightening one for Nietzsche's own philosophy since it reveals that he does not take for granted the existence of an ethical imperative.  Thus, Nietzsche's separation of the ethical imperative from morality in general gives us greater insight into both Nietzsche's own moral philosophy and, more importantly, into Heraclitus's ethical philosophy with its emphasis on knowledge.




Freeman, K. 2003. Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Boston: HarvardUniversity Press


Kahn, C. 1979. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. London: CambridgeUniversity Press


May, K. 1993. Nietzsche on the Struggle between Knowledge and Wisdom. London: St. Martin's Press.


Nietzsche, F. 1962. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Chicago: Gateway..


Nietzsche, F. 2001. The Pre-Platonic Philosophers. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.


[1]Nietzsche, F. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Chicago: Gateway, 1962.

[2] Nietzsche, F. The Pre-Platonic Philosophers. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001

[3] May 1993: 26

[4] For this and all other Heraclitean fragments, I will be using Freeman's translation

[5] May 1993: 26

[6] Kahn 1979: 261

[7] Kahn 1979: 35