A saying which has been handed down about Heraclitus of Ephesus (535–475 B.C.) gives a clear indication of his relationship to the essence of the Mysteries, saying that his thoughts are “a path which is difficult to travel,” that anyone who approaches them uninitiated will find only “obscurity and darkness,” but that on the other hand they are “brighter than sunlight” for the person who is introduced to them by a mystic. (see Note 11) When it is said of his book that he placed the latter in the temple of Artemis, (see Note 12) this means that he could be understood only by initiates. (Historical evidence of Heraclitus' relationship to the Mysteries has already been contributed by Edmund Pfleiderer. See his book, Die Philosophie des Heraklit von Ephesus im Lichte der Mysterienidee, Berlin 1886.) Heraclitus was called “The Obscure” because only the light of the Mysteries provided the key to his conceptions.
Heraclitus strikes us as a personality with the most serious attitude toward life. If we know how to conjure up his appearance, we see in his physiognomy that he bore within him the most intimate experiences of cognition which he knew could only be indicated, not expressed, by words. From the soil of such a conviction sprang his famous saying, “Everything is in a state of flux,” which Plutarch interprets in the following words: “It is impossible to step twice in the same river nor is it possible to lay hold twice of any mortal substance in a permanent state, by the suddenness and swiftness of the change in it there comes dispersion and at another time, a gathering together; or rather, not at another time nor later, but at the same instant it both settles into its place and forsakes its place; it is coming and going.” (see Note 13) The man who thinks in this way has seen through the nature of transitory things. He has felt urged to characterize in the sharpest words the essence of transitoriness. Such a characterization cannot be made unless the transitory is measured against the eternal. In particular this characterization cannot be extended to man unless his innermost being has been penetrated. Heraclitus does extend this characterization to man: “Living and dead are the same and so are waking and sleeping, youth and age. For the one in changing becomes the other, and the other, changing, again becomes the one.” (see Note 14) Full cognition of the illusory character of the lower personality is expressed in this sentence. He speaks of this even more forcibly: “There is life and death in our life, just as in our death.” What does this mean except that life can be valued more highly than death only when seen from the point of view of the transitory. Death is decay to make room for new life, but the eternal lives in the new life as in the old. The same eternal appears in transitory life as in death. When man has grasped this eternal he looks upon death with the same feelings as he looks upon life. Only if he is unable to awaken this eternal within himself does life have a special value for him. The sentence “Everything is in a state of flux” may be trotted out a thousand times, but if it is not spoken with a feeling for this content it is void of meaning. Cognition of eternal creation is valueless if it does not cancel out our dependence upon earthly creation. Heraclitus means to repudiate the lust for life which presses after transitory things with the saying, “How shall we say of our daily life: ‘we are,’ when we know that from the standpoint of the eternal: ‘we are and we are not.’” (Heraclitus, Fragment No. 81) (see Note 15) “But Hades is the same as Dionysus,” states another of the Fragments of Heraclitus. (see Note 16) Dionysus, the god of lust for life, of germination and growth, to whom the Dionysian festivals were dedicated, is for Heraclitus the same as Hades, the god of annihilation and destruction. Only one who sees life within death and death within life, and in both the eternal which is infinitely above life and death, his gaze alone can behold in the right light the disadvantages and advantages of existence. Then the disadvantages find their justification, for the eternal lives in them also. What they appear to be from the standpoint of the limited lower life is only illusory: “For men to get all they wish is not the better thing. It is disease that makes health a pleasant thing; evil, good; hunger, surfeit; and toil, rest.” “Sea water is the most pure and the most polluted; for fishes it is drinkable and salutary, but for men it is undrinkable and deleterious.” (see Note 17) Heraclitus intends primarily to point out not the transitory quality of earthly things, but the splendor and majesty of the eternal. — Heraclitus spoke vigorously against Homer, Hesiod, and the scholars of his day. He wished to point out the manner of their thought which clings only to the transitory. He did not want the gods furnished with attributes taken from the transitory world. And he could not respect as the highest a science which investigated the laws of the growth and decay of things. — For him the eternal speaks through the transitory. He has a deeply significant symbol for this eternal: “The harmony of the world is of opposite tensions, as is that of the lyre or bow.” (see Note 18) How much is contained in this picture! Unity is attained by the striving of forces in opposite directions and the harmonization of these diverging forces. One tone contradicts another, yet together they achieve harmony. If we apply this to the spiritual world we have the thought of Heraclitus: “Immortals take on mortality, mortals immortality; death is the eternal life of mortals, earthly life the death of immortals.” (see Note 19)
To cling to the transitory with his cognition is the original fault of man. Thereby he turns away from the eternal. Through this, life becomes a danger to him. What happens to him comes to pass through life. But it loses its sting when he no longer values life as absolute. Then his innocence is restored to him. It is as though he could return from the so-called seriousness of life to childhood. How much that is play to the child is taken in all seriousness by the adult! The one who knows, however, becomes like a child. “Serious” values lose their worth when seen from the standpoint of the eternal. Life then appears as a game. Therefore Heraclitus says, “Eternity is a child at play; it is the dominion of a child.” (see Note 20) Where does the original fault lie? It consists in taking with the utmost seriousness those things to which this seriousness should not be attached. God has descended into the world of things. Whoever receives these things without God receives them seriously as the “Tombs of God.” He should play with them like a child and employ his seriousness to draw out of them the God who sleeps spellbound within.
Burning, yes, scorching is the effect which contemplation of the eternal has upon ordinary assumptions about things. The spirit dissolves the thoughts of sensuality; it melts them. It is a consuming fire. This is the higher sense of the thought of Heraclitus, that fire is the archetypal substance of all things. Certainly this thought is to be taken first in the sense of an ordinary physical exploration of the phenomena of the world. But no one understands Heraclitus who does not think about him in the way that Philo, who lived at the time of the birth of Christianity, thought about the laws of the Bible. He says, “There are people who take written laws only as pictures of spiritual teaching. They search out the latter with great care and despise the former. I can only censure such people, for they should take care of both: the cognition of the esoteric sense and the observation of the exoteric.” (see Note 21) — We pervert the thoughts of Heraclitus if we argue whether by his concept of fire he meant physical fire, or whether for him fire was only a symbol of the eternal spirit which dissolves and reforms material things. He meant both and neither, because for him the spirit also lived in ordinary fire. The force physically active in fire lives on a higher plane in the human soul, melting sense-bound cognition in its furnace and allowing contemplation of the eternal to emerge from it.
Heraclitus in particular may easily be misunderstood. He allows strife to be the father of things, (see Note 22) but to him it is the father only of “things,” not of the eternal. If there were no polarities in the world, if the most manifold conflicting interests did not exist, the world of growth would not exist, nor would the world of decay. What reveals itself, however, in this, what is diffused in it, is not strife; it is harmony. Just because strife is in all things, the spirit of the sage is to move over all things like fire, transforming them into harmony. This point throws light on one of the great thoughts of Heraclitean wisdom. What is the personal essence of man? The above passage contains the answer of Heraclitus. Man is a mixture of conflicting elements, into which God is descended. This is the condition in which he finds himself. Further, he becomes aware of the spirit within him, the spirit which is rooted in the eternal. This spirit, however, is born for him personally out of the conflict of the elements. This spirit should also pacify the elements. In man, nature creates beyond herself. It is the same unique force which has begotten the conflict, the mixture, which, filled with wisdom, is to remove this conflict again. There we have the eternal duality which lives in man, the eternal contradiction in him between temporal and eternal. Through the eternal he has become something quite definite, and out of this he should create something higher. He is both dependent and independent. He can participate in the eternal spirit which he beholds only to the extent of the mixture the eternal spirit has produced in him. Just because of this he is called upon to form the eternal out of the temporal. The spirit works in him. But it works in him in a special way. It works out of the temporal. It is the peculiarity of the human soul that something temporal works like something eternal, that it leavens and strengthens like an eternal quality. This makes the human soul similar to a god and a worm at the same time. Because of this man stands midway between God and animal. This leavening and strengthening force in him is his daemonic element. This is what strives beyond him from within. Heraclitus points to this in a striking way: “Man's daemon is his destiny.” (see Note 23) (Daemon is meant here in the Greek sense. In the modern sense we would say spirit.) Thus for Heraclitus what lives in man extends itself far beyond the personal. This personal element is the bearer of a daemonic element. This element is not confined to one personality, and the death and birth of the personality have no significance for it. What connection has this daemonic element with what in the form of personality comes into existence and decays? The personal element is only a form of appearance for the daemonic. The bearer of such cognition looks forward and backward beyond himself. That he experiences the daemonic element in himself is to him evidence of his own immortality. Now he may no longer ascribe to this daemonic element the single task of filling out his personality. For the personality can be only one form of appearance of the daemonic element. The daemon cannot confine itself within one personality. It has the force to animate many personalities. It can go from personality to personality. This premise of Heraclitus gives rise as a matter of course to the great thought of reincarnation. Not, however, to the thought alone, but to the experience of reincarnation. The thought is only the preparation for the experience. Whoever becomes aware of the daemonic element within himself does not discover it to be an innocent primary element. He finds that it has characteristics. How has it come by these? Why have I tendencies? Because other personalities have already worked upon my daemon. And what will become of the effect which I produce on the daemon, if I may not assume that its task is exhausted in my personality? I prepare for a later personality. Something which is not the same as a divinity, something which reaches beyond me, introduces itself between me and the cosmic unity. My daemon introduces itself. As my today is but the result of yesterday, and my tomorrow will only be the result of my today, so my life is the continuation of another, and will be the basis for another. As physical man looks backward on numerous yesterdays and forward to numerous tomorrows, so the soul of the sage beholds numerous lives in the past and numerous lives in the future. What I acquired yesterday in the way of thoughts and accomplishments, I use today. Is it not so with life? Do not men set foot upon the horizon of existence with the most varied faculties? Whence comes this variety? Does it come out of nothingness? — Our natural science congratulates itself on banishing the miracle from our conceptions of organic life. David Friedrich Strauss (see Alter und Neuer Glaube, Old and New Faith) considers it a great achievement of modern times that we no longer think of a perfect organic creature being miraculously created out of nothingness. We grasp perfection when we are able to explain it as an evolution out of imperfection. The structure of the ape is no longer a miracle if we may assume, as ancestors of the ape, primitive fish which have gradually transformed themselves. Let us agree to accept for the spirit what seems to us right with regard to nature. Is the perfected spirit to have the same origin as the imperfect spirit? Is Goethe to have the same disposition as any Hottentot? The spirit of Goethe cannot have the same spiritual predispositions as an aborigine, any more than a fish has the same predisposition as an ape. The spiritual ancestry of Goethe's spirit is different from that of the aborigine. The spirit has grown like the body. The spirit in Goethe has more predecessors than that in the aborigine. Let us take the teaching of reincarnation in this sense. Then we shall no longer find it “unscientific.” On the contrary, what is found in the soul will then be explained in the right way. What is given will not be accepted as a miracle. That I can write is the result of the fact that I have learned to do so. One who has never held a pen in his hand cannot sit down and write. But someone or other is supposed to have a “spark of genius” in some purely miraculous way. No, this “spark of genius” must also be acquired; it must be learned. If it makes its appearance in a personality, we call it a spiritual element. But first this spiritual element also had to learn; in an earlier life it has acquired for itself the “ability” it has in a later one.
In this way and no other did Heraclitus and the Greek sages conceive the thought of eternity. For them there was no question of the continuance of the actual personality. Let us refer to a saying of Empedocles (490–430 B.C.). Of those who regard something as a miracle, he says,
“Fools! for they have no far-reaching thoughts —
Who deem that what before was not comes into being,
Or that aught can perish and be utterly destroyed.
For it cannot be that aught can arise from what in no way is,
And it is impossible and unheard of that what is should perish;
For it will always be, wherever one may keep putting it.
A man wise in such matters would never surmise in his heart
That as long as mortals live what they call their life,
So long they are, and suffer good and ill;
While before they were formed and after they have been dissolved
They are just nothing at all.”
(see Note 24)
When, released from the body, you ascend to the free ether,
You will become an immortal god, escaping death. —
(see Note 25)
The proud physiognomy and solitary manner of sages like Heraclitus are understandable. They could say proudly of themselves that much was revealed to them, for they did not ascribe their knowledge to their transitory personality at all, but to the eternal daemon within them. Their pride was of necessity stamped with the attributes of humility and modesty, which are expressed in the words: All knowledge of transitory things is in eternal flux like these transitory things themselves. Heraclitus calls the eternal cosmos a game; he could also call it the most profoundly serious thing. But the word serious has become worn out through being applied to earthly experiences. The game of the eternal grants man a security in life of which he is deprived by the seriousness arising out of the transitory.
Another form of world-conception, different from that of Heraclitus, grew from the same foundation in the essence of the Mysteries, within a community founded by Pythagoras in lower Italy in the sixth century before Christ. The Pythagoreans saw the foundation of things in numbers and figures, whose laws they investigated mathematically. Aristotle says of them, “They were the first to advance the study of mathematics, and having been brought up in it they thought its principles were the principles of all things. Since of these principles numbers are by nature the first, and in numbers they seemed to see many resemblances to the things that exist and come into being — more than in fire and earth and water, such and such a modification of numbers being justice, another being soul and reason, another being opportunity — and similarly almost all other things being numerically expressible; since, again, they saw that the attributes and ratios of numerical scales were expressible in numbers; since, then, all other things seemed in their whole nature to be modeled after numbers, and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed the demands of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.” (see Note 28)