θάλασσα ὕδωρ καθαρώτατον καὶ μιαρώτατον. ἰχθύσι μὲν πότιμον καὶ σωτήριον, ἀνθρώποις δὲ ἄποτον καὶ ὀλέθριον*.
“The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive.”
— Heraclitus, Fragment 61**
Oftentimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the incredibly intellectual exercises of Stoic study. Epictetus even had occasion many times to rebuke his students. If all we are doing is handling syllogisms and parsing arguments, then we’re failing in the right work of philosophy.
[The student says to me]
– “Take the treatise on the active powers, and see how I have studied it.”
– “Slave, I am not inquiring about this, but how you exercise pursuit and avoidance, desire and aversion, how your design and purpose and prepare yourself, whether conformably to nature or not.
– If conformably, give me evidence of it, and I will say that you are making progress: but if not conformably, be gone, and not only expound your books, but write such books yourself;
– and what will you gain by it?
– Do you not know that the whole book costs only five denarii?
– Does then the expounder seem to be worth more than five denarii?
Never, then, look for the matter itself in one place, and progress toward it in another.”
— Epictetus, Discourses I.4
Heraclitus and Epictetus are both giving us an opportunity to re-calibrate our perspective. So often, we’re focused on the mundane trivialities of life. But Heraclitus reminds us, what seems so to us may just be for us, and what’s true may be a think entirely different. Now, this isn’t setting the stage for moral relativism, we’re still called to virtue, but our call is for ourselves.
We get wrapped up in the Ps and Qs, and we can forget that virtue is our goal. But when we see another “failing” we’re advised not to judge too harshly. With ourselves, a firm hand is needed.
Heraclitus’s writings have a mystical quality, something almost Zen-like in their ability to realign the thinking process. It’s good to have this change of pace, as Epictetus says, unless our studies are producing real and substantive changes in our lives, we’re just academics or worse, hobbyists.
Getting shocked out of the rut we might be building for ourselves in a primarily academic venture. We began our studies here because we saw something of value in the way these philosophers lived their lives. But simply learning about the things won’t produce in ourselves the needed change. We must inculcate them in our lives if we wish to see the same effects as they got.