Textual Analysis of Nietzsche's View of Heraclitus

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Hubris (affront or impertinence) is indeed a "dangerous word." It freezes the "fire-gaze" and sinks the noble heart. As an interpretation of becoming, it introduces the possibility of decadence. Becoming admits infinite interpretations and manifold perspectives. Some interpretations and some perspectives are, however, dangerous; for they imperil creative life and imaginative possibilities. To conceive existence as hubris, as a crime of the many against the one, of the individual against the all, as the violent outbreak of rebellion of the imperfect against the perfect -- this is an interpretation which inhibits the ongoing creation of values. Even more, it is a temptation to dualism, morality, metaphysics, and life-denial. If genesis (coming-to-be) is a crime and phthora (perishing) a punishment, if the one is good and the many are less than good (even evil), then this world -- a world of plurality and becoming -- is a secondary world subordinated to an ideal world -- a plenum, a sated, a changeless heaven. Hubris is the dark night of Anaximander, the pessimism of Schopenhauer, the unthought foundation of the history of morality and of metaphysics. In a sense, interpretation begins at the juncture of two paths -- hubris (the way of seriousness or "gravity") and innocence (the way of play). This juncture eternally recurs; creative life and creative interpretation require constant overcoming. The dangerous word hubris is a "touchstone for every Heraclitan," and this includes Nietzsche. Hubris is the touchstone of Nietzsche's interpretation of Heraclitus. Since hubris represents not only the thinking of Anaximander, but also the thinking of Schopenhauer, then Nietzsche's interpretation is at the same time an affirmation of Heraclitus and an overcoming of Schopenhauer -- and the Schopenhauer in Nietzsche himself. Even at this early date, Nietzsche shows -- as he does in The Birth of Tragedy -- that his true teacher is Heraclitus and not Schopenhauer. Nietzsche asks: "Do guilt, injustice, contradiction and suffering exist in this world?" Indeed, this is the fundamental question asked and answered by traditional morality and metaphysics. It is generally phrased in this manner: Does evil exist in this world? The "problem of evil," the problem of injustice, is the basis of every morality and of every revenge. In a sense, Anaximander is the founder of Western metaphysical seriousness; and Heraclitus is the first free spirit to soar joyfully above those heavy clouds. The metaphysician plods and the Heraclitean dances. Everything depends on Nietzsche's question: "Do guilt, injustice, contradiction and suffering exist in this world?" It seems that either yes or no is a dangerous answer. If they are said to "exist," then a duality of "good and evil" is posited. If they are said not to exist, such an answer seems to contradict experience; for all men experience guilt, injustice, contradiction, and suffering. The storm-cloud of Anaximander and its attendant spirit of gravity are not easily dispelled.

2. Heraclitus' answer to Anaximander (and Nietzsche's answer to metaphysics) is that these things do exist, but "only for the limited human mind which sees things apart but not connected." Guilt and suffering are based on interpretations, aspects, partial views. They are anthropomorphic notions, abstractions, perceptions. They are not things-in-themselves. Man's vision is perspectival; he can only view a little at a time and from a certain point of view. This finitude, this limitation -- the possibility of infinitely changing perspective and interpretation -- is in fact a blessing; it reveals to the open mind ever-new beauty and insight. Perspective becomes a problem only when it forgets itself and posits one view as an absolute datum, a thing-in-itself. No perspective is a thing-in-itself. No perspective is a standard, a judge, a highest form in a world of forms. The origin of language and of thought is perspective; and perspective is man's creation as artistic subject. All originating thinking, all poetry thrives on fiery intuition and fresh metaphor. Metaphysics, on the other hand, is a system of congealed metaphors, a cemetery of lifeless intuitions -- concepts or ideas. Perspective is not an error; what is erroneous is the reification, the "freezing" of perspective. When the weak will, the weary will, perceives guilt, suffering, contradiction, and injustice -- i.e., when it faces in horror and with nausea the eternal wheel of coming-to-be/perishing -- it is tempted to mistake the part for the whole and to negate life. Yet pain is but one side of existence, and the weak will sees everything in terms of its own point of view. Hubris is an interpretation. Heraclitus and Nietzsche offer an alternative interpretation, a different metaphor. For Heraclitus and for Nietzsche, perspective is aware of itself; thereby, it overcomes itself and releases itself to infinite possibilities. The limited human mind sees things apart but not connected. For the artist and the free-spirit, this limitation is a blessing. For the fearful and the serious, this limitation is a condemnation. The will to truth is a will to rest and to stand still, and the Dionysian whirl of changing perspective allows no rest. In this kosmos, where movement is the law of all things, the fearful sit and the joyful dance. In a sense, the will to truth -- a revenge against the joyful -- wills to make the kosmos stand still; in fact, it cannot do this; and, in the end, it conjures up an imaginary kosmos or intelligible world of unchanging forms.

3. For the cosmic artist, the contuitive god -- i.e., for the kosmos as a whole -- partial views are absorbed into an over-all ambiguity and intermingling. Apparent contradictions run into actual harmony; perceived injustice (excess and imbalance) is overcome in the synoptic vision. At first sight, it seems that Nietzsche's interpretation embraces a reality/appearance dichotomy, a dualism. In fact, it does not. For Heraclitus and for Nietzsche, the one does not underlie the many; the one is the many. The contuitive god is the kosmos as a whole. Ambiguity is not a separate apeiron (unlimited); it is the eternal coming-to-be and passing away of all things. The kosmos as a whole is not available to a single perspective; it is invisible to the common human eye. Yet the artist who, like Heraclitus, knows the transitory and temporal character of human perspective, possesses a deep insight into the flux of all things. He has this insight because, unlike the empiricist who plods inductively through perception after perception, he leaps, he guesses, he intuits. The scientist knows only where it is safe to know; the artist leaps headlong into beautiful possibilities. In what sense is he related to the contemplative god? The artist, like the kosmos, is a living ambiguity; he does not entertain any single perspective for very long; his gaze is fluid and temporal. He does not believe and sustain any particular metaphor, as the scientist and moralist do, but he dwells freely among all metaphors. For his creative instinct, all things are possible; amidst reified perspectives, metaphysical edifices, and scientific shelters, his life and his utterance are dynamite -- a dangerous maybe. The instinct of the artist and the genesis-phthora of the kosmos, Heraclitus and Nietzsche express in a sublime metaphor -- in a sense, an all-embracing metaphor. This metaphor meets and overcomes the dangerous word hubris. From the point of view of morality and metaphysics -- as it were, the friends of hubris -- the artist's metaphor is the truly dangerous word.

4. The dangerous word hubris is overcome in the artistic word innocence, as the grave word seriousness is overcome in the joyful word play. Coming-to-be is not a misdeed (crime) whose proper retribution (punishment) is passing away. Existence is not an "original sin." Nietzsche writes: "Not hubris but the ever self-renewing impulse to play calls new worlds into being." For Anaximander, the worlds which come to be are an affront to the eternal apeiron. For Heraclitus, the worlds which come to be are a game, the sport of a child at play, the gift of overfulness. For Heraclitus, existence is a gift and not a crime. Every metaphor is anthropomorphic. Yet, to call the kosmos a game and to liken its activity to that of a child or artist at play is, in Nietzsche's words, a sublime metaphor. It is perhaps more Nietzsche's metaphor than Heraclitus'. Be that as it may, the perspective of play and metaphor of innocence reflect a faithfulness to and affirmation of temporality and becoming, whereas hubris is the utterance of one disgruntled and opposed to becoming. The artist's interpretation of the kosmos is the symbol of creative energy; the moralist's interpretation of the kosmos is the product of resentment.

5. In his interpretation, Nietzsche maintains that the play of the artist, as well as the genesis-phthora of the kosmos, is beyond good and evil. It is "without any moral additive." For the artist and in the kosmos, generation and destruction, building and tearing down, growth and decay take place in forever equal innocence. In this scheme, nothing is privileged; nothing is permanent; all occurs in the creative-destructive ambiguity of eternally recurring time. The history and the seriousness of metaphysics have exhibited a preference for the permanent, the stable, the actual -- in a word, being. In this moralistic framework -- more life-preserving than life-overcoming -- being is good and passing away is evil. The spirit of gravity is forever unable to accept the "whole cloth" of becoming; it is consistently one-sided. For him who is faithful to becoming as a whole -- this includes the child who has not yet learned revenge and the artist who has overcome it -- coming-to-be and passing away exist together, belong together in forever equal innocence. Whereas the moralist needs to build, the child and the artist will to build. Whereas the moralist seeks protection from the vicissitudes of changing fortune, the artist rides the wave of changing fortune and finds adventure in the swift current of becoming. The ever-living fire, the passionate will of kosmos and artist alike, forever delights in ever-new forms and transformations; it constantly creates and recreates, structures and destroys. This is not the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz), but it is indeed a work of art. As the artist playfully works, so does the kosmos transform itself anew every moment. Art obeys its own laws, not the laws of morality. In the same way, the kosmos eternally continues its project of creating and destroying, oblivious to the moral valuations of human metaphysicians. At bottom, all rigid and serious theorizing represents resentment against and envy of the playful childlike freedom of artists and the kosmos. It is, in effect, the revenge of neediness against overcoming.

6. The cosmic artist is time itself (the aeon). Genesis-phthora is the game that time plays with itself. In fact, the game that time plays is time itself. Time is becoming. Becoming is endless transformation.

7. Creation for the artist and the kosmos originates in gift-giving fullness. When Nietzsche writes that an artist is “seized by a need to create,” what does he mean? The need of the artist and of the kosmos is not the "need" of the weak, clamoring for this or that satisfaction. The need to create is based not on a lack, but on an abundance, an excess, of strength. It is the need to bring forth, to give, to bless. This impulse is a timely need; it seizes the artist and the kosmos in the height of their richness and readiness (satiety). Once again, the artist is like the contuitive god; his play is like the timely play of the aeon. Dancing with the dance of all things, he "knows" when to create and when to destroy. The poet "knows" when to sing and when not to sing. This intuition, this timeliness, this lawfulness has nothing to do with moral imperatives. The kosmos is a game, but a game of order and beauty; in the same way, a work of art manifests well-defined structure. Paradoxically, the artist who plays at seriousness accomplishes far more than he who works at seriousness. For the child and for the artist, as for the kosmos, the most intricate structure is but a toy. No creation is permanent; no edifice stands forever. From a cosmic or artistic point of view, the system-building and system-maintaining of metaphysics is an impossible, even ridiculous undertaking. The swollen river of becoming can be artificially dammed, but only for a while.

8. At this point, it may be objected that Nietzsche's interpretation relies too heavily on Heraclitus' saying, "Time (aeon) is a child at play." (DK 52) But Nietzsche's evidence overcomes the merely philological. Nietzsche himself is an aesthetic man (also an artist) who has seen artists at work and understands the play of contraries within that activity. In Heraclitus' vision, Nietzsche finds a view akin to his own; for Heraclitus grasps the cosmic process of coming-to-be and passing away in harmonious contradiction -- a grasp identical with Nietzsche's own view. Heraclitus' contuitive god, like Nietzsche's celebrating Dionysus, is a figure of ambiguity. Moreover, Nietzsche's faithfulness to time and becoming is a recovery of a genuine Heraclitean perspective. All this leads us to believe that, far from imposing an aesthetic view upon Heraclitus, Nietzsche discovers and recovers in Heraclitus the form of his own aesthetical view. Traditionally, art has borne, camel-like, moralistic valuations of good and evil and logical impedimenta of true and false. Heraclitus sees artistically and poetically; he sees beyond good and evil, beyond truth and lie. Nietzsche, a true Heraclitean, recognizes this and calls attention to it in the writings of his master.

9. The coming-to-be (genesis) of a work of art is a paradigm, a metaphor of the coming-to-be of the kosmos. The phrase, birth of art objects, is important. Art, like the kosmos, is born, not made; it arises from fullness, from "pregnancy." The work of art is the discharge, the overflow of the joyous energy of the artist. The artist does not need his art, as the builder needs his shelter. Rather, his need, his joy, is to dance. Creation follows the dance of the over-joyous will. In this activity, the artist does not avoid, but cultivates dangerous opposition. If we may extend the metaphor, thinking too is an enterprise of art; proceeding from struggle and obeying its own inner laws, insight joyfully rides manifold storm clouds of opposition. The will about to give birth to image or insight is one rich with solitude and conflicting power. The difference between creation and making may be seen as the difference between fullness and lack, strength and weakness. Only the strong will can give birth.

10. The phrase work of art implies an inner tension, and apparent contradiction. Work is indeed a somber word for him who would dance every day. Yet, for the artist, work and play are intermingled; he plays at work. In a paradoxical struggle of the many, a living tension, a vital opposition, there are "inner laws." The playful work of the artist is a logos -- a gathering-scattering of contraries. Lawfulness is not apart from the struggling manifold; rather it is incarnate in the very strife itself. The artist plays, but this play requires a serious struggle and a rigorous discipline. His work is a work of fire and discipline. For the artist -- the free spirit -- order is inherent in creation. For the reactive will, the weak will, on the other hand, order is apart from and tyrannizes production. In "production," one slavishly follows a blueprint, a pre-given pattern.

11. In a similar way, "the artist stands contemplatively above and at the same time actively within his work." The artist soars; he is joyfully self-sufficient and manifestly above. He does not "need" his work. At the same time, the artist is his work. His relation to his work is like that of a parent to a child. How different is the fearful producer who needs his product, who works slavishly and obediently! In the end, despite the flurry of his activity, he is not even within his work. He makes not according to what he is, but according to what he lacks. The creator, on the other hand, joyfully distant from his work, creates a likeness of himself. He creates from wealth and not from debt. And it is no danger that the artist is so absorbed in his work, for it is the free absorption of the artist in the spending of his own riches.

12. Thus, the activity of the artist is a confluence of work and play. The work of art shares in this creative ambiguity; it too exhibits necessity and random play, oppositional tension and harmony. In like manner, the play of the aeon embodies both law and opposition; and its work of art -- the ever-new kosmos --bears the marks of a continuous pairing of opposites. And underlying the activity of both kosmos and artist is forever equal innocence. In this regard, it is ridiculous to demand from Heraclitus -- himself an artist whose poetic speech binds contraries in imitation of the kosmos -- an ethic, a dualism, a seriousness. "Thou shalt" is the imperative of those who walk with loam feet. What has Heraclitus the dancer -- that shaft of lightning in Anaximander's word hubris -- to do with metaphysics and morality?


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Copyright © 1996 - 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.