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Heraclitean fragment



Yesterday, in my article on Mike Clelland and the owls, I discussed how Till Eulenspiegel—a character from German folklore—exemplifies CG Jung’s principle “enantiodromia”. This can be defined as: “…the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time.” It’s related to the ying-yang symbol but in the West it’s most associated with Heraclitus, the first philosopher, who was “the obscure” (dunkelheit).


Eulenspiegel himself exemplifies the principle when he is happy to carry two heavy pails of water up a steep hill because it will be fun to go down the other side—other people might be annoyed that Eulenspiegel is overjoyed to do what is hard, might consider him a fool; and yet there is wisdom in his viewpoint.


Today, a “Eulenspiegel” would be a man who rather than being gloomy or bemoaning the “decline of the West” would be jolly and happy. He’d be so happy because he has the wisdom to know that “what goes up must come down” (and vice versa); as with a rollercoaster, we’re only going down so we can go up again—if we’re going down severely, it must mean we will soon be going up just as steeply. That’s very foolish—don’t you appreciate how serious the situation is, don’t you know this is a critical time…? Conversely, in a time when a nation is strong and vigorous, a Eulenspiegel would be pessimistic, since he would know a decline was sure to follow.


Schopenhauer said, in half-Buddha mode, that our pleasure really depends on relieved pain and not a simple “hedonic unit”; it’s pleasurable to empty your bladder, and you can even induce pleasure by pinching yourself (in decadent societies people take this tendency to an extreme). Utilitarian arguments are wrong, since pleasure and pain are related; it’s not just that you want to store up more and more hedonic units to reduce pain—there’s also a metacontext that includes pain and pleasure.


This interplay of opposites is encapsulated by Heraclitus in his expression “war is the father of all”; conflict makes the world go round. Hence Fragment 53:


“And because everyone does not know this or agree, he complains in the following way: they do not know that the thing being separated comes together with itself. And there is a back-stretched stringing, just like of the bow and lyre.


The interplay between the bow and lyre is key here. Heraclitus is “obscure” because he was involved in Hermetic wordplay—just like Eulenspiegel, who is a Mercurial or Hermetic fool (even his name “owl mirror” is a play on reflected wisdom); it’s the same as Dante and the Grail.


Heraclitus takes two instruments—the bow and the lyre—and makes them equivalent; they are equivalent because they are both held “in reflexive tension”—both are pulled taut, even though they serve different purposes. They are both “παλίντροπος, palintropos” (“reflexive tension”) and palin- is a poetic term for “backward” (a bit like how Eulenspiegel has everything “backwards”, things everyone is unhappy about he is happy about and vice versa). In wordplay, it’s like a palindrome—as with the name “Hannah”, it’s the same forwards and backwards; and that’s to say it’s eternal, hence back-living Eulenspiegel eventually says, “Whether I go up or down, it’s all the same in the end”—from eternity’s viewpoint there is no need for despair or happiness, there’s just wisdom (which is a joy).


There’s a further wordplay because βιός (bow) and βιoς (life) sound the same. What Heraclitus wants to tell us is that “the thing which takes life, gives life—the thing that kills, grants life”. To use the bow (and arrow) is the same as to use the bow (on your lyre), music and war are gestalt. Indeed, Homer makes this comparison allusively because when Odysseus strings his bow before he kills the suitors the “bow” is compared to the “lyre”; and Odysseus is further compared to the singer (“a man skilled in the lyre and song”); finally, Apollo (god of music and poetry) also has “a bow” (on his lyre) and yet he also grants victory in war (the bow and arrow).


So, in magical terms, you need “a hair of the dog that bit you”—if you want to live, you have to taste death; if you want to fight, you need to sing—actually, there is no difference between war and poetry. This is why Heraclitus criticises Homer—thinks he should be flogged and “expelled from the contest”; he thinks Homer doesn’t fully appreciate the interplay of opposites—though he alludes to it, he still keeps the “two bows” separate; so he’s not integrated.


Wisdom is to understand, as Hölderlin said, “Wherein lies the danger, grows also the saving power.” There’s a cure in poison—so drink a quantum. It’s to do with German philosophy’s affection for mirrors—“owl mirror”—that goes back to Hildegard of Bingen and is contained in the very statement “speculative philosophy”, since “speculation” comes from the Latin for mirror “speculum”; it’s ultimately from “see” and, once, the Church licensed mirror ownership—not to prevent vanity but to prevent people from looking in the mirror, the authorities prohibited you to see (yourself as you truly are). The final state is expressed in Hölderlin again, “He who has thought most deeply loves what is most alive.”






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