Heraclitus and the Deep Soul

Heraclitus and the Deep Soul

Chud Departed Beneath the Earth, by Nicholas Roerich

Heraclitus said, “One would never discover the limits of psyche, should one traverse every road–so deep a logos does it possess.”

In this passage, Heraclitus gives birth to a new idea of Soul as limitless depth. He also has some other things to say about Soul which are different than his predecessors. I may explore these in later essays. For now, I will deal with this idea of depth, which is, as far as I can tell, quite a new development in early Greek thought.

Prior to Heraclitus, the Greeks understood Soul as “the life-breath or animating ‘spirit’ which departs as a ghost” at the point of death (Kahn, 126). According to my sources, they didn’t really elaborate on this early idea. Heraclitus brings the strikingly new and unusual thought of the logos of Soul as being so immeasurably deep we will never find its bounds, no matter how far we dig down. In my thinking, this statement is comparable to the idea that the ways of God are past finding out (Romans 11:33). Many religious people say they have an understanding of God, but they have not even scratched the surface. Similarly, we do not understand our own cavernous inner recesses. Our rationality can no more understand Soul than we can understand God. Language breaks down when one attempts to think and write about such things. I once thought I knew a lot about God. At a point in my life some years ago, the suffering of illness brought me very low. I believe it was my destiny, for there, in my suffering, I discovered an aspect of myself that wanted to ask questions about my life and about reality. That is what led me to Philosophy, which has brought me both happiness and pain these past ten years. Being brought to a low place is the beginning for understanding Soul. Melancholy seems to be a natural prerequisite for experiencing Soul. Happiness and pain form one reality, which is something Heraclitus is also interested in.

My mind wants to say, “There is something within me that has such depth, I will never discover its limits.” The trouble is, however, I know the thing I am thinking of is not an objective thing at all. Heraclitus is utilizing the Greek idea of psyche to shed light on his experience of unbounded connectedness to the world. He feels it within himself. In some way, Soul has a sense of numinosity which is so perplexing and paradoxical to our rational minds, we will never fully understand it. But I don’t think Heraclitus is concerned with rational understanding. That will come later in Greek philosophy. What he is talking about is an experience within himself of the very foundation principle (arche) upon which reality is structured.

The Hermetic idea of macrocosm/microcosm is intimately connected with this passage, I think. Looking within oneself, one finds a place so deep, so vast that it staggers the imagination. It leaves one feeling giddy, an experience which many mystics have repeatedly reported. This deep place can be compared to the physical universe, to outer space. In some mysterious way, objective space is an image, a metaphor for subjective space. I am no astronomer, but I have read that scientists believe the universe is constantly expanding at the speed of light. This is the best physical image we have of the unbounded. There are deep mysteries in this mode of thought. At best, all we can say is that Soul is just as limitless as our vast physical universe.

Heraclitus directs our attention to the logos of Soul. It is the logos that is deep. According to Charles H. Kahn, logos should here be translated as “measure.” Thus the passage reads, “So deep a measure does it possess” (Kahn, 129). The logos of Soul and the logos of the cosmos are discussed separately, but I don’t think they are actually to be understood separately. What I think may have happened with Heraclitus is this: he said in another passage, “I have searched myself.” Obviously he was deeply introspective. What seems to occur after one gazes inward for some time is that the deep logos of Soul is recognized as being identical with the cosmic logos, which, according to Heraclitus, orders everything in our universe. And herein is the error of the people “who live as though their thinking were a private possession” (Fragment 3 in Kahn). Actually, the account, the logos, is shared among all humanity. Just as the deep logos of Soul is common among us all, so is the cosmic logos.

It seems that Heraclitus was the first thinker we know of to examine and describe the deep nature of Soul. I suppose we could say he was the first depth-psychologist.


Works Cited

Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. New York: Cambridge, 1979.

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