Separate Wisdom

« Heraclitus. Johannes Moreelsee, 1630 »

« Wisdom is separate from everything »i said Heraclitus in his concise style.

For a start, I adopt here the translation of G.S. Kirkii. But the quote in the original Greekiii ,’Sophon esti pantôn kekhorismenon’, preserved in Stobaeus’ Anthology, allows several very significant variations, depending on how one understands the word sophon, – which is, grammatically, an adjective, with the neutral meaning: ‘wise’.

Here are two representative examples of quite alternative translations:

« What is wise is separate from all things. »

« To be wise is to be separated from all things. »

Both these interpretations lose the abstract idea of ‘wisdom’, and personalize the word sophon, in a more concrete way, by attributing it to an entity (‘what is wise’), seen as ‘separated from everything’, and therefore outside this world. Another way to personalize is to attribute it to a (wise) ‘being’, which could possibly belong to this world, therefore not separated, – but whose ‘being wise’ would separate it, somehow virtually.

Clémence Ramnoux, for her part, proposes: « Wise things are separated from everything. »

The spectrum of the meanings of sophon is thus very broad:

Wisdom. That which is wise. The Wise Being. The Wise Thing.

The word sophon has no definite article in this fragment, but it has it in other Heraclite fragments. Then, if one adds the definite article to the adjective sophon, it acquires an abstract meaning, and leads to other interpretations, including the idea of ‘Transcendence’, and even the idea of the ‘One’:

« Let us put the article in front of something wise, by identifying it with the One-Thing-Wise, then the formula touches the goal of knowing… a Transcendence! Let it be heard only in the sense of human wisdom, then the formula says that: for men, the way to be wise consists in keeping oneself separate from all or everything. It would be wise to live away from the crowds and their madness. It would be wise to live apart from the vain science of many things. The two are surely not incompatible. Put together, they would reform the ideal meaning of a vita contemplativa: retreat and meditation of the One. « iv

To justify these interpretations, Clémence Ramnoux studies the other occurrences of the word sophon, in fragments 32, 50 and 41 of Heraclitus.

From these comparisons, she draws the assurance that with sophon, Heraclitus wanted to « designate the divine with the words of fragment 32 », and « if not the divine, even better, Something in dignity to refuse this very name. »v

Fragment 32 uses the expression to sophon (‘the Wise One’, or ‘the Wise Being’, which C. Ramnoux renders as ‘the Wise Thing’):

« The Wise Thing (to sophon) alone is one: it wants and does not want to be said with the name of Zeus. »vi

In Greek, one reads : ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει ὄνομα.

Hen to sophon mounon legesthai ouk ethelei kai ethelei Zènos onoma.

By translating word for word: « One, the Wise One, alone, be said: He does not want, and He wants the name of Zeus ».

Fragment 50 opens another perspective:

οὐκ ἐμοῦ, ἀλλὰ τοῦ λόγου ἀκούσαντας ἀκούσαντας σοφόν ἓν πάντα εἶναί

Ouk émou, alla tou logou akousantas homologein sophon estin hen panta einai.

Word for word: « Not me, but the Logos, listening, saying the same, wise is one, all, being. »

Five words follow each other here: sophon estin hen panta einai. Wise, is, one, all, being. There are many ways to link them.

The most direct way of translating would be, using capital letters for emphasis:

« Wise is One, All, Being ».

The German edition by W. Kranz and the English edition by G.S. Kirk translate :

« Listening, not to me, but to the Logos, it is wise (sophon estin) to agree (homologein)vii: everything is One (hen panta eïnaï). »

In another interpretation, that of H. Gomperz :

« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, it is fair to agree that The One-The Wise One knows everything. »

Clémence Ramnoux suggests yet another interpretation:

« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, agreeing to confess the same lesson (everything is one?) is the Wise Thing. « viii

However, she adds a question mark to the expression ‘everything is one’, which shows indeed that a certain doubt is at work here.

In spite of the significant differences of interpretation that we have just seen, what stands out is the idea that to sophon undeniably possesses a magnified status, and that it can be qualified as ‘unique’ and even, implicitly, ‘divine’.

Fragment 41 reinforces the hypothesis of associating the idea of unity with to sophon:

« The wise thing is one thing (hen to sophon): to possess the meaning (epistasthai gnômèn), by virtue of which everything is led through everything. »

By linking the semantic fields of the four fragments, 32, 41, 50, 108, Ramnoux draws two possible interpretations of the essential message that Heraclitus is supposed to transmit: « A simple meaning would be: Wise Thing is One, and she alone. Another meaning would be: Wise Thing is separate from everything. « ix

These fragments, put together, carry a vision, aiming to grasp the ‘Wise Thing’, from different angles.

« That one gathers the fragments thus, and one will believe to reconstitute a recitative on the topic of the Wise Thing. Here is what should be recited all together while learning the same lesson! »x

The real difficulty is to avoid reading Heraclitus with much later, anachronistic representations of the world, starting with those of Plato and Aristotle.

In spite of the pitfalls, it is necessary to try to reconstruct the spirit of the philosophical community in the pre-Socratic era, the nature of its research :

« It is permissible to conjecturalize the way of being: it would consist in separating and reuniting. To separate from whom? Probably: the crowd and its bad masters. To reunite with whom? Probably: the best and the master of the best lesson. Separate from what? The vain science of many things. To find what again? The right way of saying things. It’s a two-way street! The Heracletian ethos does not alienate man from the present thing: on the contrary, it makes him better present, and as in conversation or cohabitation with the thing. (…) A master of discourse puts into words the meaning of things (…) But the authentically archaic way of thinking was probably still different. For a good master, (…) it is appropriate that discourse shows itself with an ambiguous face, hidden meanings, and two-way effects. »xi

According to Ramnoux, Heraclitus’ fundamental intention is to teach man « to stand far and near at the same time: close enough to men and things so as not to alienate himself in the present, far enough so as not to be rolled and tossed around in traffic. With the word as a weapon to defend oneself against the fascination of things, and things as a reference to better feel the full of words. Like a being between two, aiming through the crack at something untraceable, whose quest guarantees, without his knowledge, his freedom! « xii

Ambiguity? Darkness ? Double meaning ? Hidden sense ?

No doubt, but for my part I would like to put the spotlight on the only unambiguous word in fragment 108: kekhorismenon, ‘separate’, applying to a mysterious entity, named « Wise », whose attributes are unity, being and totality.

How can one be ‘separated’ if one has ‘unity’, and ‘totality’?

What does the idea of ‘separation’ really imply in a thought that claims to be thinking about the ‘origins’?

It is with these questions in mind that I set out to search for occurrences of the word ‘separate’ in a very different corpus, that of the biblical text.

The idea of ‘being separate’ is rendered in Biblical Hebrew by three verbs with very different connotations: בָּדַל badal, חָלַק ḥalaq, and פָּרַד pharad.

בָּדַל badal is used in two verbal forms, niphal and hiphil.

The niphal form is used with a passive or reflexive nuance:

1° ‘to separate, to move away’: « Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land » (Esdr 10,11).

2° ‘to be separated, distinguished, chosen’: « Aaron was chosen » (1 Chr. 23:13); ‘to be excluded’: « He shall be excluded from the congregation of those who returned from captivity » ( Esdr. 10:8 ).

The hiphil form has a causative, active nuance:

1° ‘To separate, tear off’: « The veil will separate you » (Ex 26:33); « Let it serve as a separation between the waters and the waters » (Gen 1:6).

2° ‘To know, to distinguish, to discern’: « To be able to distinguish between what is impure and what is pure » (Lev 11:47).

3° ‘To separate, choose; exclude’: « I have separated you from the other peoples » (Lev 20:26); « The Lord has chosen the tribe of Levi. « (Deut 10:8); « The Lord has excluded me from his people » (Is 56:3).

In this sense, ‘to separate’ means ‘to choose’, ‘to distinguish’, ‘to discern’, ‘to elect’ (or ‘to exclude’).

חָלַק ḥalaq brings another range of meanings, around the notions of ‘sharing’ and ‘division’:

1° ‘To share, to give, to give’: « They divided the land » (Jos 14:5); ‘To be divided’: « Their hearts are divided, or have separated from God » (Hosea 10:2).

2° ‘To divide and distribute’: « And at even he divided the prey » (Gen 49:27); « And he distributed to all the people » (2 Sam 6:19); ‘To scatter’: « I will divide them in Jacob » (Gen 49:7), « The face of YHVH has scattered them » (Lam 4:16).

As for the verb פָּרַד pharad, it is used in an intensive or reflexive sense.

1° (Niphal) ‘To separate’: « Separate yourself, I pray you, from me » (Gen 13:9), « He who separates himself (from God) seeks his desires » (Prov 18:1).

2° ‘To spread, to be scattered’: « These spread throughout the islands » (Gen 10:5).

3° ‘To separate’ with intensive or causative nuances (piel): « They separated from their wives » (Hosea 4:14), « A people that remains separated among the nations » (East 3:8); (hiphil) « Jacob separated the lambs » (Gen 30:40); and (hithpael): « all my bones were separated » (Ps 22:15).

To sum up, the biblical meanings attached to the verbs whose sense is ‘to separate’ include the following nuances: ‘to distance, choose, exclude’ but also ‘to know, distinguish, discern’, or ‘to share, distribute’, and ‘to be scattered’ or ‘to spread’.

One can quite easily apply all these nuances to an entity that would be (divine) Wisdom.

Wisdom, in fact, distinguishes, discerns, knows; she can be shared, spread, distributed;

she can distance herself, elect or exclude.

But yet, what is the truly original meaning that applies to Wisdom?

In an attempt to answer, I have consulted all the Bible verses that contain the word ‘wisdom’ (ḥokhma). There are several hundred of them.

I have selected those that are most ‘open’ – containing an implicit invitation to further research – and grouped them into four categories:

Wisdom as ‘mystery’ and ‘secret’;

Wisdom as ‘companion of the Creator’;

Wisdom as ‘person to dialogue with’;

and Wisdom as ‘faculty of the mind’.

For example, here are some verses assimilating wisdom (or Wisdom, with a capital letter) to mystery or secrecy:

« If he would reveal to you the secrets of Wisdom » (Job 11:6).

« But Wisdom, where does she come from? « (Job 28,12)

Do not say, « We have found wisdom » (Job 32:13).

« Be silent and I will teach you wisdom » (Job 33:33).

« In secret you teach me wisdom » (Ps 51:8).

« Then I began to reflect on wisdom » (Qo 2:12).

There are also verses in which Wisdom seems to accompany the Creator in his task:

« He made the heavens with wisdom » (Ps 136:6).

« Spirit of wisdom and understanding » (Is 11:2)

« Establish the world by his wisdom » (Jer 10:12).

« It is that you abandoned the Source of Wisdom! « (Bar 3,12)

« YHVH by wisdom founded the earth » (Pr 3:19).

There are also verses where Wisdom is presented as a person, capable of interacting with men:

« Tell wisdom: you are my sister! « (Pr 7,4)

« Wisdom cries out through the streets » (Pr 1,20)

« Doesn’t Wisdom call? « (Pr 8,1)

Finally, there are the verses where wisdom is considered a faculty of the mind:

« Give me now wisdom and knowledge » (2 Chr 1:10).

« Who gives wisdom to the wise » (Dan 2:21).

« Intelligence and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods » (Dan 5:11).

For good measure I add here some verses from biblical texts, which are not recognized by the Masoretes as part of the Canon of the Scriptures of Judaism, but which belong to the texts recognized by Catholicism – in this case the Book of Wisdom and the text of Sirach (Ben Sirach):

« Wisdom is a spirit friendly to men » (Wis 1:6) [Person].

« What Wisdom is and how he was born, I will reveal it; I will not hide the mysteries from you, but I will follow his footsteps from the beginning of his origin, I will bring his knowledge to light, without departing from the truth. « (Wis 6:22) [Mystery, Secret].

« For more than any movement, wisdom is mobile » (Wis 7:24) [Mystery, Secret].

« With you is Wisdom who knows your works » (Wis 9:9) [Companion of the Creator].

« But first of all wisdom was created » (Sir 1:4) [Companion of the Creator].

« The root of wisdom to whom was it revealed? « (Sir 1:6) [Mystery, Secret].

« Wisdom brings up her children » (Sir 4:11) [Person].

« Hidden Wisdom and Invisible Treasure » (Sir 20,3) [Mystery, Secret].

And finally, here are some excerpts from the New Testament, – especially from Paul’s texts:

« And Wisdom was justified by all his children » (Luke 7:35) [Companion of the Creator].

« It is of a wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden » (1 Cor 2:7) [Mystery, Secret].

« To give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation » (Eph 1:17) [Faculty of the Spirit].

« All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge » (Col 2:3) [Faculty of Spirit].

« Filled with the Spirit and with wisdom » (Act 6:3) [Faculty of the Spirit].

If we return to the intuition of « separate wisdom » as imagined by Heraclitus, we see that it is perfectly compatible with the representations of Wisdom as belonging to the Mystery, as a Companion of the Creator and as a Person]

But where Judaism plays with the idea of a kind of doubling of the divine between the function of the Creator and the role of Wisdom (which is, let us recall, one of the Sefiroth of the Jewish Kabbalah), the metaphysical mysticism of Heraclitus sees only divine Unity and Totality.

It is not the least result of this research, to find in one of the most eminent Greek pre-Socratic thinkers, such an extreme intuition of the transcendence of Wisdom, and of its Unity with the Divine.

Wisdom is par excellence ‘separate’, and is also that which is most ‘one’.…


i Fragment B 108

ii Quoted by Clémence Ramnoux. Heraclitus or the man between things and words. Ed. Les Belles Lettres. Paris, 1968, p.247

iii Ἡρακλείτου. ὁκόσων λόγους ἤκουσα, οὐδεὶς ἀφικνεῖται ἐς τοῦτο, ὥστε γινώσκειν ὅτι σοφόν πάντων κεχωρισμένον. (Joannes Stobaeus, Anthologie, III, 1, 174)

iv Clémence Ramnoux. Heraclitus or the man between things and words. Ed. Les Belles Lettres. Paris, 1968, p.247

vClémence Ramnoux. Heraclitus or the man between things and words. Ed. Les Belles Lettres. Paris, 1968, p.248

vi ἓν τὸ τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει ὄνομα.

vii Or, if we play with the word homologein: ‘to say with the same voice’, or ‘to say the same as the Logos‘.

viiiClémence Ramnoux. Heraclitus or the man between things and words. Ed. Les Belles Lettres. Paris, 1968, p.243

ixClémence Ramnoux. Heraclitus or the man between things and words. Ed. Les Belles Lettres. Paris, 1968, p.248


xiIbid.pp. 248-249

xiiIbid.p. 249