Deep Logos and Bottomless Soul

« Heraclitus »

For at least a million years, man has been using the spoken word more or less skillfully. Since ancient times, its uses and modes of expression have been infinite, from the most futile to the most elevated. The stammering child, the fluent poet, the sure sage, the inspired prophet, all tried and continue trying their own ways and speaking their voices.

With the same breath of expelled air, they generate gutturals from the glottis, fricatives from the pharynx, hissing on the tongue, whistling labials through the lips.

From these incessant sounds, what sense does exhale?

Heraclitus, master in obscure matters, great lord of meaning, once made this sharp judgment:

ἀνὴρ νήπιος ἤκουσε πρὸς δαίμονος ὅκωσπερ παῖς πρὸς ἀνδρός.

« The man is held as a little boy by the divinity, like the child by the man. »i

This both pessimistic and optimistic fragment proposes a ratio of proportion: what the child is to man, man is to the divinity. The observation of man’s impotence in relation to the divine is not dissociated from the natural and expected perspective of a passage from childhood to adulthood.

In his translation of this fragment, Marcel Conche curiously emphasizes speech, although the word logos is clearly absent from the Heraclitus text:

« A ‘marmot’ (a toddler) who cannot speak! Man is thus called by the divine being (δαίμων), just as a child is called by man. « ii

The periphrase ‘A marmot who cannot speak’ is the choice (bold and talkative) made by Marcel Conche to render the meaning of the simple Greek word νήπιος, affixed by Heraclitus to the word ‘man’ (ἀνὴρ).

Homer also uses the word νήπιος in various senses: ‘who is in infancy’, ‘young child’, but also ‘naive’, ‘foolish’, ‘devoid of reason’.

Conche evokes these various meanings, and justifies his own translation, which is periphrastic and therefore not very faithful, in the following way:

« Translating as ‘child without reason’ sounds right, but not precise enough: if νήπιος applies to the ‘infant’ child, one must think of the very young child, who does not yet speak. Hence the translation [in French] by ‘marmot’, which probably comes from ‘marmotter’, which originates from an onomatopoeia expressing murmuring, the absence of distinct speech. « iii

This is followed by a comment on the supposed meaning of the fragment:

« It is about becoming another being, who judges by reason, and not as habit and tradition would have it. This transformation of the being is translated by the ability to speak a new language: no longer a particular language – the language of desire and tradition – but a discourse that develops reasons referring to other reasons (…) Now, from this logical or philosophical discourse, from this logos, men do not have the intelligence, and, in relation to the demonic being – the philosopher – who speaks it, they are like little brats without speech (…) To speak as they speak is to speak as if they were devoid of reason (of the power to speak the truth). »iv

Although this fragment of Heraclitus does not contain any allusion to logos, the main lesson that Conche learns from it is : « Man is incapable of logos for the demonic being ».

In a second departure from the commonly received meaning for this fragment, Marcel Conche considers that the divinity or demonic being (δαίμων) evoked by Heraclitus is in reality the ‘philosopher’. For Conche, it is the philosopher who is the demonic being par excellence, and it is precisely he who is able to determine for this reason that « man is incapable of logos ».

However Heraclitus certainly did not say: « Man is incapable of logos.»

Man may mumble. But he also talks. And he even has, in him, the logos.

Indeed, if the word logos is absent from fragment D.K. 79, it is found on the other hand in ten other fragments of Heraclitus, with various meanings : ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘discourse’, ‘measure’, ‘reason’…

Among these ten fragments, there are five that use the word logos in such an original, hardly translatable way that the common solution is just not to translate it at all, and to keep it in its original form : Logos

Here are these five fragments:

« The Logos, which is, always men are incapable of understanding him, both before hearing him and after hearing him for the first time, for although all things are born and die according to this Logos, men are inexperienced when they try their hand at words or deeds. »v

« If it is not I, but the Logos, that you have listened to, it is wise to agree that it is the One-all. »vi

« In Prayer lived Bias, son of Teutames, who was more endowed with Logos than the others. « vii

In these three fragments, the Logos seems to be endowed with an autonomous essence, a power to grow, and an ability to say birth, life, death, Being, the One and the Whole.

In the next two fragments, the Logos is intimately associated with the substance of the soul itself.

« It belongs to the soul a Logos that increases itself. « viii

« You cannot find the limits of the soul by continuing on your way, no matter how long the road, so deep is the Logos it contains. « ix

As a reminder, here is the original text of this last fragment :

ψυχῇ πείρατα ἰὼν ἰὼν ἂν ἐξεύροιο, πᾶσαν ἐπιπορευόμενος ὁδόν- οὕτω βαθὺν λόγον ἔχει.

Strangely enough, Conche, who added the idea of speech in a fragment that did not include the word logos, avoids using the word logos here, in his translation, though the fragment does contain it explicitly: « You wouldn’t find the limits of the soul, even if you walked all the roads, because it has such a deep discourse.»x

Is it relevant to translate here the word logos by discourse?

If not, how to translate it?

None of the following meanings seems satisfactory: cause, reason, essence, basis, meaning, measure, report. The least bad of the possible meanings remains ‘speech, discourse’xi according to Conche, who opts for this last word, as we have seen.

But Heraclitus uses a strange expression here: ‘a deep logos‘, – a logos so ‘deep’ that it doesn’t reach its ‘limit’.

What is a logos that never reaches its own depth, what is a limitless logos?

For her part, Clémence Ramnoux decided not to translate in this fragment the word logos. She even suggested to put it in brackets, considering it as an interpolation, a late addition:

« You wouldn’t find a limit to the soul, even when you travel on all roads, (it has such a deep logos). « xii

She comments on her reluctance in this way:

« The phrase in parentheses may have been added over. If it was added, it was added by someone who knew the expression logos of the psyche. But it would not provide a testimony for its formation in the age of Heraclitus. « xiii

In a note, she presents the state of scholarly discussion on this topic:

 » ‘So deep is her logos’. Is this added by the hand of Diogenes Laërtius (IX,7)?

Argument for: text of Hippolytus probably referring to this one (V,7): the soul is hard to find and difficult to understand. Difficult to find because it has no boundaries. In the mind of Hippolytus it is not spatial. Difficult to understand because its logos is too deep.

Argument against: a text of Tertullian seems to translate this one: « terminos anime nequaquam invenies omnem vitam ingrediens » (De Anima 2). It does not include the sentence with the logos.

Among the moderns, Bywater deleted it – Kranz retained it – Fränkel retained it and interpreted it with fragment 3. »xiv

For his part, Marcel Conche, who, as we have seen, has opted for the translation of logos by ‘discourse’, justifies himself in this way: « We think, with Diano, that logos must be translated, here as elsewhere, by ‘discourse’. The soul is limited because it is mortal. The peirata are the ‘limits to which the soul goes,’ Zeller rightly says. But he adds: ‘the limits of her being’. « xv

The soul would thus be limited in her being? Rather than limited in her journey, or in her discourse? Or in her Logos?

Conche develops: « If there are no such limits, it is because the soul is ‘that infinite part of the human being’. »

And he adds: « Snell understands βαθὺς [bathus] as the Grenzenlosigkeit, the infinity of the soul. It will be objected that what is ‘deep’ is not the soul but the logos (βαθὺν λόγον). (…) In what sense is the soul ‘infinite’? Her power is limitless. It is the power of knowledge. The power of knowledge of the ψυχὴ [psyche] is limitless in so far as she is capable of logos, of true speech. Why this? The logos can only tell reality in a partial way, as if there was somewhere a reality that is outside the truth. Its object is necessarily reality as a whole, the Whole of reality. But the Whole is without limits, being all the real, and the real cannot be limited by the unreal. By knowledge, the soul is equal to the Whole, that is to say to the world. « xvi

According to this interpretation, reality is entirely offered to the power of reason, to the power of the soul. Reality has no ‘background’ that remains potentially obscure to the soul.

« The ‘depth’ of the logos is the vastness, the capacity, by which it equals the world and establishes in law the depth (immensity) of reality. Βαθὺς : the discourse extends so deeply upwards or downwards that it can accommodate everything within it, like an abyss in which all reality can find its place. No matter which way the soul goes on the path of knowledge, inward or outward, upward or downward, she encounters no limit to her capacity to make light. All is clear in law. Heraclitus’ rationalism is absolute rationalism. « xvii

Above all what is absolute, here, is the inability to understand the logos in its infinite depth, in its deepest infinity.

We’re starting to understand that for Heraclitus, the Logos cannot be just reason, measure or speech.

The soul (psyche) has no ‘limits’, because she has a ‘deep logos‘ (βαθὺν λόγον).

The soul is unlimited, she is infinite, because she is so vast, so deep, so wide and so high that the Logos himself can dwell in her always, without ever finding his own end in her, – no matter how many journeys or speeches he may make…

No wonder the (word) Logos is ‘untranslatable’. In theory, and in good logic, to ‘translate’ it, one would need an infinitely deep periphrase comprising an infinite number of words, made of infinite letters…


iFragment D.K. 79. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. Les Présocratiques. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 164

iiD.K. 79. Translation by Marcel Conche, in Héraclite PUF, 1986, p.77.

iiiMarcel Conche, Héraclite PUF, 1986, p.77

ivMarcel Conche, Héraclite PUF, 1986, p.80

vFragment D.K. 1, Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. The Presocratics. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 145

viFragment D.K. 50. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. The Presocratics. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 157

viiFragment D.K. 39. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. The Presocratics. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 155

viiiFragment D.K. 115. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. The Presocratics. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 172

ixFragment D.K. 45. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. The Presocratics. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 156

xM. Conche, Heraclite PUF, 1986, p.357


xiiRamnoux, Heraclitus, or the man between things and words. Ed. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1968, p. 119.


xivRamnoux, Heraclitus, or the man between things and words. Ed. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1968, p. 119, note 1.

xvM. Conche, Héraclite PUF, Paris, 1986, p.357.

xviM. Conche, Héraclite PUF, Paris, 1986, p.357-359

xviiM. Conche, Héraclite PUF, Paris, 1986, p.359-360

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