Born among the nobility of Ephesus, and contemporary of Pythagoras, and of Confucius, Lao-tzu, and Gautama Buddha in the late sixth and early fifth centuries bce, Heraclitus “the Obscure” (or “The Dark One”) may have given up politics for philosophy. He lived under the domination of the Persian Empire at the time, which had inherited Sumer’s ancient tradition of wisdom poetry (Haxton xxii).
“Early Greek thinkers sought the stuff of which the world was made. For Thales, it was water; for Anaximenes, air; for Anaximander, a combination of hot and cold. Empedocles expanded the stuff to four indestructable elemental principles…” (Hillman xi). Heraclitus ignored all this and spoke of flux. This flux he metaphorically refers to as “fire,” much like the Zoroastrian identification of wisdom with fire (Haxton xxiii).
If a book by Heraclitus ever existed, it has been lost. It may have been “the first coherent philosophical treatise” (xx). What survives is a collection of aphorisms, since he was quoted admiringly by Plato, Aristotle, and others, mockingly in Christian writings. Note the somewhat Eastern mystical tone in many of his “fragments.” [The following are a few of Haxton’s translations. For a complete translation and commentary, see Harris below. Also included below are translations from an unknown (to me) source, bracketed.]
The mystical tradition of the history of western thought and literature is very spare; yet western philosophy nearly begins with Heraclitus. What do the following mean, or rather, how do they go about meaning?
The Word proves
those first hearing it
as numb to understanding
as the ones who have not heard.
Yet all things follow from the Word.
try in vain with empty talk
to separate the essences of things
and say how each thing truly is.
For wisdom, listen
not to me but to the Word,
and know that all is one.
[“That’s all one” is the deceptively dismissive-seeming phrase repeated in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.]
People dull their wits with gibberish,
and cannot use their ears and eyes.
Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand not their language.]
Things keep their secrets.
Nature loves to hide.]
What eyes witness,
ears believe on hearsay.
If learning were a path of wisdom,
those most learned about myth
would not believe, with Hesiod,
that Pallas in her wisdom gloats
over the noise of battle.
Pythagoras may well have been
the deepest in his learning of all men.
And still he claimed to recollect
details of former lives,
being in one a cucumber
and one time a sardine.
Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things.]
This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an everliving Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.]
All things are an exchange for Fire, and Fire for all things, even as wares for gold and gold for wares.]
Fires lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.]
Many who have learned
from Hesiod the countless names
of gods and monsters
than night and day are one.
Cold things become warm, and what is warm cools; what is wet dries, and the parched is moistened.]
where you set
your foot just now
giving way to this,
[His most famous aphorism, often translated as “You cannot step in the same river twice.”]
Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and lyre.]
From the strain
of binding opposites
The straight and the crooked path of the fuller’s comb is one and the same.]
An ass prefers a bed of litter
to a golden throne.
Good and ill are one.]
Good and ill to the physician
surely must be one,
since he derives his fee
from torturing the sick.
The way up is the way back.
The way up and the way down is one and the same.]
Applicants for wisdom
do what I have done:
Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so I am as I am not.
We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.]
Goat cheese melted
in warm wine congeals
if not well stirred.
Although we need the Word
to keep things known in common,
people still treat specialists
as if their nonsense
were a form of wisdom.
People need not act and speak
as if they were asleep.
The ape apes find
and what release
may come of it
fells much like death.
All people ought to know themselves
and everyone be wholly mindful.
Not to be quite such a fool
sounds good. The trick,
with so much wine
and easy company, is how.
As for the Ephesians,
I would have them, youths,
elders, and all those between,
go hang themselves, leaving the city
in the abler hands of children….
[Sounds like Shakespeare’s Timon.]
Stupidity is doomed,
therefore, to cringe
at every syllable
shapes one’s fate.
Tainted souls who try
to purify themselves with blood
are like the man
who steps in filth and thinks
to bathe in sewage.
Harris, William. “Heraclitus.” Ancient Philosophy and New Thoughts. http://www.middlebury.edu/~harris/Philosophy/Heracleitus (17 June 2001).
Haxton, Brooks. Introduction. In Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. xix-xxvi.
Heraclitus. Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. Trans. Brooks Haxton. NY: Viking, 2001.
Hillman, James. Foreword. Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. xi-xviii.