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Heraclitus the Obscure: as Heidegger notes, this was his reputation even to the ancients who had access to his intact works. He lived near Ephesus in Asia Minor in the 6th-5th centuries B.C., and apparently spent at least part of his life as a hermit in the mountains. His writings are lost; all we have are fragments preserved among the critiques and summaries of others.

Aristotle, in Rhetoric:
“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it. E.g. at the very beginning of his treatise, where he says:
Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending,
It is unclear which ‘forever’ goes with.”

From what one may surmise about Heraclitus’ belief-system and love of riddles, is it not conceivable that such ambiguities were planted deliberately to confound the pedants? Incidentally, the use of such ambiguous pivot-words was highly prized by the classical Japanese poets. Elusiveness and allusiveness were thought to go together; some measure of obscurity was required to elicit the strongest aesthetic response.

From Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies) we learn that Heraclitus may have preached the existence of a monad similar to the Dao of his presumably unknown contemporaries in China. Hippolytus clearly indulges in a rather free interpretation, however, in order to cast Heraclitus into the role of a proto-Christian heretic:
“Heraclitus says that the universe is divisible and indivisible, generated and ungenerated, mortal and immortal, Word and Eternity, Father and Son, God and Justice.
Listening not to me but to the account, it is wise to agree that all things are one,
says Heraclitus. That everyone is ignorant of this and does not agree he states as follows:
They do not comprehend how, in differing, it agrees with itself – a backward-turning connection, like that of a bow and a lyre.
That an account exists always, being the universe and eternal, he says in this way:
Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending, both before hearing it and when they have heard it. For although all things come about in accordance with this account, they are like tiros as they try the words and deeds which I expound as I divide up each thing according to its nature and try to say how it is.
That the universe is a child and an eternal king of all things for all eternity he states as follows:
Eternity is a child at play, playing draughts: the kingdom is a child’s.

All these quotes are translated by Jonathon Barnes, in Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin, 1987), with the exception of the following (also originating in Hippolytus), which is poet W. S. Merwin’s version (used as the epigram for his book The Lice). Heraclitus said,
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

It seems that Heraclitus used paradox to suggest more than mere nominalism; like Laozi and Zhuangzi, he apparently felt that the limitations of language reflect unconscious biases of perspective:
The sea is most pure and most polluted water: for fish, drinkable and life-preserving; for men, undrinkable and death-dealing.
Also in a strongly Daoist vein are reports that he stressed the pig’s use of mud and the chicken’s preference for dust or ashes to bathe in, with the implication that human values are without ultimate significance.

Hippolytus claims that Heraclitus preached the undifferentiation of terms such as up and down, straight and crooked, dark and light, good and bad. But elsewhere it appears that he did not believe such opposites fully dissolve into One, but maintain a dialectical separateness. How much of this was playfulness or koan-like riddling is of course impossible to tell. According to one source, he took advantage of the ambiguity of the word “bios,” which meant both “life” and “bow”:
The name of the bow is bios, its function death.
In a similar vein, he is said to have thought that the mortal and the immortal feed off each other:
Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living their death, dying their life.

One of the briefest fragments seems to contain the quintessence of Heraclitus’ teachings:
Nature likes to hide itself.
But the word translated here as “nature,” according to Heidegger (Early Greek Thinking, trans. by David Krell and Frank Capuzzi, Harper and Row, 1984) should be interpreted more along the lines of “emergence” or “upsurging” than “essence of things,” which is impermissible before Plato. This makes it more of a piece with the other sayings about opposites, i.e., “The emerging longs for concealment.” (The rest of Heiddeger’s analysis strikes me as a reconstruction no less fanciful than that of Clement or Hippolytus, the difference being that Heidegger sought an ancestor where the other two wanted a foil.)

The popular favorite among the sayings of Heraclitus is reported from several sources, but the version with which most of us are familiar comes from a paraphrase by Plutarch. “For it is not possible to step twice into the same river, according to Heraclitus, nor to touch mortal substance twice in any condition: by the swiftness and speed of its change, it scatters and collects itself again – or rather, it is not again and later but simultaneously that it comes together and departs, approaches and retires.”

The ordinary interpretation holds that a simple acknowledgement of mutability is meant, but Plutarch’s last phrase implies that some more radical notion is in play. This impression is reinforced by another version:
We step and do not step into the same river, we are and we are not.
Is this a comment on time, on being – or both?

Heraclitus may have viewed motion as intrinsic to life; Theophrastes reports that he cited a kind of beer, evidently consumed while still in an active state: “The barley-drink separates if it is not moving.”

Then, too, it appears that water or moisture in his cosmology was closely identified with the source of life and death. It is interesting to speculate to what extent the phenomenon of fermentation may have played a role in shaping this view, since yeast was the prototypical activating spirit in much pre-modern thought. (In English, “ghost” and “yeast” are cognates.) According to Numenius, “Heraclitus says that for souls it is pleasure or death to become moist, and that for them the fall into mortal life is pleasure; and elsewhere that we live their death and they live our death.” And John Stobaeus cited various sayings that suggest Heraclitus preached temperance, including:
A man when he is drunk is led by a boy, stumbling, not knowing where he goes, his soul moist.
A dry soul is wisest and best.

This may point to a wider critique of desire or attachment, in the Buddhist sense – a logical extension of the insistence that thinkers look beyond appearances and not get caught up in ultimately illusory discriminations. It may also relate to his famous distaste for the bacchanals of the worshippers of Dionysius, for mobs in general, and for violence.
You should quench violence more quickly than arson.
The people should fight for the law as for the city wall.

And Justice is strife, he is reported to have said.

By “strife,” however, he probably meant something akin to the notion of a dynamic equilibrium. He scorned the raving prophetesses of Asia Minor for never yielding to mirth. He had little time for either great philosophers or the ignorant who looked up to them, and refused the role of law-giver when it was offered to him by the Ephesians. Truth should be sought in the particularities of life, a bow that bends back upon itself. According to one source, Heraclitus likened seizing upon a single moment, being or event to the attempt to find the beginning or end-point of a circle. Any given point contains both a beginning and an end.

For the present, then, I’ll conclude this brief chrestomathy with a sketch by Timon, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, keeping in mind the Heideggerian interpretation of emergence or rising as key to “essence”:
Among them Heraclitus the mocker, the reviler of the mob,
the riddler, rose up.

For it may be in the role of trickster or adversary that we can best understand what he was up to, this distant cousin to both Zhuangzi and the mythic Aztec sorcerer Tezcatl-Ihpoca, the Enemy of Both Sides.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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