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Heraclitus the Obscure


Panta rhei...


Heraclitus: Eraclito di Efeso (it), Héraclite d'Éphèse (fr), Heráclito de Éfeso (sp, por), Heraklit (ger), Herakleitos (du), Гераклит Эфесский (ru), Hérakleitos (cz), هرقليطس (ar), הרקליטוס (he), 赫拉克利特 (ch), ヘラクレイトス (jap).

The Father of the Doctrine of Flux and the Unity of Opposites

Heraclitus  Heraclitus (Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος — Herakleitos the Ephesian), son of Bloson, was a pre-Socratic philosopher born about 535 BCE in Ephesos, the second great Greek Ionian city. He was a man of strong, independent philosophical spirit. Unlike the Milesian philosophers whose subject was the material beginning of the world, Heraclitus focused instead on the internal rhythm of nature which moves and regulates things, namely, the Lógos, that is, Rule, Order or Reason. Heraclitus is the philosopher of eternal change. For him everything is "in flux", as exemplified in his famous aphorism "Panta Rhei": πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει (Plato, «Cratylus»), 'everything flows and nothing is left unchanged'. In fact, according to Heraclitus, there is no permanent reality except the reality of change; permanence is an illusion of the senses.

  Heraclitus accepted only one material source of natural substances, the Pyr (Fire). This Pyr is the essence of Lógos which creates an infinite and uncorrupted world, without beginning. It converts this world into various shapes as a harmony of the opposites. He taught that the composition of opposites sustains everything in nature (polarity of the essence): all things carry with them their opposites, that death is potential in life, that being and non-being are part of every whole — therefore, as written above, the only possible real state is the transitional one of becoming.

yin yang  Heraclitus may rightly be called the Grandfather of the Stoicism, a philosophical system built upon the unassailable power of a single idea: live according to nature. The Heraclitean philosophy is also very close to another ancient philosophical tradition, that of Taoism: the Tao (or "the Way") often refers to a space-time sequence, and is similarly expressed with seemingly-contradictory language (e.g., "The Way is like an empty vessel / that may still be drawn from / without ever needing to be filled"). He shared with the philosophy of Lao Tzu (老子 "Old Master") not only the emphasis on continuous change, which he expressed in his famous saying "everything flows", but also the notion that all changes are cyclic (Yin-Yang). According to the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer some of the sentences of Heraclitus could have been adopted by the first Christians, like the obscure “the father is his own proper son”, meaning actually that as soon as a man generates a son, he becomes a father.

  Many fragments of Heraclitus's work, commonly known as «Peri Physeos» On Nature (of the Universe), have survived, although their interpretation is made difficult by their lack of context and by the abbreviated, oracular style in which they were written. Because of the difficulty of his thought, Heraclitus was known in the history of philosophy as "the Obscure" (Ancient Greek ὁ Σκοτεινός — ho Skoteinós), as well as "the Mocker" or "the Reviler of the mob", due to his contempt for those who were not enlightened... Timon of Phlius (Greek sceptic philosopher and satirical poet, 300 BCE) called him 'Ainiktês', the "Riddler", some other philosophers referred to him as "the Weeping Philosopher", a humorous reference to his claim that all things flow like rivers.

  Heraclitus’ 'book' «Peri Physeos» was then mostly a collection of concise gnomic thoughts and was perhaps divided in three sections: cosmology, politics and theology. The punctuation of his propositions allows different readings and interpretations. Chiasmus and oxymoron were the most frequent figures of style he used to express his thoughts. Heraclitus dedicated his work and placed it in the temple of Artemis, as some say, having 'purposely' written it rather obscurely so that only those of rank and influence should have access to it, and it should not be easily despised by the populace. When Socrates read Heraclitus’ 'book' said that "The concepts I understand are great, but I believe that the concepts I can't understand are great too. However, the reader needs to be an excellent swimmer like those from Delos, so as not to be drown from his book".


APHORISMS by Heraclitus
Text in old Greek with 'translations' in English, Italian and French.

Fragment 7

εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.
If all things were turned to smoke, the nostrils would distinguish them.
Se le cose si mutassero in fumo a distinguerle basterebbe l'olfatto.
Si toutes choses devenaient fumée, les narines les distingueraient.

Fragment 101

ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν...
I have searched myself...
Mi sono cercato me stesso...
Je me suis cherché moi-même...
Commentary: self-examination is the hardest thing to do...

Fragment 49

εἷς ἐμοὶ μύριοι, ἐὰν ἄριστος ᾖ.
One is worth ten thousand to me, if he is the best.
Uno per me è diecimila, se è il migliore.
Un seul est dix-mille pour moi, s'il est le meilleur.

Fragment 60

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή.
The way up and the way down is one and the same.
La via in su e la via in giù sono una e medesima cosa.
Le chemin en haut, et le chemin en bas sont un et le même.

Fragment 85

θυμῷ μάχεσθαι χαλεπόν· ὃ τι γὰρ ἂν θέλῃ, ψυχῆς ὠνεῖται.
It is hard to fight against one’s heart’s desire. Whatever it
wants it will buy at the cost of the soul.
E difficile battersi contro il desiderio: a prezzo dell'anima,
acquisterà ciò che ambisce.
Il est difficile de combattre contre le désir de son propre coeur:
il achetera au prix de l'âme ce qu'il convoite.
Commentary: here is probably the earliest statement of the power of advertising in a market economy.

Fragment 91

ποταμῷ γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐμϐῆναι δὶς τῷ αὐτῷ.
You cannot step twice into the same rivers.
Non si può discendere due volte nel medesimo fiume.
On ne peut pas descendre deux fois dans le même fleuve.
Commentary: this statement poses clearly the problem of the continuum as inherent in the nature of things (flux). It is not the same river obviously since the water has all moved along downstream. Nor is it the same 'you', since each instant your physical nature changes.

Fragment 22

χρυσὸν γὰρ οἱ διζήμενοι γῆν πολλὴν ὀρύσσουσι
καὶεὑρίσκουσιν ὀλίγον.
Those who seek for gold dig up much earth
and find a little.
Quelli che cercano oro scavano molto
ma poco ne trovano.
Ceux qui cherchent de l’or remuent beaucoup
de terre et n’en trouvent que peu.
Commentary: much labor, often no or few returns,
that is the nature of the investigation of new ideas.

Fragment 18

ἐὰν μὴ ἔλπηται, ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει,
ἀνεξερεύνητονἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον.
If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it;
for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.
Se non speri l'insperabile, non lo troverai,
poiché è faticoso e difficile da trovare.
Si tu ne t'attends pas à l'inattendu, tu ne le trouveras pas,
car il est pénible et difficile à trouver.

Fragment 11

πᾶν γὰρ ἑρπετὸν πληγῇ νέμεται.
Every beast is driven to pasture by a blow.
Le bestie vengono portate al pascolo con la sferza.
Toute bête est menée au pâturage par des coups.
Commentary: every thing we have ever learned (which has
turned out worth learning), has been learned with infinite
difficulty and pain and often approached unwillingly.

Fragment 19

ἀκοῦσαι οὐκ ἐπιστάμενοι οὐδ' εἰπεῖν.
Knowing not how to listen, they do not know how to speak.
Non sapendo ascoltare, non sanno parlare.
Ne sachant écouter, il ne savent parler.

Fragment 97

κύνες γὰρ καὶ βαΰζουσιν ὃν, ἂν μὴ γινώσκωσι.
Dogs bark at every one they do not know.
I cani abbaiano contro chiunque non conoscano.
Les chiens aboient après tous ceux qu’ils ne
connaissent pas.

Below are three stones with Heaclitean thoughts engraved found in Olbia, Ukraine, dating back approx. to VIth century BCE.
heraclitus stone heraclitus stone 2 heraclitus stone 3

Related links The book
small square Graeco-Roman puzzles
small square Leonardo's rebuses
small square Shadocks' nonsense
small square Carolino's guide of absurd
small square Grooks, philosophical poems
Grooks, the book
External links
small square Fragments collected by Randy Hoyt
small square Heraclitus at Wikipedia


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