Delahoyde & Hughes


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. 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.]

. . .
"Some, blundering
try in vain with empty talk
to separate the essences of things
and say how each thing truly is.

People dull their wits with gibberish,
and cannot use their ears and eyes.

Things keep their secrets.

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.

Many who have learned
from Hesiod the countless names
of gods and monsters
never understand
than night and day are one.

From the strain
of binding opposites
comes harmony.

An ass prefers a bed of litter
to a golden throne.

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.

Applicants for wisdom
do what I have done:
inquire within.

Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so I am as I am 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
most beautiful
looks apish
to non-apes.

Not to be quite such a fool
sounds good. The trick,
with so much wine
and easy company, is how.

Tainted souls who try
to purify themselves with blood
are like the man
who steps in filth and thinks
to bathe in sewage.

Silence, healing.

Works Cited

Harris, William. "Heraclitus." Ancient Philosophy and New Thoughts. http :// (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.

Orpheus: Greek Innovations