Tuesday, 19 May 2009


“Abundance of knowledge does not teach men to be wise.” - Heraclitus

For Poetry Wednesday, some food for thought from William Johnson Cory. The subject is the great Ancient Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus from Ephesus the great city of Caria on the shores of Asia Minor.


They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

William Johnson Cory (1823-1892)

Heraclitus of Ephesus (ca. 535–475 BCE) is probably the most significant philosopher of ancient Greece until Socrates and Plato. Heraclitus’s philosophy is perhaps even more fundamental in the formation of the European mind than any other thinker in European history, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Heraclitus, like Parmenides of Elea (early 5th century BCE), postulated a model of nature and the universe which created the foundation for all other speculation on physics and metaphysics.

His ideas that the universe is in constant flux (Πάντα ῥεῖ… - panta rei, “everything is in flux”) and that there is an underlying order or reason to this change (λόγος – logos, reason) form the essential foundation of the European world view. Whether it’s a science, economics, or political science course that you study, to some extent everything you do in that class originates with Heraclitus’s ideas on change and the “logos”.

Despite the fact that the ancient Greeks considered Heraclitus one of their principal philosophers, unfortunately little remains of his writings. A few fragments, quoted by other Greek writers give us only a tantalising taste of his ideas and arguments. These passages are difficult to read and interpret fully, not only because they are quoted out of context, but because Heraclitus deliberately cultivated an obscure writing style (so obscure, in fact, that the Greeks nicknamed him the “Riddler” or the "Dark One").

However, by piecing together all of the fragments that we have of Heraclitus’s writings, we are able to piece together the central components of his thought. We can understand his concept of the logos, although it may be difficult to contextualise it in the universal sense. We can consider his claim that the logos consists of all the paired opposites in the universe, but what is the nature of the logos as the composite of all paired opposites? How does the Logos explain change? Fascinating glimpses of a great mind, as though one were trying to discover the meaning of life through snippets of conversations overheard in a busy train terminal…

Some of these fragments:

ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν, ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.
potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei
“On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow.”

τὰ ὄντα ἰέναι τε πάντα καὶ μένειν οὐδέν
ta onta ienai te panta kai menein ouden
“All beings going and remaining not at all”

ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.
potamois tois autois embainomen te kai ouk embainomen eimen te kai ouk eimen
“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”

ἐκ τῶν διαφερόντων καλλίστην ἁρμονίαν
ek tōn diapherontōn kallistēn harmonian
“Out of discord comes the fairest harmony”

Some of these ideas have been independently vocalized and explored by the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th century BCE).

The painting above is by Bramante and depicts Heraclitus on the left as the “Crying Philosopher”, while on the right is Democritus, the “Laughing Philosopher”, personifying the essence of their credos.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the lovely poem and the interesting info