Message from Heraclitus

The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary

by Charles H. Kahn
Cambridge University Press, 354 pp., $15.95 (paper)


We are, let us imagine, at Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. The date is somewhere around 500 BC, and we have gathered to hear the book or logos (discourse) of Heraclitus, son of Bloson. At this period books—such few of them as exist—are written to be heard rather than perused in solitude, and it is customary for them to begin, self-referentially, with an introductory remark about the logos which is to be read out. So we are not surprised when on this occasion the opening words speak of Heraclitus’ logos and of those who hear it. The jolt comes when we realize that we, the hearers of this logos, are being told that we will not understand it:

Although this logos is so always men fail to comprehend, both before hearing it and once they have heard.

There is one reassurance here. If at first we were at a loss to know whether to take the word “always” with what precedes (“this logos is so always”) or with what follows (“always men fail to comprehend”), the final clause allows us to think that the sentence illustrates its own message: it is deliberately difficult to understand.

But that is slight comfort as we ponder the reproach that we failed to comprehend the logos before hearing it. What sort of logos could this be that we should understand it already, before hearing it? What are we gathered for if not to hear a logos that is new and has important new things to teach us?

But the reading continues:

Although all things come to pass in accordance with this logos, men are like the inexperienced when they experience words and works such as I set forth, distinguishing each according to its nature and telling how it is. But other men are oblivious of what they do when awake, just as they are forgetful of what they do asleep.

This logos (discourse), we are now being told, is a logos in the further sense of an account, an account of everything that happens—yet it will explain to us nothing more recherché than the “words and works” of ordinary waking life. The reproach of failing to comprehend the logos before we hear it has turned into an accusation that we do not understand our own language and our own lives. And we seem to be invited to construct for ourselves a logos in yet another sense of the word, namely, a proportion: as sleeping is to waking life, so waking life is to—what? What account of things could show us that we have never really been awake to what we say and do?

By the time we have worked out all this, the reader has moved on. We catch another fragment:

Not comprehending, they hear like the deaf. The saying is their witness: absent while present.

That hits off very well our baffled first response to Heraclitus’ logos, but perhaps it is intended to…

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