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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 describe the incomprehension of our waking lives before, and after, our coming to hear it. Or perhaps—and here, for a moment, we have the impression of a kind of understanding—these are the same thing. The evidently deliberate difficulty of this discourse is designed to make us feel the difficulty of understanding what we take for granted, the “words and works” of everyday life. The effort we must put out to understand Heraclitus will be our first, inexperienced attempt to understand ourselves.

If this is enlightenment, it only confirms that our difficulties will continue. As we listen, it becomes clear that the remainder of the book is nothing but a collection of seemingly self-contained sayings or remarks, one after another. The connections between them, the threads of argument, the sense of the whole—all this is left to us. The book and, if we were right in our first glimpse of understanding, the everyday experience of which it speaks, are to be a challenge. We have to grasp for ourselves the whole that unifies the separate pieces. If we wonder what this will require of us, in due course we are given something like a warning that ordinary ideas of what it is to grasp wholeness and unity are as much in question as everything else:

Graspings: wholes and not wholes, convergent divergent, consonant dissonant, from all things one and from one thing all.

This, certainly, is not a pronouncement we can take full measure of at a single hearing. Other remarks appear more accessible but no less puzzling. All the things we think of as different and opposed, Heraclitus seems to be saying, are not different but one and the same:

The teacher of most is Hesiod. It is him they know as knowing most, who did not recognize day and night: they are one.

The sea is the purest and foulest water: for fish drinkable and life-sustaining, for men undrinkable and deadly.

Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living the others’ death, dead in the others’ life.

The same…: living and dead, and the waking and the sleeping, and young and old. For these transposed are those and those transposed again are these.

For god all things are fair and good and just, but men have taken some things as unjust, others as just.

One must realize that war is shared and conflict is justice….

The fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings.

There are hints here of a larger, as it were, a god’s-eye point of view from which differences and distinctions that we men regard as valid and important for our lives can be seen as invalid and of no account. But it would be a rash listener who was confident straight off that Heraclitus is denying, or that he is not denying, the difference between day and night, life and death, justice and injustice.

Besides, if these remarks imply that things we think of as different are the same, they are mingled with others that suggest that things we think of as remaining stably the same are in fact always different, ever changing:

The sun is new every day.

…of sea half is earth, half lightning storm.

One cannot step twice into the same river.

The only safe conclusion at first hearing is that, in each and every apparently different sense of the word “logos,” this logos questions the very notions of sameness and difference, thereby fulfilling its promise to make us feel we do not understand our own language.

It seems indeed that this logos questions everything. All our habitual certainties are put in doubt. The traditional wisdom of poets like Hesiod is scorned. There are unsettling remarks about established religious practices

If it were not Dionysus for whom they march in procession and chant the hymn to the phallus, their action would be most shameless. But Dionysus, for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaia, and Hades are the same.

Even the ordinary, everyday use of our senses comes under suspicion, slotted into another provocative proportion (logos):

Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have barbarian souls.

In other words, as the foreigner fails to understand the meaning of discourse (logos) in Greek, so we fail to understand the meaning of what we are told by our eyes and ears—with the added implication that in the latter case we think we do understand and so are misled.

At the same time, many allusions are made to the exciting new enterprise of cosmological speculation, recently begun at neighboring Miletus where Thales and his successors have been vying with one another to produce the best theory of the origin and workings of the world. But when we hear, for example, that

All things are requital for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods,

it is hard to tell whether this is offered as an alternative and competitor to Anaximenes’ theory that everything comes from air by processes of condensation and rarefaction (earth, stone, water, fire, and the rest being air at different degrees of density), or as a hostile parody of it, a refusal to recognize any constant in the universe but the fiercest agency of destruction. For another saying begins,

War is father of all and king of all….

Again, are the remarks recounted earlier about the sun and the sea intended to compete with Milesian theories about these important items, or are they attacking the very idea, which the new science shares with the ordinary man, that there are unitary, unambiguous things in the world to theorize about?

In the end, very little is clear to us but that our own unclarity matches the obscurity of the logos we have been listening to. We cannot answer the questions it confronts us with, so we cannot grasp the nature of the wisdom or understanding which is its most frequently recurring theme:

It is wise, listening not to me but to the logos, to agree that all things are one.

The wise is one alone, unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus.

What or whose, we want to know, is this godlike viewpoint from which all things are seen as one? That last remark refuses to tell us. Why should the bare, contentless assertion “All things are one” be dignified as wisdom? We are left to work that out for ourselves. We have by turns been insulted, infuriated, unsettled, scandalized; often enchanted by the poetic pregnancy of these aphorisms; but above all continuously baffled by them—as we were warned at the outset that we would be. All we have now to take home with us, when the gathering breaks up, is the memory of some of the more striking sayings.

But the memory lasts. They linger in the mind, these sayings that we do not understand. They keep coming back to us, now one, now another, in the days that follow. Is it possible that in some hidden way they are beginning to influence the words and works of our everyday life?


But we must return to the twentieth century. If my imagined reconstruction of what it would have been like to listen to a reading of Heraclitus’ book is even approximately right, Professor Charles Kahn’s The Art and Thought of Heraclitus is the first authentic study of Heraclitus since antiquity. For it is the first and only full-scale treatment to be based throughout on the principle that nearly every aphorism is a condensation of many meanings. This principle is the proper and necessary tribute to the deliberate difficulty of the language. There is no one answer to the question of what a Heraclitean saying means. It generates several meanings within itself and yet more meanings in resonance with other sayings. It follows that the approach to Heraclitus’ thought must be through his art; the philosophy will emerge only by the use of literary techniques appropriate to the logos in which it is embodied.

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