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.

Take the very first sentence of the book, the declaration of deliberate difficulty. I regret to report that, with few exceptions, scholars have solemnly argued either for construing the word “always” with what precedes or for construing it with what follows. We have Aristotle’s word for it that there was no way of telling which way to take it, so why has the twentieth century been so confident that it can tell? Because scholars have been gripped by the idea that each Heraclitean sentence has just one meaning and that their task is to discover what it is. Some have even denied that the language is difficult, or that it is deliberately and artfully so; or they put it down to the writer’s contempt for the mass of his audience. In this and other ways the guardians of our classical heritage have done their best to make Heraclitus dull and prosaic. Kahn’s more sensitive approach insists, on the contrary, that both construals are to be accepted simultaneously.

Heraclitus means both “This logos is so, but always men fail to comprehend it” and “This logos is so always, but men fail to comprehend it.” The first reading simply maintains the truth of the logos in the expected sense of that word, the present discourse. The second more obscurely casts the logos in the role of an everlasting principle, an account that holds forever; this imposes on the word “logos” the universal sense which emerges in the next sentence, “All things come to pass in accordance with this logos….” Thus the syntactic ambiguity of “always” forces us to recognize, right from its first appearance, the semantic richness of the key word “logos.” Nothing could be more inappropriate than the attempts scholars have made to fix a single “most appropriate” translation of “logos.” That one word encapsulates a whole philosophy of difference in sameness and sameness in difference: the content of the logos is paradigmatically exemplified in the word “logos” itself.

These are, in a fairly obvious sense, literary techniques of elucidation, but contrary to some of the more extravagant voices on our own literary scene, it is not arbitrary subjectivity but objective historical inquiry that finds two meanings in a single sentence. The same holds for other sayings where Kahn offers two or more readings to be held together and played off against each other. A claim that the meanings are there to be found by us now is never an easy one to prove, but it is nonetheless answerable to the totality of the evidence and to critical argument, as Kahn’s book modestly but convincingly shows. Moreover, it is a claim that must eventually refer, though no doubt in a complicated way, to the author’s intention. Ask Heraclitus what he is about in writing as he does, and the reply comes back:

The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign.

But also:

The unapparent connection or/and: attunement] is superior to the apparent.

The ambiguities, the many levels of interacting significance, are as deliberate and as vital for our understanding as in the famously cryptic deliverances of the Delphic oracle.

Now the task of the twentieth-century interpreter, we may suppose, is to take up the challenge set for our imagined audience: to grasp the sense of the whole and to understand what Heraclitean wisdom amounts to. The modern scholar has only a sample—no one knows how large a sample—of the sayings to work with, collected from quotations in later authors, and at this distance in time historical and philological skills are required to recapture some of the allusions and connections that the original audience could be left to discern for itself. But the main need, once granted a literary sensitivity to multiple strands of meaning, is for philosophical imagination in weaving them together to reconstruct the thought of a unique and remarkable book.

I emphasize the role of imagination here because interpreting Heraclitus is so like elucidating a complex philosophical poem. No one interpretation will exhaust his meaning (which is not to say, as Kahn rightly points out, that many reconstructions cannot be criticized as wrong). Secondly, as with a poem, explanation and paraphrase buy clarity at the price of impact, and a reviewer’s thumbnail summary of Kahn’s explanations would diminish the impact still further. There is no substitute for reading Heraclitus alongside this rich and satisfying commentary, with its many fascinating explorations of the archaic Greek world picture and Heraclitus’ response to it. It is a book that is entirely accessible to the nonspecialist and can be warmly recommended to all who care about philosophy and literature. My comments will concern two aspects of the way Kahn’s philosophical imagination deals with the all-important matter of deliberate difficulty.

First, paradox and aphorism are not the natural medium for cosmology. It is only by not seeing that Heraclitus’ form of expression is essential to his thought that scholars have been able to treat him as an early scientist in straightforward competition with Anaximenes and the other Milesians. Heraclitus uses the new cosmological ideas as he uses everything in the culture around him: he plays with and transforms them for his own purpose, which Kahn characterizes as “a mediation on human life and human destiny in the context of biological death.” What Heraclitus is urging us to grasp is the identity of structure between the inner, personal world of the psyche and the larger natural order of the universe. When we see all opposites in their unity, as contributory parts of an everlasting cycle of life and death which embraces the whole of nature, the message will come home to us in the form of a deeper understanding of our own experience of youth and old age, sleeping and waking, life and death. Thus “his real subject is not the physical world but the human condition, the condition of mortality…. Mortals are immortal, immortals mortal. The opposites are one; and this deathless structure of life-and-death is deity itself.”

Well and good, and a vast improvement on the story scholars usually tell. Unlike cosmology, this is the right sort of message to be offered as a challenge which each person must work to understand for himself. But I wonder—and this is my second comment—whether it is mysterious, enigmatic, difficult enough.

Let me focus on one central issue: the opposites. Kahn’s interpretation is that each pair of opposites forms a unity, being connected by an unapparent attunement or consonance because it is with each other and nothing else that they exhibit their all too apparent dissonance. Night and day, justice and injustice, life and death (Dionysus and Hades), each stands in need of and depends upon the other, both conceptually and in the balance of cosmic forces. It seems to me, however, that a number of the sayings quoted earlier are insistently stranger than this.

It is not just that the sea is, unparadoxically, pure-for-fish and foul-for-men, but that from this fact a contradiction is inferred: the sea is the purest and foulest water. This is a contradiction because our language is so structured that to call something pure is to imply that it is not impure and vice versa. It is similarly contradictory, given language as it is, to assert that day is night, justice is conflict, sea is lightning storm. No doubt one reading of these remarks is that they are paradoxical overstatements, designed to make us think, “He can’t mean that literally, he must mean…,” drawing the milder moral that Kahn recommends. But they may also provoke the more difficult question whether the boundaries of sameness and difference marked out by the words of our language have any claim to absolute validity.

This question arises because to set human experience of the sea alongside that of the fish and accept both as valid, even though they conflict, is to suggest the possibility of an absolute god’s-eye point of view from which all the opposites are somehow reconciled:

The god: day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger. It alters, as when mingled with incense-perfumes it gets named according to the pleasure of each one [viz. giving names] according to the scent of each one [viz. thing named].

Absolutely considered, reality is like the sacrificial fire in which incense is burned, our words just so many labels for the different scents which pervade our experience from time to time. The double meaning at the end invites us to stand outside our language and see the opposed names both as conditioned by the partial experience of the name-giver and as valid enough expressions of an aspect of the truth: that aspect which partial experience (the sense of smell) opens to us. The names are not false (another saying has it that “If all things turned to smoke, the nostrils would distinguish them”), but anyone who uses his eyes to see the fire burning is aware that they reflect a particular and partial kind of experience, in the same way as the verdict “foul and deadly” reflects our human experience of the sea. The question is, can we stand outside language in its entirety, outside everything that makes human experience human, so as to view ourselves in this godlike perspective?

I believe that Heraclitus’ most profound contribution to philosophy is the realization that we cannot. There is no naming except from a particular point of view (in the remark about naming Kahn correctly leaves the fire a nameless “it”; most scholars perceive this subtlety as a corrupt text and insert “fire” after “as”). Heraclitus thrusts us into the thought of a godlike perspective, by images and paradoxes which suggest alternatives to the boundaries of sameness and difference marked out by our language, in order that we may become aware that the particularity and partiality of the human perspective condition everything we say and do. This is what it means to become awake to the words and works of everyday life. It is a highly philosophical rendering of the Delphic maxim “Know thyself,” to which Heraclitus alludes more than once. As he uses it, the traditional moral that one must not overstep the limits which it befits mortals to observe is transformed into the realization that one cannot do so, because the limits are now the limits of language itself. In the end, the god’s-eye point of view is both unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus because it is simply the human view made aware of itself as being the human view and no more.

I offer this reading of Heraclitean wisdom as a properly philosophical rationale for the Delphic style. The logos is language speaking about itself, giving signs to show us things that cannot be said, embracing opposites that cannot be reconciled, pointing us to alternative perspectives which we cannot take up. No wonder it is difficult. The difficulty is an irreducible part of the message. After explanation and elucidation have done their best, there is nothing for it but to let these memorable sayings take effect in the psyche in their own way. For it is quite true, in a sense, that this logos has nothing new to teach us. Wisdom does not come from paraphrasable content. If the sayings make a difference to the words and works of daily life, it will be by making us newly aware of what we should have known all along—

Although the logos is shared, most men live as though their thinking were a private possession.

This Issue

May 13, 1982