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Heraclitus the Obscure - Now Without Flash Animation!!!
September 11, 2003 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Heraclitus of Ephesus, sometimes called Heraclitus the Obscure: We only know him through 100 gnomic quotes and aphorisms--I loves me some gnomic aphorisms!--all direct from or inferred in the comments of various authors of Classical literature, of which no one steps into the same river twice is the best known. Mark Cohen, J. H. Lesher and Cynthia Freeman provide excellent introductions. John Burnett's 1920 translation is another academic standard. Jonathan Barnes. whose Penguin Classic The Early Greek Philosophers has the best contemporary translation, wrote Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jampot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour. Here are the jampots of Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Martin Heidegger. And here, in passing, is a taste of the jampot of Jorge Luis Borges. Heraclitus coined the word enantiodromia. John William Corrington's Logos, Lex, And Law is also of interest. Heraclitus figures strongly in the Archetypal Psychology of Carl Jung and James Hillman, the latter especially in his discussion of the Soul.
posted by y2karl (22 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh shit, that's way too long--my bad. I'll write Matt and get half of it put inside here.
posted by y2karl at 6:02 AM on September 11, 2003


Nah, it's a great FP, and I say that not merely because I'm a huge fan of the guy. The best "popular" work on Heraclitus I've read in a couple of years is Remembering Heraclitus by Richard Geldard, which dissects the style and language Heraclitus used to understand the metaphors involved.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:14 AM on September 11, 2003


No, it looks fine, y2karl, much better than the usual small thing, which saves maybe an inch of one line anyway.

*waits for 111 and subsequent poo-slinging*
posted by widdershins at 7:44 AM on September 11, 2003


Coolness, i did a dissertation on this guy when i was in college. I was more than a little naff then, so titled it after the GM Hopkins poem: That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire.
posted by kev23f at 7:48 AM on September 11, 2003


I never heard of the Hopkins poem or Geldard's book, so thank you both. As for 111, I pushed his buttons with the Socrates post--which is not the case here.

I guess I made this post because I just wanted an excuse to look up what I could about Heraclitus on the web. It always surprises me how little or how much there is on the web about people or things that interest me. I'm pleased or disappointed by turns, but never predictably. I'm surprised at how little I could find on Heraclitus by James Hillman online--I suppose it's because he's got so many books out.
posted by y2karl at 8:46 AM on September 11, 2003


Primary stress on the 3rd syllable; short 'i'.

Heh.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:50 AM on September 11, 2003


What's that "Heh" for—"I fooled you"? It's a long i (heraCLYtus), because it's a long syllable in Greek (Herakleitos) and because that's how it's said in English. (If you're just making a clit joke, heh yourself.)

Interesting images and quotes in this piece about a play by a guy "well versed in Heraclitus":
Perhaps it is part of a poet's job to make us face history, and the Greek verb for 'I see' means 'I know' in the perfect tense: it was not for nothing that Mnemosyne, or 'Memory' was the mother of the muses. Harrison is the poet of our times who has brutally and brilliantly reminded us of our past, and the bloody basis of civilization, 'You see how democratic dealing death can be.'
Oh, and great post!
posted by languagehat at 9:01 AM on September 11, 2003


If Heraclitus' contemporaries, who had access to his entire opus and not just fragments, called him "the obscure" (ho skoteinos), we should be wary of overly ambitious "interpretations"; aphorisms can be deceptive.

IMHO, it's also important to note that he may have lost his mind at some point of his life, so the philosopher, the speculator on natural sciences and the ranting, raving fool are perhaps forever tangled.
posted by 111 at 9:57 AM on September 11, 2003


Ah, but as Burnett says--

The style of Heraclitus is proverbially obscure, and, at a later date, got him the nickname of "the Dark." Now the fragments about the Delphic god and the Sibyl seem to show that he was conscious of writing an oracular style, and we have to ask why he did so. In the first place, it was the manner of the time. The stirring events of the age, and the influence of the religious revival, gave something of a prophetic tone to all the leaders of thought. Pindar and Aeschylus have it too. It was also an age of great individualities, and these are apt to be solitary and disdainful. Heraclitus at least was so. If men cared to dig for the gold they might find it; if not, they must be content with straw...

Then there is Chris Marvin from the Window:

According to ancient biography he was an arrogant and surly aristocrat, given to eccentric behaviour, but these anecdotes are largely a fictional construction built out of his own words, in which the tone he adopts in relation to other people is contemptuous. Rather than viewing this as a psychological trait, it is better to treat it as an extreme instance of the way early Greek poets and sages claimed authority for their work...

Speculations about the lives of the philosophers--as even a quick skim through The Lives of the Philosophers will show--are nearly worthless. We simply can't say too much one way or the other..

Nor do we know how common his book--if he wrote one at all--would have been. Comments about him seem to start with Socrates and Plato, neither of whom were of his generation--they definitely were not his contemporaries.

This is one thing that strikes me about Classical literature--it's in the same shape as the cities and temples--rubble, ruins and traces of foundations. We have but fractions of the works of even incredibly well known and popular writers, like the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripedes and Sophocles. There is what--one, maybe two intact poems by Sappho? Then we have just lines of her from quotes. The farther back in time we go, the fewer the fragments and only Homer and Hesiod predate the Pre-Socratics. We just don't know.

You are right, 11, aphorisms can be deceptive. Still, I like some of the sillier ones--Oxen are happy when they find bitter vetches to eat. Dogs bark at every one they do not know.

Others just shimmer--You will not find the boundaries of soul by traveling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it.

Ah, but Let us not conjecture at random about the greatest things, I suppose...
posted by y2karl at 11:19 AM on September 11, 2003


(If you're just making a clit joke, heh yourself.)

[sophomoric]

Heh. Heh.

Heh.

[/sophomoric]
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:34 AM on September 11, 2003


One fragment goes something like: "Even the sacred barley drink separates when it is not stirred."

One of my philosophy professors actually tried to make this drink ("kykeon") by mixing wine, barley, grate cheese and water. The results, he said, were horrific.
posted by goethean at 2:26 PM on September 11, 2003


He forgot to add skittles.
posted by soyjoy at 2:41 PM on September 11, 2003


Nice post. I've heard "everything flows" and "change alone is unchanging" attributed to H-Clit, making his theory of flux remarkably similar to philosophical goings-on in the East at the same time.
posted by D at 4:20 PM on September 11, 2003


Bertrand Russell says that
He introduced important new perspectives into Greek thought and produced a book of which his followers said that it is hard to read.

We have but fractions of the works of even incredibly well known and popular writers, like the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripedes and Sophocles. There is what--one, maybe two intact poems by Sappho? Then we have just lines of her from quotes. The farther back in time we go, the fewer the fragments and only Homer and Hesiod predate the Pre-Socratics.

True, but it wouldn't be a good idea to compare philosophy, a closed system where you develop a construct and test it against other projects, to drama or poetry, which are essentially open-ended (poetry even more so).

Others just shimmer--You will not find the boundaries of soul by traveling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it.

Exactly, this is perhaps Heraclitus' greatest lesson: the importance and the immense power of introspection. But there is a "Being There" (starring Peter Sellers) quality to the eternal valse of his terse sayings and the reactions they provoke.
posted by 111 at 5:48 PM on September 11, 2003


Oooh, y2karl, I love it when you set me up like that! My favorite Heraclitus website is this one, which allows you to view simultaneously the Greek text (in Unicode) and a translation. For texts of Heraclitus & other Presocratics too, see this nifty site and this German site.

goethean: One of my philosophy professors actually tried to make this drink ("kykeon") by mixing wine, barley, grate cheese and water.

This drink has a much more interesting set of associations than most classicists are aware. For example, it is also the ritual beverage of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as mentioned in the Hymn to Demeter (see line 210). There is an obscure story in Plutarch, Themistius, and a Homeric scholiast about how Heraclitus himself displayed the kykeon to his fellow Ephesians in a virtually hierophantic way, with astonishing effects. Many dismiss it, but I believe it.
posted by Zurishaddai at 5:56 PM on September 11, 2003


Bertrand Russell: a book of which his followers said that it is hard to read

My favorite comment along these lines comes from Diogenes Laertius' Life of Socrates. Euripides gives a copy of Heraclitus' book to Socrates, who remarks, "What I understood—that's swell. Heck, even the stuff I didn't understand. Just that it'd need some Delian diver [to get to the bottom of it]."

(Fun stuff: hold your mouse over my quotation for the Greek text: Unicode Greek extended font required.)
posted by Zurishaddai at 6:05 PM on September 11, 2003


Never mind—it worked on preview, I swear!

ἃ μὲν συνῆκα,
γενναῖα·
οἶμαι δὲ καὶ ἃ
μὴ συνῆκα· πλὴν
Δηλίου γέ
τινος δεῖται
κολυμβητοῦ.
posted by Zurishaddai at 6:07 PM on September 11, 2003


Ouch, now I've really mucked up this thread.
posted by Zurishaddai at 6:09 PM on September 11, 2003


Also of some interest: Internet Encycl. of Philos. article.
posted by Zurishaddai at 6:11 PM on September 11, 2003


Well, that Plutarch story inspired me to Google around, Zurishaddai, and look what I found: Diogenes Laertius's Lives of the Philosophers -
The Life of Heraclitus. Hmm, 111, I see I was in error--according to Laertius, Socrates and Heraclitus were contemporaries.

Iincidentally I got there via Greek Authors on the Web,
another windfall I've never seen before. Oh, frabjous day!

Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe
Welp, it's off to work for me!
posted by y2karl at 9:20 PM on September 11, 2003


[this is excellent and another bookmark]
posted by madamjujujive at 10:00 PM on September 11, 2003


also inspired a physical theory and a movie :D heraclitus..!
posted by kliuless at 10:44 PM on September 11, 2003


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