Heraclitus' Fragments

"In temperament and character Heraclitus was said to have been gloomy, supercilious, and perverse. Diogenes calls him a hater of mankind, and says that this characteristic led him to live in the mountains, making his diet on grass and roots, a regimen which brought on his final illness. Such an account, however, is of the sort that could easily have been invented out of a general review of the philosopher's character. At any rate, Heraclitus was certainly no lover of the masses, and his declaration, 'To me one man is worth ten thousand if he is first-rate,' makes it evident that he was not one to suffer fools gladly. He would have understood and approved of Nietzsche's definition of the truly artistocratic man as one whose thoughts, words, and deeds are inwardly motivated by a 'feeling of distance'."

Thus wrote Philip Wheelwright in his 1959 work Heraclitus, a work that includes both Heraclitus' Fragments (his only extant work) and a running commentary.

Heraclitus lived in the fifth century B.C. His work consists of mostly single-sentence aphorisms about life and the cosmos, but they are, almost without exception, insightful and profound. Here is a small sampling culled from Wheelwright's excellent collection.

Universal Flux

"Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed."

"You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on."

"Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool; the moist dries, the parched becomes moist."

"It is in changing that things find repose."

"War is both father and king of all; some he has shown forth as gods and others as men, some he has made slaves and others free."

"It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife."

Human Soul

"You could not discover the limits of soul, even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth of its meaning."

"[Soul] is the vaporization out of which everything else is derived; moreover it is the least corporeal of things and is in ceaseless flux, for the moving world can only be known by what is in motion."

"Souls are vaporized from what is moist."

"A dry soul is wisest and best."

"It is hard to fight against impulsive desire; whatever it wants it will buy at the cost of soul."

"A foolish man is a-flutter at every word."

"Most people do not take heed of the things they encounter, nor do they grasp them even when they have learned about them, although they suppose they do."

"If all existing things were smoke, it is by smell that we would distinguish them."

In Religious Perspective

"Immortals become mortals, mortals become immortals; they live in each other's death and die in each other's life."

"There await men after death such things as they neither expect nor have any conception of."

"Greater dooms win greater destinies."

"They pray to images, much as if they should talk to houses; for they do not know the nature of gods and heroes."

Man Among Men

"The best of men choose one thing in preference to all else, immortal glory in preference to mortal goods; whereas the masses simply glut themselves like cattle."

"It is weariness to keep toiling at the same things so that one becomes ruled by them."

"After birth men wish to live and accept their dooms; then they leave behind them children to become dooms in their turn."

Relativity And Paradox

"It is by disease that health is pleasant; by evil that good is pleasant; by hunger, satiety; by weariness, rest."

"To God all things are beautiful, good, and right; men, on the other hand, deem some things right and others wrong."

"Doctors cut, burn, and torture the sick, and then demand of them an undeserved fee for such services."

"The way up and the way down are one and the same."

"It is one and the same thing to be living or dead, awake or asleep, young or old. The former aspect in each case becomes the latter, and the latter again the former, by sudden unexpected reversal."

"The name of the bow is life, but its work is death."


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