I was led to Heraclitus in a roundabout way; I have long been an admirer of Socrates and astonished at the genius of Plato, but was also drawn by the beauty of the lyric poetry of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. into wondering how these poets envisaged the world and their place in it. While soaking up as much of the available poetry as I could with my rudimentary knowledge of Greek, I stumbled upon the fragments of Heraclitus, which seemed to contain a much greater depth of insight than I had ever imagined on the basis of Plato’s dismissive attitude towards him. To be fair, Plato probably only knew Heraclitus via Cratylus, who seems to have invented his own brand of neo-Heraclitism. Heraclitus developed his thinking before either Idealism or Materialism, let alone Cartesian dualism, had been thought of. Now that Western Philosophy is questioning each of these views, he seems to me to offer a tantalising if dimly-perceived alternative which, having spent my working life as a professional geologist, I am now finding time to explore.
Of the four fragments selected here, designated A6, B12, B50 and B101, the first is generally considered nowadays to be a poor paraphrase by Plato of the second, while the other three are widely accepted as the original words of Heraclitus. Unfortunately, Heraclitus’ reputation has for too long rested mainly on Plato, who summarised his teaching as πάντα ῥεῖ (everything flows). It is becoming clear that Heraclitus’ true message was to seek the unity that lies behind the apparent constant change in the κόσμоς, which few are able to perceive!
δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης (A6).
You could not step into the same river twice (A6).
(This is Socrates paraphrasing Heraclitus in Plato’s Cratylus 402a)
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμβαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ (B12).
Onto those stepping into rivers, staying the same, other and other waters flow (B12).
(This is Eusebius (in his Preparation for the Gospel) quoting Arius Didymus who probably knew Heraclitus’ original words from Cleanthes, the 3rd-4th century B.C. Stoic).
οὐκ ἐμοῦ, ἀλλὰ τοῦ λόγου ἀκούσαντας ὁμολογεῖν σοφόν ἐστιν ἓν πάντα εἶναί (B50).
Having listened not to me but to the logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one (B50).
(Quoted by Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies).
ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν (B101).
I sought for myself (B101).
(Quoted by Plutarch in Against Colotes).