Marie I. George: What Wisdom is According to Heraclitus the Obscure

What Wisdom is According to Heraclitus the Obscure

Marie I. George

Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest Greek philosophers recorded in history, lived from the 6th to 5th century BC.  Few of his writings have come down to us:  somewhat more than one hundred fragments, a number of which are of dubious authenticity.[1]  This dearth of extent writings is not the only obstacle to learning from the sage of Ephesus.  A second problem arises when people become familiar with Heraclitus' teachings in the form in which other authors represent them, rather than in their original form.  Aristotle, for instance, mentions Heraclitus in a number of places, most often to ascribe to him a form of relativism, and several other philosophers do the same[2], the end result of which is that people tend to think that he is a skeptic and relativist.  Moreover, the more popular and oft-cited fragments such as DK 91a:  “it is not possible to step twice into the same river” seem to confirm this belief.

                Doubtless there are fragments which seem to clearly express a relativistic position, for instance, DK 102 reads:  “To god all things are fair and just, whereas humans have supposed that some things are unjust, other things just.”  However, there are numerous fragments concerning the nature of wisdom which give quite the opposite impression.  My intention here is to examine these fragments, first and foremost because the insights they contain about the nature of wisdom generally do not receive the attention they deserve, and secondly because they reveal a Heraclitus who is a humble pursuer of wisdom, rather than a skeptic and relativist.  Indeed the two goals are not unrelated inasmuch as the Heraclitus' reputation as a relativist prevents a certain number of people from examining and profiting from his doctrine.  I do not intend to address all the arguments advanced by those who maintain that he is a relativist, but rather, I aim at the more modest goal of showing how an alternate reading is plausible.[3]

                The fragments which will be examined all respond in some way to the question:  what is wisdom according to Heraclitus?  Following the method which he himself seems to have adopted, I will start out by determining what wisdom is not for him, and then to proceed to a clearer and clearer notion of what it is.  Two passages are rather explicit on the point of what wisdom is not, albeit the second is doubtfully attributed to the sage of Ephesus.

The knowledge of many things does not give understanding, else it would have given it to Hesiod and Pythagoras, as well as to Xenophon and Hecatea.  (DK 40)[4]

Pythagoras,[5] the son of Mnesarchos, cultivated research more than any other person, and having chosen these writings, he made of them his own wisdom—which was only much learning (polumaq…hn)and bad art.  (DK 129*)

There can be no doubt from these passages that wisdom is not to be found in a pure accumulation of the knowledge of many things, or polymathy, as he called it.  What it is about beyond or instead of the accumulation of knowledge is not indicated in the first-cited fragment, but a clue is given in the second where he says that such polymathy is bad art; for bad art means art without order.  Wisdom, then, must involve order:  it cannot be a collection of undigested and disordered knowledge.

                Another description Heraclitus gives of wisdom is more positive, although it too involves negation: 

None of those whom I have heard has realized that that which is wise is separated from all things.  (DK 108)

The statement is ambiguous:  Does it mean the same thing as what Anaxagoras[6] means when he calls the mind unmixed?  Or is it an earlier expression of Plato's notion that wisdom requires separation from the world of change?  Or does it mean yet something else?  Fortunately there is another fragment which speaks of wisdom as some one thing apart from other things:

The one wisdom is unique:  it accepts and does not accept the name of ‘Zeus’.  (DK 32)

This particular manner of characterizing wisdom seems strange at first sight.  What relation could seriously be proposed between the mythological god Zeus and wisdom?  Before dismissing this statement as simply an enigmatic remark, let us first ask ourselves a few well-placed questions:  Why is wisdom one and unique?  And who was Zeus, or rather, who was he supposed to be? 

                The answer to the latter question is that Zeus was the “Father of gods and men,” that is, the one who was the guiding and directing principle of the universe.[7]  Thus if we take Zeus as the One who governs all things to their ends, then he is indeed the unique wisdom, and the one separate from all things which Heraclitus spoke about in the fragment cited earlier.  If, on the other hand, we take Zeus to be the mythological father of the Greek gods, sitting in his very human form, thunderbolt in hand, on top of Mount Olympus, then we must acknowledge that he is not what we mean by wisdom.[8]  We understand, then, this rather indirect definition of wisdom to be saying that wisdom is God himself, the unique being to whom no other is like, the ultimate being who is the cause of the order of all things.  This interpretation finds its confirmation in the well-known complete definition of wisdom: 

Wisdom is one thing:  to understand the mind which moves all things through all.  (DK 41)

Now this mind is the mind of God, and thus wisdom consists in knowing the divine mind.[9] 

                It should be noted that a number of authors argue that Heraclitus is a pantheist.[10]  The fragment cited above at very least makes it plain that there is a certain amibivalence in Heraclitus on this point.  While it would be interesting to explore further his thought on the matter, it would take us too far from our main purpose which is to examine those fragments which speak of wisdom. 

                Heraclitus seems to identify wisdom with logos in other passages:

Not after listening to me, but after listening to reason (logos), it is wise to agree that all things are one.  (DK 50)

‘Logos’, with its multiple meanings, is one of the most difficult words to interpret in ancient Greek philosophy.  What does Heraclitus mean by it? 

Of the logos, which holds forever, people forever prove uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it.  For, although all things happen in accordance with this account, they are like people without experience when they experience words and deeds such as I set forth, distinguishing each thing according to its nature, and defining how each properly is.  The rest of mankind, however, fail to be aware of what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do while asleep.  (DK 1)

The logos which people are oblivious to is to be found in the natures of things, properly distinguished from one another and defined.  People experience things, but generally do not seem to go beyond this to something which holds forever, the logos, the “ratio,” the whatness of things.  They do not attain universal knowledge from what they experience; they fail to recognize the common nature shared by different things, and thus each particular thing is new to them.[11]  Thus in another place Heraclitus insists: 

That is why one must follow that which is common.  Though the logos is common, the many live, however, as though they have private understanding („d…an frÒuhsin).  (DK 2)

Most people spend most of their time engaged in various practical matters.  They solve life's problems in a pragmatic way, rarely seeking out any theoretical justification for what they do, and sometimes not needing any theoretical justification, as is the case when it is the matter of making some product, where success or failure is rather obvious.  Yet Heraclitus disagrees with the view that each person's particular experience brings him his own unique know-how:  if it works well for him, it is good for him, and if something else works well for others, that is good for them.  Heraclitus sees this way of living as not being that of the wise person.  His view of such people is that they are asleep:

[Those who are asleep I think Heraclitus calls] labourers and co-producers of what happens in the universe.  (DK 75*, trans. Robinson)

They are separated from that with which they live in most continuous familiarity.  (DK 72*)

The latter are physically present, but are mentally absent acting as they do without an intellectual grasp of what they are doing.

                Heraclitus characterizes the one who is not asleep as being able to see beyond the multiplicity of things to something which is common:

Those who speak with insight must base themselves firmly on that which is common to all, as a city does upon law—and much more firmly.  For all human laws are nourished by one law, the divine.  For it holds sway to the extent that it wishes and suffices for all, and is still left over.  (DK 114, trans. Robinson)

The people who are asleep prefer their own private world, their own views of things, rather than seeking to put their opinions on an objective basis of what all commonly experience.  Another fragment in the same line reads:

For those who are awake there is a single, common universe, whereas in sleep each person turns away into his own private universe.  (DK 89)

The word ‘idiot’ comes from the Greek word for proper.  For the Greeks, a person who had his own ideas was not deemed original, but rather an idiot.  Living in his own world, a world alienated from that known to all through common experience, the idiot cannot be reasoned with, for he rejects the common basis for discussion.  And thus when Heraclitus says: 

The world is the same for all. . . .  (DK 30)

he is not enunciating a mere truism, but is insisting upon a fundamental truth whose recognition is prerequisite to becoming wise.

                Statements such as these show that it is far from plain that Heraclitus is the relativist which he is often made out to be.  It is further worthy of note that the reason many attribute a relativistic doctrine to him, namely, because of his statements concerning the continual flux of the objects of sense perception, is not as telling as it might first seem.  For Heraclitus does not only say “it is not possible to step twice into the same river” (DK 91a), but also “we step and do not step into the same rivers” (DK 49a), which latter could be reasonably taken to express the fact of experience:  objects of sense both change continually as to certain things, and are stable as to others.  Indeed, this is what he himself says in DK 12:  “As they step into the same rivers, different and [still] different waters flow upon them.”

                Fragments such as DK 61:  “Seawater is very pure and very foul water:  for fish drinkable and life-sustaining, for people undrinkable and lethal” are also taken to be expressions of relativism, but here too another interpretation could reasonable be given.  Heraclitus need not be taken as saying that things are and are not in the same respect.  In fact in the latter fragment he explicitly points out the difference of respect:  for fish water is drinkable, and for people undrinkable.[12]  Heraclitus had a propensity for formulating paradoxes, and while certain authors take this as amounting to a denial of the principle of contradiction (or in other words as an affirmation of the coincidence of opposites), there is nothing in Heraclitus which prevents us from taking him to intend them to be legitimate and provocative dialectical problems which can be solved by making the proper distinctions.  This is the case of the river fragments discussed above; it would also seem to be the case of DK 60:  “The road up [and] down [is] one and the same,” inasmuch the implicit paradox stimulated Aristotle to make the distinctions which he makes in the Physics.[13]  Thus when Heraclitus says that “what opposes unites, [and that the finest attunement stems from things bearing in opposite directions, and that all things come about by strife],” (DK 8*) this can reasonably be taken to mean that the truth is only arrived at by examining opposing points of view.[14]  At any rate another fragment speaks in rather plain terms about wisdom having an objective basis in reality:

Sound thinking is a very great virtue, and wisdom is saying what is true and acting in accordance with the nature of things by assenting to it.  (DK 112)

The reason why wisdom consists in conforming to nature was mentioned earlier.  The order in nature is the product of the unique logos, God, whose thought the wise man seeks to know.  The fool is the one who fails to recognize the need to subject himself to nature, prizing instead novelty, originality, imagination. 

                Note that in this fragment, the Greek word here translated as ‘assent’ can also mean ‘acclaim’, ‘praise’.  This suggests that characteristic of the wise person is not only a certain state of mind (one conformed to nature), but a certain moral attitude, namely that of reverence.[15]

                Let us summarize the meanings of ‘logos’ in Heraclitus:  (1) Divine Mind, source of the order of things;  (2)  the order of things as caused and perfectly known by the Divine Mind.  As for the relation of the human mind to logos:  the order in things, product of the Divine Mind, is the measure of the human mind.  The wise man sees the order in the world which presents itself commonly to all; whereas the fool see simply a multiplicity of things or sees things from “his point of view,” rather than from the point of view of common experience.  The wise person has an objective basis for his statement:  the world as all experience it; whereas the fool eschews this basis, preferring instead to follow his personal feelings and intuitions.

                We now have a better understanding not only of what Heraclitus understands wisdom not to be, but also of what he understands it to be.  At this point, however, we must return to our point of departure, the matter of polymathy, the antithesis of wisdom, for there are problems there which we skipped over.  First, Heraclitus seems to contradict himself on the subject, for while claiming that much learning does not cause wisdom, he maintains that:

Lovers of wisdom ought to be very much inquirers into many things.  (DK 35, trans. Robinson)

A second and related problem lies in understanding exactly what polymathy is:  Is it knowledge of many things?  (As is stated in DK 40:  “The knowledge of many things does not give understanding.”)  Or is knowledge of many opinions which people have held about things?  (As is implied in DK 129:  “Pythagoras, the son of Mnesarchos, cultivated research more than any other person, and having chosen these writings, he made of them his own wisdom. . . .”)

                As to the first problem, one way of reconciling the fragments which on the one hand blame Pythagoras for his extensive research into the opinions of others, while on the other insist that there is a need for much inquiry is to say that Heraclitus means to tell us that we should inquire into things, rather than into opinions of others.  However, this interpretation does not square with his affirmation that knowledge of many things does not give understanding.  A better approach to solving this problem lies in pointing out that to deny that knowledge of many things gives understanding is not quite the same thing as to deny any dependence of understanding upon considering many things.  Another passage indicates that this is the correct solution:

Those seeking gold dig up a great deal of earth and find little.  (DK 22)

The seeker of wisdom must know how to go through many things, but must also know how to separate what is worthless from what is worthwhile.  Heraclitus, then, does not contradict himself, for he is saying that while much inquiry is necessary to attain wisdom, it of itself does not yield wisdom, but in addition discernment is necessary.  Indeed, the importance of discernment is a favorite theme in Heraclitus:

Poor witnesses for people are eyes and ears if they possess uncomprehending souls.  (DK 107, trans. Robinson)

                Now let us consider the second question concerning polymathy:  Does Heraclitus mean to criticize any research into the sayings of others as being bad art?  First of all we must point out that that Heraclitus does not necessarily mean by polymathy collecting opinions of others.  The word Heraclitus uses in DK 129* (“Pythagoras, the son of Mnesarchos, cultivated research more than any other person, and having chosen these writings, he made of them his own wisdom—which was only much learning [polymathy] and bad art”) which has been translated as ‘research’ is ƒstor…a.  The modern senses of ‘research’ are two:  first, it can mean investigating a question by going through what others have said on it; secondly, it can mean investigating by experiment.  The word seems to have a similar ambiguity in Greek, meaning a learning by inquiry (Heraclitus uses the same word when he says that we must be inquirers into many things), and a historical narration of what one has learnt from others.[16]  The ƒstor…a of Pythagoras may simply correspond  to the investigations he made into different branches of learning (mathematics, astronomy, etc.), in which case Heraclitus is criticizing him for selecting writings out of which he made for himself a hodge-podge liberal arts program.  However, even if Heraclitus in fragment 129 is not in fact criticizing Pythagoras for compiling the opinions of others,[17] in view of getting a better understanding of his notion of wisdom it is worth considering whether he does reject considering the opinions of others in favor of considering the things themselves by oneself.  Some fragments give the impression that this is in fact the case:

[Heraclitus, as though he has made some mighty and august utterance, says:]  I investigated myself.  (DK 101, trans. Robinson)

Eyes are more accurate witnesses than are ears.  (DK 101a) 
Not after listening to me, but after listening to reason, it is wise to agree that all things are one.  (DK 50)

However, in other fragments Heraclitus does not inveigh against teachers, but insists rather that one show discernment as to who one listens to:

What discernment or intelligence do they possess?  They place their trust in popular bards, and take the throng for their teacher, not realizing that the majority are bad, and only few are good.  (DK 104, trans. Robinson)

Indeed he seems to outline two extremes:

A stupid person tends to become all worked up over every statement [he hears] (DK 87) 

The dogs bark at everyone they do not recognize.  (DK 97) 

In other words some people are too gullible, and listen to just anyone, whereas others are too critical, and listen to no one, except those already familiar to them.  The mean for Heraclitus lies in listening to others, but not just to anyone, but only to the rare person of wisdom:

It is law also to obey the counsel of a single one.  (DK 33, trans. Robinson)

One man is ten thousand, provided he be very good.         (DK 49)[18]

It is better to listen to one person of outstanding insight, than considering the sayings of ten thousand others.  But to recognize the one who is good presupposes discernment.  Thus while Heraclitus holds that ultimately it is by assenting to the natures of things and not to the speech of a person, even a wise person, which renders one wise, still he recognizes that the words of the wise provide assistance on one's journey to wisdom.

                While Heraclitus does recognize the person of superior wisdom as someone who can help one along the road to wisdom, he does not see this as being true of one's equals, much less one's inferiors.  In other words, he recognizes the value of teaching, but not of dialogue.  And on the face of it, this seems reasonable, for the master is to be listened to as one who knows, whereas one's equals are in the same state of ignorance as oneself.  Heraclitus has seen the essential of dialectic which is to formulate problems by arguing for both sides of a contradiction as is clear from his practice of formulating paradoxes.  However, he has not seen dialectic as means of formulating and pursuing the solution to such dilemmas by discussing with one's equals.  And it is certainly unlikely that he would ever have even entertained the notion that the statements of very inferior thinkers are to be regarded as contributions to the advance of learning, and indeed as contributions necessary for its advance.[19]

                Returning then to the question of what constitutes polymathy, we are left with the ambiguity as to whether he means a knowledge of many things or of the opinions held by many different people about things.  However, one point is clear, be it a knowledge of a variety of disciplines, or knowledge of a variety of thinkers' opinions, the key defect of polymathy lies in the failure to select the writings by listening to the logos, i.e., by measuring what it said in the writings by the order found in things.  Wisdom, thus, can neither be found in a random smattering of a variety of disciplines, nor in a random familiarity with what people have said about various aspects of reality.

                Two previously cited fragments are worth a closer look, condemning as they do extreme positions which one may adopt regarding supposed truths proposed to one.  The first is:  “[It is] a stupid person [who] loves to get excited about everything that is said.” (DK 87)  The other is:  “for dogs also bark at whomever they don't know.”  (DK 97)

                The stupid or gullible people of DK 87 are those who lack the critical faculty and who accept without discernment each new idea proposed to them simply because it is new.  At the other extreme are those who are habit-bound and who, like dogs, react by immediate opposition to whatever new thing is proposed to them, without taking the time to give it a fair hearing. 

                There is no doubt that acquiring wisdom will require digging through much material in order to discover the flecks of gold hidden among the dross of inconsequential discourse that is met with in the intellectual life.  If the learner accepts everything without discernment, the gold will be buried and confused with the dross; if the learner rejects whatever is proposed, the gold will simply be thrown out with the dross.  The seeker of wisdom must not fall into either excess.  Open to whatever is true, the true learner will greet what is new as a possible addition to already acquired truth, but will at the same time insist it be carefully scrutinized before being accepted.  Neither a slave to the familiar on the one hand, nor to the new on the other, the wise learner uses judgement to sift and then to order and to assimilate whatever has been found to be good.

                These warnings about avoiding the extremes in what is proposed to us have far-reaching applications.  They are applicable to those who hold to traditional truths for no other reason than that they are traditional, and who for this reason reject all that is new.  They too are barking without just cause.  What is old and long-received may be, for as much, false, just as it may happen that what is new is not true, but only “bad art.”  So too, the runners after fashionable ideas are to be placed with the gullible.  Thus we see that these extremes may be met in many forms and variations:  someone, for instance, may reject old ideas because these are not familiar to his mind, formed as it is by more recent habits of thought.  Such a one is also like the dog, although what he is barking at is not the absolutely new, but only the new for him.  And someone else may gobble down whatever is presented as old, simply because it is old.

                Heraclitus would remind us that it is reason and the natures of things that are to be our measure, and neither the familiar nor the unfamiliar, the new or the old, the traditional or the fashionable.  Reason alone, bringing discourse to account through a confrontation with experience, should be our guide.

                The road to wisdom, then, is no easy one, as fragment 22 reminds us.  Our seeking of the gold will necessarily require much digging and sifting.  This difficulty is an inherent consequence of the divine nature of wisdom.  Wisdom is not really a fully human possession.  We humans must strive with all our force to come to know ever so little of that mind which moves all things through all things, much as a monkey must to acquire some little rudiments of human language (Heraclitus in fact says we are to God what a monkey is to us (DK 83*).  Heraclitus also alludes to the difficulty of wisdom in the following fragments:

The hidden harmony is better than the apparent harmony.  (DK 54)

Nature loves to hide.  (DK 123)

One would never discover the limits of soul, should one traverse every road—so deep a measure does it possess.  (DK 45, trans. Robinson)

Indeed Heraclitus goes so far as to say that:

Human nature does not have right understanding; divine nature does.  (DK 78, trans. Robinson)

Wisdom is something divine and not fully within the power of human beings to attain.  Aristotle echos this saying that “it is rightly thought that wisdom is not a human possession.”[20]  And a definition of philosophy given by Plato points to the same thing:  philosophy is “being like to God as far as this is possible for man.”[21]  The great difference between divine understanding and human understanding is referred to in a number of other fragments as well: 

A man hears himself called silly by a divinity as a child does by a man.  (DK 79, trans. Robinson)

A second fragment is even stronger:

In the matter of wisdom, beauty, and every other thing, in contrast with God the wisest of mankind will appear an ape.  (DK 83*, trans. Robinson)

Heraclitus insists a great deal upon the limitation of human powers, even to the point that he says:

The one who appears to be the wisest knows, preserves, only what seems.  (DK 28a, trans. Robinson)

However, other fragments indicate that he does not entirely despair of attaining some degree of wisdom: 

One must expect the unexpected or [one] will not discover it; for it is difficult to discover and intractable.  (DK 18)

Wisdom is difficult, but not impossible to discover.  The same also seems to be implied in DK 93: 

The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither indicates clearly nor conceals, but gives a sign.  (DK 93)

For Heraclitus the hidden harmony is known to be better than the apparent harmony.  Thus, knowledge of the hidden harmony can be arrived at. 

                Heraclitus, then, insists on the fact that the answers to philosophical questions are rarely easy, without going so far as to deny that there are answers, or at least partial answers.  This immediately suggest certain moral attitudes:  the philosopher humbly accepts to have to dig a lot, to shun apparent short cuts, and to avoid idle speculation (as he says in DK 47:  “Let us not conjecture at random about the greatest of things”).  Love of wisdom makes the toil bearable, for the philosopher esteems the little knowledge he digs up as having great worth.


Wisdom according to Heraclitus is not the accumulation of opinions or facts.  In the full sense it is nothing other than the mind of God which is the source of the order of the universe.  In a derivative sense it is human knowledge which attains to this order.  The endeavor of coming to know the mind of God is one of great difficulty, indeed is virtually beyond human power.  To the extent that humans can attain wisdom, this can only be accomplished by starting from the world as commonly experienced, and by delving into many things.  Having delved into many things, the seeker of wisdom proceeds to formulate paradoxes:  On the one hand, evidence points to things being this way, while on the other, it seems to indicate that they are the exact opposite. 

                The attainment of wisdom demands in addition the ability to get beyond the pure multiplicity of things to an understanding of their common nature.  The inquiry into many things of itself does not yield wisdom:  discernment and insight must also be present.  This insight is necessarily attached to the proper starting point of reflection, the world as all experience it:  “Wisdom is saying what is true and acting in accordance with the nature of things by assenting to it.”  (DK 112)

                The difficulty of wisdom commands reverence and humility on the part of the one seeking it.  Heraclitus' statement:  “There is greater need to extinguish hybris than there is a blazing fire” (DK 43, trans. Robinson) is especially applicable to intellectual pursuits.  Another consequence of the difficulty of wisdom, is that the person in the quest thereof requires assistance, and this is to be drawn from the rare individual who has had some success in this difficult undertaking; here too discernment must be exercised lest one mistakenly choose a fool for a master. 

                These thoughts on wisdom reveal Heraclitus' true colors as being those of a humble seeker of truth:  For while modest in his expectations of attaining wisdom, he nonetheless maintains that if the efforts one makes are judicious and sustained, they are more than amply rewarded.




St. John’s University

Jamaica, New York

[1] Even some of the thought-to-be authentic fragments are to be questioned when they do not agree with Heraclitus' overall teaching. One suspects that fragments such as DK 124:  “The most beautiful order [in the universe?] [or the or (this?) most beautiful universe] [says Heraclitus] is a heap of sweepings, piled up at random,” are incomplete or would have a quite different meaning if placed in their original context.


[2] This is true of Plato; cf. Cratylus, 402a. Aristotle says in the Metaphysics, 1012a25:  “The saying of Heraclitus that all things are and are not seems to make all things true . . . and so no statement is true.” And Thomas Aquinas says:  “Certain people thought that all bodies were mobile, and thinking them to be in continuous flux thought that no certitude of the truth of things could be possessed by us.  . . . as Heraclitus said ‘it is not possible to touch twice the water of a flowing river’ as the Philosopher relates in Metaphysics, Bk. IV.” ( q. 84, art. 1 of the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae).


[3] There are a very large number of commentaries on Heraclitus, the more interesting of which propose groupings of the fragments by theme. The theme which I am addressing, namely, that of wisdom in Heraclitus, is specifically addressed by a certain number of other commentators who cite remarks about Heraclitus made by other ancient authors and who make reflections worthy of examination (for example, Kostas Axelos, Héraclite et la Philosophie [Paris:  Les Editions de Minuit, 1962]). However, to review all the literature in detail would exceed article-length proportions. Also, as Charles H. Kahn notes:  “every age and philosphical perspective, from Cratylus to the Neoplatonists and the fathers of the Church, projected its own meaning and its own preoccupations onto the text of Heraclitus.  This is a familiar enough phenomenon in the history of ideas.  . . . But Heraclitus is an acute case.”  The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 84. This is a second reason why I make no claim to presenting an interpretation which is definitive, but only one which is plausible and which presents matter provocative of serious reflection about the nature of wisdom. 


[4] The Greek text is that found in Heraclitus, Fragments and Translation with a Commentary by T.M. Robinson (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1987).  Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.


[5] It is surprising Heraclitus is so critical of Pythagoras, given that Pythagoras is known for coining the word ‘philosopher’. Heraclitus even goes so far as to call Pythagoras “chief captain of swindlers.” (DK 81a).


* Indicates a fragment which is possibly spurious.


[6] Cf. Aristotle, De Anima, 405a17.


[7] Fragment #30 shows that Heraclitus did not regard “Zeus” as the creator of the universe:  “The cosmos, the same for all, no god or man made, but it always was, is, and will be. . . .”


[8] Fragment #15 reveals Heraclitus' scorn for those who believe in the gods of mythology:  “If it were not in Dionysius' honor that they make a procession and sing a hymn to shameful parts, their deed would be a most shameful one. But Hades and Dionysius, for whom they rave and celebrate the festival of the Lenaea, are the same.”  (trans. Robinson).


[9] It is to this same mind that does and does not accept the name Zeus that Heraclitus is referring to when he says:  “Thunderbolt steers all things.”  (#64).


[10] Frederick Copleston, S.J. maintains that Heraclitus is a pantheist, although he does add qualifications to this position; cf. A History of Philosophy, vol. I, part 1. (Garden City, New York:  Image Books, 1962), p. 60.  G.T.W. Patrick, in The Fragments of the Work of Heraclitus of Ephesus on Nature, (Baltimore:  N. Murray, 1889), p. 61, maintains:  “[Heraclitus'] system was pure pantheism.”


[11] There is a similar theme in #34, and in #17:  “Many people do not understand the sorts of things they encounter. Nor do they recognize them even after they have had experience of them, though they think they do.”


[12] Indeed no one would call Thomas Aquinas a relativist, and yet he makes the same point regarding prudence, and one even wonders whether his use of fish as an example is not drawn from Heraclitus:  “If we would put that that science which is about useful things of the political sort, would be the wisdom which is the head of all, it would follow that there would be many wisdoms. For there cannot be some one reason (ratio) concerning those things which are good for all animals; but it is necessary that concerning each animal there be another consideration considering what is the good for each.  . . . For as said above, as is health, so too is the good other for men and for fish.  In In Decem Libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nicomachum Expositio, (Turin:  Marietti, 1933), #1188; cf. also #1187:  “And things of this sort cannot be the same for all; as it is manifest that health and the good is not the same for men and for fish.”


[13] Aristotle, Physics, 202a20 and b13.


[14] Philip Ellis Wheelwright disagrees:  “To be sure, the logicizing intellect will undertake to analyze each of these paradoxes into its elements, explaining in just what pair of respects, or in what pair of circumstances, or from what opposite points of view, something is at once such and not-such. But Heraclitus regards the paradox itself, and not its logical transformation, as more truly representing the real state of affairs.”  Heraclitus, (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 92; cf. also pp. 98, 103-105.


[15] This theme is developed by Duane Berquist of Assumption College, MA in his unpublished  commentary on DK 112.


[16] Both Aristotle's Parts of Animals and De Anima are “historia”; both are neither simply narration of opinions of others nor Aristotle's own investigations into things.


[17] Robinson thinks that this is the case:  “ . . . we can reasonably guess that what made the enterprise ‘disreputable’ in Heraclitus' eyes was the fact that it was devoid of a basic understanding of how to investigate the real.  Instead of listening to the ‘common’ logos and looking carefully at the world, Pythagoras chose to compile a ‘private’ wisdom or philosophy from the views of others.  To make matters worse, his compilation involved selection, and selection without reference to a viable selection principle (such as might have been provided by listening to the logos).  The result is, necessarily, claims Heraclitus, just an unstructured mound of learning, devoid of insight, for all the training to which Pythagoras subjected himself.”  Robinson, op. cit.,  p. 164 (comments on #129).


[18] Cf. also #122 on the superiority of one individual.


[19] As does Aristotle; cf. Metaphysics, 993b12-b18.


[20] Cf. Aquinas' commentary on Aristotle's statement in the Metaphysics, 982b30 (also 983a10) “In many ways human nature is slavish,”:  “Human nature is said to be servile, insofar as it is subject to many necessities.  From which it happens that sometimes one sets aside what is worth seeking for its own sake on account of those things which are the necessities of life; as is said in the third book of the Topics, that it is better to philosophize than to make money, granted that to make money is sometimes more to be chosen, e.g., when one is in need of necessities.  From which it is manifest that that wisdom alone is sought for its own sake which does not belong to man as a possession.  For that which man has as a possession he is able to have at will and to use freely.  This science, which is alone sought for its own sake, man cannot use freely, since frequently he is impeded from doing so on account of the necessities of life.  Nor even is it subject to the will of man, since a man is not able to arrive at it perfectly.  Nevertheless, the little which is had of it outweighs everything else which is known through the other sciences.” In Duodecim Libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis, (Rome:  Marietti, 1950), #60.  Cf. also #64:  “God alone possesses [wisdom], or if not God alone, he chiefly possesses it. For he alone has it according to perfect comprehension. He has it chiefly, insofar as in his mode even it is possessed by men, granted it is not had as a possession, but as something borrowed from him.”


[21] Plato, Theaetetus, 176b1.