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This webpage reproduces one of the
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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(Vol. II) Diogenes Laërtius
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Book IX

 p409  Chapter 1

Heraclitus, son of Bloson or, according to some, of Heracon, was a native of Ephesus. He flourished in the 69th Olympiad.1 He was lofty-minded beyond all other men,2 and over-weening, as is clear from his book in which he says: "Much learning does not teach understanding; else would it have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, or again, Xenophanes and Hecataeus."3 For "this one thing is wisdom, to understand thought, as that which guides all the world everywhere."4 And he used to say that "Homer deserved to be chased out of the lists and beaten with rods, and Archilochus likewise."5

Again he would say: "There is more need to extinguish insolence than an outbreak of fire,"6 and "The people must fight for the law as for city-walls."7 He attacks the Ephesians, too, for banishing his friend Hermodorus: he says: "The Ephesians  p411 would do well to end their lives, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless boys, for that they have driven out Hermodorus, the worthiest man among them, saying, 'We will have none who is worthiest among us; or if there be any such, let him go elsewhere and consort with others.' "8 And when he was requested by them to make laws, he scorned the request because the state was already in the grip of a bad constitution. He would retire to the temple of Artemis and play at knuckle-bones with the boys; and when the Ephesians stood round him and looked on, "Why, you rascals," he said, "are you astonished? Is it not better to do this than to take part in your civil life?"

Finally, he became a hater of his kind and wandered on the mountains, and there he continued to live, making his diet of grass and herbs. However, when this gave him dropsy, he made his way back to the city and put this riddle to the physicians, whether they were competent to create a drought after heavy rain. They could make nothing of this, whereupon he buried himself in a cowshed, expecting that the noxious damp humour would be drawn out of him by the warmth of the manure. But, as even this was of no avail, he died at the age of sixty.

There is a piece of my own about him as follows:9

Often have I wondered how it came about that Heraclitus endured to live in this miserable fashion and then to die. For a fell disease flooded his body with water, quenched the light in his eyes and brought on darkness.

Hermippus, too, says that he asked the doctors whether anyone could by emptying the intestines draw off the moisture; and when they said it was  p413 impossible, he put himself in the sun and bade his servants plaster him over with cow‑dung. Being thus stretched and prone, he died the next day and was buried in the market-place. Neanthes of Cyzicus states that, being unable to tear off the dung, he remained as he was and, being unrecognizable when so transformed, he was devoured by dogs.

He was exceptional from his boyhood; for when a youth he used to say that he knew nothing, although when he was grown up he claimed that he knew everything. He was nobody's pupil, but he declared that he "inquired of himself,"10 and learned everything from himself. Some, however, had said that he had been a pupil of Xenophanes, as we learn from Sotion, who also tells us that Ariston in his book On Heraclitus declares that he was cured of the dropsy and died of another disease. And Hippobotus has the same story.

As to the work which passes as his, it is a continuous treatise On Nature, but is divided into three discourses, one on the universe, another on politics, and a third on theology. This book he deposited in the temple of Artemis and, according to some, he deliberately made it the more obscure in order that none but adepts should approach it, and lest familiarity should breed contempt. Of this our philosopher Timon11 gives a sketch in these words:12

In their midst uprose shrill, cuckoo-like, a mob‑reviler, riddling Heraclitus.

Theophrastus puts it down to melancholy that some parts of his work are half-finished, while other parts make a strange medley. As a proof of his magnanimity Antisthenes in his Successions of  p415 Philosophers cites the fact that he renounced his claim to the kingship in favour of his brother. So great fame did his book win that a sect was founded and called the Heracliteans, after him.

Here is a general summary of his doctrines. All things are composed of fire, and into fire they are again resolved; further, all things come about by destiny, and existent things are brought into harmony by the clash of opposing currents; again, all things are filled with souls and divinities. He has also given an account of all the orderly happenings in the universe, and declares the sun to be no larger than it appears.a Another of his sayings is: "Of soul thou shalt never find boundaries, not if though trackest it on every path; so deep is its cause."13 Self-conceit he used to call a falling sickness (epilepsy) and eyesight a lying sense.14 Sometimes, however, his utterances are clear and distinct, so that even the dullest can easily understand and derive therefrom elevation of soul. For brevity and weightiness his exposition is incomparable.

Coming now to his particular tenets, we may state them as follows: fire is the element, all things are exchange for fire and come into being by rarefaction and condensation;15 but of this he gives no clear explanation. All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream. Further, all that is is limited and forms one world. And it is alternately born from fire and again resolved into fire in fixed cycles to all eternity, and this is determined by destiny. Of the opposites that which tends to birth or creation is called war and strife, and that which tends to destruction by fire is called concord and peace.16 Change he called  p417 a pathway up and down, and this determines the birth of the world.

For fire by contracting turns into moisture, and this condensing turns into water; water again when congealed turns into earth. This process he calls the downward path. Then again earth is liquefied, and thus gives rise to water, and from water the rest of the series is derived. He reduces nearly everything to exhalation from the sea. This process is the upward path. Exhalations arise from earth as well as from sea; those from sea are bright and pure, those from earth dark. Fire is fed by the bright exhalations, the moist element by the others. He does not make clear the nature of the surrounding element. He says, however, that there are in it bowls with their concavities turned toward us, in which the bright exhalations collect and produce flames. These are the stars. 10 The flame of the sun is the brightest and the hottest; the other stars are further from the earth and for that reason give it less light and heat. The moon, which is nearer to the earth, traverses a region which is not pure. The sun, however, moves in a clear and untroubled region, and keeps a proportionate distance from us. That is why it gives us more heat and light. Eclipses of the sun and moon occur when the bowls are turned upwards; the monthly phases of the moon are due to the bowl turning round in its place little by little. Day and night, months, seasons and years, rains and winds and other similar phenomena are accounted for by the various exhalations. 11 Thus the bright exhalation, set aflame in the hollow orb of the sun, produces day, the opposite exhalation when it has  p419 got the mastery causes night; the increase of warmth due to the bright exhalation produces summer, whereas the preponderance of moisture due to the dark exhalation brings about winter. His explanations of other phenomena are in harmony with this. He gives no account of the nature of the earth, nor even of the bowls. These, then, were his opinions.

The story told by Ariston of Socrates, and his remarks when he came upon the book of Heraclitus, which Euripides brought him, I have mentioned in my Life of Socrates.17 12 However, Seleucus the grammarian says that a certain Croton relates in his book called The Diver that the said work of Heraclitus was first brought into Greece by one Crates, who further said it required a Delian diver not to be drowned in it.b The title given to it by some is The Muses,18 by others Concerning Nature; but Diodotus calls it19

A helm unerring for the rule of life;

others "a guide of conduct, the keel of the whole world, for one and all alike." We are told that, when asked why he kept silence, he replied, "Why, to let you chatter." Darius, too, was eager to make his acquaintance, and wrote to him as follows:20

13 "King Darius, son of Hystaspes, to Heraclitus the wise man of Ephesus, greeting.

"You are the author of a treatise On Nature which  p421 is hard to understand and hard to interpret. In certain parts, if it be interpreted word for word, it seems to contain a power of speculation on the whole universe and all that goes on within it, which depends upon motion most divine; but for the most part judgement is suspended, so that even those who are the most conversant with literature are at a loss to know what is the right interpretation of your work. Accordingly King Darius, son of Hystaspes, wishes to enjoy your instruction and Greek culture. Come then with all speed to see me at my palace. 14 For the Greeks as a rule are not prone to mark their wise men; nay, they neglect their excellent precepts which make for good hearing and learning. But at my court there is secured for you every privilege and daily conversation of a good and worthy kind, and a life in keeping with your counsels."

"Heraclitus of Ephesus to King Darius, son of Hystaspes, greeting.

"All men upon earth hold aloof from truth and justice, while, by reason of wicked folly, they devote themselves to avarice and thirst for popularity. But I, being forgetful of all wickedness, shunning the general satiety which is closely joined with envy, and because I have a horror of splendour, could not come to Persia, being content with little, when that little is to my mind."

So independent was he even when dealing with a king.

15 Demetrius, in his book on Men of the Same Name, says that he despised even the Athenians, although held by them in the highest estimation; and,  p423 notwithstanding that the Ephesians thought little of him, he preferred his own home the more. Demetrius of Phalerum, too, mentions him in his Defence of Socrates;21 and the commentators on his work are very numerous, including as they do Antisthenes and Heraclides of Pontus, Cleanthes and Sphaerus the Stoic, and again Pausanias who was called the imitator of Heraclitus, Nicomedes, Dionysius, and, among the grammarians, Diodotus. The latter affirms that it is not a treatise upon nature, but upon government, the physical part serving merely for illustration.22

16 Hieronymus tells us that Scythinus, the satirical poet, undertook to put the discourse of Heraclitus into verse. He is the subject of my epigrams, and amongst them of this one:23

Heraclitus am I. Why do ye drag me up and down, ye illiterate? It was not for you I toiled, but for such as understand me. One man in my sight is a match for thirty thousand, but the countless hosts do not make a single one. This I proclaim, yea in the halls of Persephone.

Another runs as follows:24

Do not be in too great a hurry to get to the end of Heraclitus the Ephesian's book: the path is hard to travel. Gloom is there and darkness devoid of light. But if an initiate be your guide, the path shines brighter than sunlight.

17 Five men have borne the name of Heraclitus: (1) our philosopher; (2) a lyric poet, who wrote a hymn of praise to the twelve gods; (3) an elegiac  p425 poet of Halicarnassus, on whom Callimachus wrote the following epitaph:25

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remembered how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take;26

(4) a Lesbian who wrote a history of Macedonia; (5) a jester who adopted this profession after having been a musician.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 504‑500 B.C.

2 The biographers used by our author laid evident stress on this characteristic of the Ephesian, for §§ 1‑3 (excepting two fragments cited in § 2) dwell on this single theme. As to the criticism of Pythagoras cf. Clem. Alex. Strom. I.129 s. f., who, dealing with chronology, says that Heraclitus was later than Pythagoras, for Pythagoras is mentioned by him.

3 Fr. 40 D., 16 B.

4 Fr. 41 D., 19 B.

5 Fr. 42 D., 119 B.

6 Fr. 43 D., 103 B.

7 Fr. 44 D., 100 B.

8 Fr. 121 D., 114 B.

9 Anth. Pal. VII.127.

10 Fr. 101 D., 80 B.

11 Fr. 43 D.

12 Cf. Il. I.247, 248.

13 Fr. 45 D., 71 B.

14 Fr. 46 D., 132 B.

15 Cf. Fr. 90 D., 22 B.

16 Cf. Fr. 80 D., 62 B.

17 II.22.

18 Plato, alluding to Heraclitus, speaks of "Ionian Muses" (Soph. 242E). He is followed by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. V.9, 692 P. αἱ γοῦν Ἰάδες Μοῦσαι διαρρήδην λέγουσι), and possibly, as M. Ernout thinks, by Lucretius, I.657, where "Musae" is the MS. reading. But cf. Lachmann, ad loc.

19 Nauck, T. G. F.2, Adesp. 287.

20 The request of Darius is mentioned by Clem. Alex. Strom. I.65 οὗτος βασιλέα Δαρεῖον παρακαλοῦντα ἥκειν εἰς Πέρσας ὑπερεῖδεν. The story is not made more plausible by the two forged letters to which it must have given rise.

21 This work is again quoted in IX.37 and IX.57, and is perhaps the source of the first sentence of § 52 also.

22 Apparently D. L. is using, through another of his sources, the very same citation from Diodotus which he has given verbatim in § 12.

23 Anth. Pal. VII.128.

24 Anth. Pal. IX.540.

25 Anth. Pal. VII.80.

26 From Cory's Ionica, p7. In bare prose: "One told me of thy death, Heraclitus, and moved me to tears, when I remembered how often we two watched the sun go down upon our talk. But though thou, I ween, my Halicarnassian friend, art dust long, long ago, yet do thy 'Nightingales' live on, and Death, that insatiate ravisher, shall lay no hand on them." Perhaps "Nightingales" was the title of a work. Laertius deserves our gratitude for inserting this little poem, especially on so slight a pretext.

Thayer's Notes:

a A moment's thought will show that, taken as it appears here with no further details or other source available, the statement is correct. Heraclitus was no fool, and knew perfectly well, as we all do, that if we stand next to a cow, she's large, but viewed from five hundred paces, she's not: the statement that she is as large as she appears is thus correct if we know how far away she is, and meaningless if we don't. I'm inclined to view this "statement" as the rebuff of a philosopher with a sense of humor, heckled by some smart-aleck asking an impossible question; the same philosopher who (§ 12) told someone he was keeping quiet as a courtesy, so they could go on chattering.

b In II.22 (q.v. for further details) Diogenes or his source attributes the quip to Socrates.

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