The Poetry of Heraclitus


Attic Red Figure Vase c. 480 BCE, depicting Athena, in Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany
The Poetry of Heraclitus
Part One: Some Notes on
λόγος in Fragment B1

In respect of fragments 80 and 112 I have suggested that it is incorrect to interpret πόλεμος simplistically as ‘war’, strife, or kampf [1] and that, instead of using such words, it should be transliterated so as to name a distinct philosophical principle that requires interpretation and explanation with particular reference to Hellenic culture and philosophy. For, more often than not, such common English words as ‘war’ are now understood in a non-Hellenic, non-philosophical, context and explained in relation to some ideated opposite; and in the particular case of the term ‘war’, for example, in contrast to some-thing named, explained, or defined, as ‘peace’ or a state of non-belligerence.

In respect of fragment 1 [2], does λόγος suggest a philosophical principle – Logos – and therefore should it, like πόλεμος, be transliterated and thus be considered as a basic principle of the philosophy of Heraclitus, or at least of what, of that philosophy or weltanschauung, we can adduce from the textual fragments we possess? Or does λόγος, as I suggested in respect of fragment 112 and 123 [3] imply:

both a naming (denoting), and a telling – not a telling as in some abstract explanation or theory, but as in a simple describing, or recounting, of what has been so denoted or so named. Which is why, in fragment 39, Heraclitus writes:

ἐν Πριήνηι Βίας ἐγένετο ὁ Τευτάμεω, οὗ πλείων λόγος ἢ τῶν ἄλλων [4]

and why, in respect of λέγειν, Hesiod wrote:

ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, εὖτ᾽ ἐθέλωμεν, ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι [5]

I contend that fragment 1 also suggests a denoting, in the sense of expressing some-thing by denoting it or describing it by a ‘name’. That is, that λόγος here does not refer to what has often be termed Logos, and that the ‘ambiguous’ ἀεὶ [6] is not really ambiguous at all.

For one has to, in my view, take account of the fact that there is poetry in Heraclitus; a rather underrated style that sometimes led others to incorrectly describe him as ὁ σκοτεινός, the ambiguous (or the obtuse) one, and led Aristotle to write:

τὰ γὰρ Ἡρακλείτου διαστίξαι ἔργον διὰ τὸ ἄδηλον
εἶναι ποτέρῳ πρόσκειται, τῷ ὕστερον τῷ πρότερον, οἷον ἐν τῇ ἀρχῇ αὐτῇ τοῦ συγγράμματος:
φησὶ γὰρτοῦ λόγου τοῦδ᾽ ἐόντος ἀεὶ ἀξύνετοι ἄνθρωποι γίγνονται“:
ἄδηλον γὰρ τὸ ἀεί, πρὸς ποτέρῳ δεῖ διαστίξαι. [6]

It is the poetic style of Heraclitus that I have tried, however badly, to express in my often non-literal and rather idiosyncratic translations/interpretations of some of the fragments attributed to him. Hence my interpretation of the first part [8] of fragment 1, published in 2012:

Although this naming and expression [which I explain] exists – human beings tend to ignore it, both before and after they have become aware of it.

The ‘which I explain’ is implicit in the sense of λόγος here as a naming and expression by a particular individual, contrasted (as often with Heraclitus) rather poetically with a generality; in this instance, contrasted with human beings – ‘men’ – in general, and with “tend to” modifying the sense of ἀεὶ from the strident, bland, ‘always’ to a more poetic expression of human beings having an apparently rather irreconcilable tendency – for now (at least) and certainly as in the past – to ignore (or forget or not understand) certain things, even after matters have been explained to them (they have heard the explanation) and even after they have discovered certain truths for themselves.

David Myatt
January 2013

[1] qv. The Abstraction of Change as Opposites and Dialectic, and Some Notes on Πόλεμος and Δίκη in Heraclitus B80

As mentioned in The Abstraction of Change as Opposites and Dialectic:

“In addition, Polemos was originally the δαίμων [not the god] of kindred strife, whether familial, or of one’s πόλις (one’s clan and their places of dwelling). Thus, to describe Polemos, as is sometimes done, as the god of conflict (or war), is doubly incorrect.”

[2] qv. Sextus Empiricus: Advenus Mathematicos VII. 132

The text of fragment 1 (with the reading τοῦδ᾽ ἐόντος and not τοῦ δέοντος) is:

τοῦ δὲ λόγου τοῦδ᾽ ἐόντος ἀεὶ ἀξύνετοι γίνονται ἄνθρωποι καὶ πρόσθεν ἢ ἀκοῦσαι καὶ ἀκούσαντες τὸ πρῶτον· γινομένων γὰρ πάντων κατὰ τὸν λόγον τόνδε ἀπείροισιν ἐοίκασι, πειρώμενοι καὶ ἐπέων καὶ ἔργων τοιούτων, ὁκοίων ἐγὼ διηγεῦμαι κατὰ φύσιν διαιρέων ἕκαστον καὶ φράζων ὅκως ἔχει· τοὺς δὲ ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους λανθάνει ὁκόσα ἐγερθέντες ποιοῦσιν, ὅκωσπερ ὁκόσα εὕδοντες ἐπιλανθάνονται.

[3] Regarding 123Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ – qv. Physis, Nature, Concealment, and Natural Change, e-text 2010

[4] “In Priene was born someone named and recalled as most worthy – Bias, that son of Teutamas.”


We have many ways to conceal – to name – certain things
And the skill when we wish to expose their meaning

[6] Aristotle: Ars Rhetorica Book 3, chapter 5 [1407b]

[7] θεοί – and Μοῖραι τρίμορφοι μνήμονές τ᾽ Ἐρινύες – permitting I may in the not too distant future endeavour to translate/interpret the rest of the fragment.

Acknowledgements: The genesis of this article was a personal reply sent to Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi of Oxford university, in response to questions concerning ἀεὶ and my rather idiosyncratic interpretation of the first part of the text of fragment 1.