Heraclitus: Obscure to the death

Heraclitus, one of Ancient Greece’s most famous philosophers, is nothing if not controversial. Critics are sharply divided on the man, with some seeing him as either the embodiment of inscrutable wisdom, and others as a mere contrarian filled with facile aphorisms and little else.

Some of Heraclitus’s doctrines were held consistently. This included his view that the universe is in a constant state of flux, that opposites coincide, and, famously, the notion that the earth is comprised of fire. Others, however, are almost completely indecipherable. Even today, radically different interpretations of his seminal work, On Nature, emerge. He frequently used the term “Logos” in his works, a term which Christians frequently use to describe essence of God. Heraclitus, however, seemed to use the term in several different contexts, and its exact meaning remains unclear.

What is not open to different interpretations is the fact that Heraclitus thought little of other philosophers, and other people for that matter. When speaking of the life cycle of humans, he stated “[w]hen they are born, they wish to live and to meet with their dooms—or rather to rest—and they leave children behind them to meet with their dooms in turn.” He compared most people to dogs, stating “[d]ogs, also, bark at what they do not know.” His favorite of the Seven Sages of Greece was Bias of Priene, best known for stating “most men are bad.” Heraclitus felt that Homer was worthy of being beaten. Finally, despite being from Ephesus, he despised his fellow countrymen, believing that they would “do well to end their lives, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless boys.” Unsurprisingly, he came to be known as a misanthrope, and frequently retreated to the mountains, where he would generally live on different grasses.

His untimely death came when he was taken with dropsy, and his inability to communicate beyond his mystical aphorisms contributed to his demise. When he consulted with doctors, he decided to present them with a riddle. He asked if they could “make a drought out of rainy weather.” Not understanding his meaning, the doctors were unable to present Heraclitus with any life-saving assistance. True to his character, Heraclitus gave no further hints, and instead decided upon a self-remedy. He walked to a farm and covered himself in manure, believing that the heat of the manure would cause the water in his system to evaporate and bring him back to health. Instead, he died shortly thereafter.

To his detractors, this may have been a fitting end. To his supporters, it might be less clear to glean a message from such an undignified death. Perhaps it could be thought of as an important testament to the basic demystification of the sacred that his work represented to many, or an expression of the earnestness of his principles. In any case, Heraclitus and his eclectic statements continue to live with us over two thousand years later.