Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
76. The Day and the Year 78. Did Herakleitos Teach a General Conflagration?

From Chapter III., Herakleitos of Ephesos

77. The Great Year
Herakleitos spoke also of a longer period, which is identified with the "Great Year," and is variously described as lasting 18,000 and 10,800 years.80 We have no definite statement, however, of what process Herakleitos supposed to take place in the Great Year. The period of 36,000 years was Babylonian, and 18,000 years is just half that period, a fact which may be connected with Herakleitos's way of dividing all cycles into an "upward and downward path." The Stoics, or some of them, held that the Great Year was the period between one world-conflagration and the next. They were careful, however, to make it a good deal longer than Herakleitos did, and, in any case, we are not entitled without more ado to credit him with the theory of a general conflagration.81 We must try first to interpret the Great Year on the analogy of the shorter periods discussed already.

Now we have seen that a generation is the shortest time in which a man can become a grandfather, it is the period of the upward or downward path of the soul, and the most natural interpretation of the longer period would surely be that it represents the time taken by a "measure" of the fire in the world to travel on the downward path to earth or return to fire once more by the upward path. Plato implies that such a parallelism between the periods of man and the world was recognised,82 and this receives a curious confirmation from a passage in Aristotle, which is usually supposed to refer to the doctrine of a periodic conflagration. He is discussing the question whether the "heavens," that is to say, what he calls the "first heaven," is eternal or not, and naturally enough, from his own point of view, he identifies this with the Fire of Herakleitos. He quotes him along with Empedokles as holding that the "heavens" are alternately as they are now and in some other state, one of passing away; and he goes on to point out that this is not really to say they pass away, any more than it would be to say that a man ceases to be, if we said that he turned from boy to man and then from man to boy again.83 It is surely clear that this is a reference to the parallel between the generation and the Great Year, and, if so, the ordinary interpretation of the passage must be wrong. It is not, indeed, quite consistent with the theory to suppose that a "measure" of Fire could preserve its identity throughout the whole of its upward and downward path; but that is exactly the inconsistency we have felt bound to recognise with regard to the continuance of individual souls. Now, it will be noted that, while 18,000 is half 36,000, 10,800 is 360 x 30, which would make each generation a day in the Great Year, and this is in favour of the higher number.84

Burnet's Notes


80. Aet. ii. 32. 3. Ἡράκλειτος ἐκ μυρίων ὀκτακισχιλίων ἐνιαυτῶν ἡλιακῶν (τὸν μέγαν ἐνιαυτὸν εἶναι) Censorinus, De die Nat. ii, Herakleitos et Linus, XDCCC.

81. For the Stoic doctrine, cf. Nemesios, De Nat. hom. 38 (R.P. 503). Adam (Republic, vol. ii. p. 303) allowed that no destruction of the world or conflagration marked the end of Plato's year, but he declined to draw what seems to me the natural inference that the connexion between the two things belongs to a later age, and should not, therefore, be ascribed to Herakleitos in the absence of any evidence that he did so connect them.

82. This is certainly the general sense of the parallelism between the periods of the ἀνθρώπειον and the θεῖον γεννητον, however we may understand the details. See Adam, Republic, vol. ii. pp. 288 sqq.

83. Arist. De caelo, A, 10. 279 b 14, οἱ δ' ἐναλλὰξ ὁτὲ μὲν οὕτως ὁτὲ δὲ ἄλλως ἔχειν φθειρόμενον, . . . ὥσπερ Ἐμπεδοκλῆς ὁ Ἀκραγαντῖνος καὶ Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος Aristotle points out that this really amounts only to saying that it is eternal and changes its form, ὥσπερ εἴ τις ἐκ παιδὸς ἄνδρα γιγνόμενον καὶ ἐξ ἀνδρὸς παῖδα ὁτὲ μὲν φθείρεσθαι ὁτὲ δ' εἶναι οἴοιτο. (280 a 14). The point of the reference to Empedokles will appear from De Gen. Corr. B, 6. 334 a 1 sqq. What Aristotle finds fault with in both theories is that they do not regard the substance of the heavens as something outside the upward and downward motion of the elements.

84. Cf. Tannery, Science hellène, p. 168. Diels, accordingly, now reads μυρίων ὀκτακοσίων in Aetios (Vors. 12 A 13).

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