From Peithô's Web
 Peithô's Web   To the fragments 

Life of Heraclitus

From Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers

Translated by C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).

I. HERACLITUS was the son of Blyson, or, as some say, of Heraceon, and a citizen of Ephesus. He flourished about the sixty-ninth olympiad.

II. He was above all men of a lofty and arrogant spirit, as is plain from his writings, in which he says, "Abundant learning does not form the mind; for if it did, it would have instructed Hesiod, and Pythagoras, and likewise Xenophanes, and Hecataeus. For the only piece of real wisdom is to know that idea, which by itself will govern everything on every occasion. He used to say, too, that Homer deserved to be expelled from the games and beaten, and Archilochus likewise. He used also to say, "It is more necessary to extinguish insolence, than to put out a fire." Another of his sayings was, "The people ought to fight for the law, as for their city." He also attacks the Ephesians for having banished his companion Hermodorus, when he says, "The Ephesians deserve to have all their youth put to death, and all those who are younger still banished from their city, inasmuch as they have banished Hermodorus, the best man among them, saying, "Let no one of us be pre-eminently good; and if there be any such person, let him go to another city and another people."

And when he was requested to make laws for them, he refused, because the city was already immersed in a thoroughly bad constitution. And having retired to the temple of Diana with his children he began to play at dice; and when all the Ephesians flocked round him, he said, "You wretches, what are you wondering at? is it not better to do this, than to meddle with public affairs in your company?"

III. And at last becoming a complete misanthrope, he used to live, spending his time in walking about the mountains; feeding on grasses and plants, and in consequence of these habits, he was attacked by the dropsy, and so then he returned to the city, and asked the physicians, in a riddle, whether they were able to produce a drought after wet weather. And as they did not understand him, he shut himself up in a stable for oxen, and covered himself with cow-dung, hoping to cause the wet to evaporate from him, by the warmth that this produced. And as he did himself no go good in this way, he died, having lived seventy years; and we have written an epigram upon him which runs thus:

I've often wondered much at Heraclitus,
That he should chose to live so miserably,
And die by such a miserable fate.
For fell disease did master all his body,
With water quenching all the light of his eyes,
And bringing darkness o'er his mind and body.

But Hermippus states, that what he asked the physicians was this, whether any one could draw off the water by depressing his intestines? and when they answered that they could not, he placed himself in the sun, and ordered his servants to plaster him over with cow-dung; and being stretched out in that way, on the second day he died, and was buried in the market-place. But Neanthes, of Cyzicus says, that as he could not tear off the cow-dung, he remained there, and on account of the alteration in his appearance, he was not discovered, and so was devoured by the dogs.

IV. And he was a wonderful person, from his boyhood, since, while he was young, he used to say that he knew nothing but when he had grown up, he then used to affirm that he knew everything. And he was no one's pupil, but he used to say, that he himself had investigated every thing, and had learned everything of himself. But Sotion relates, that some people affirmed that he had been a pupil of Xenophanes. And that Ariston, stated in his account of Heraclitus, that he was cured of the dropsy, and died of some other disease. And Hippobotus gives the same account.

V. There is a book of his extant, which is about nature generally, and it is divided into three discourses; one on the Universe; one on Politics; and one on Theology. And he deposited this book in the temple of Diana, as some authors report, having written it intentionally in an obscure style, in order that only those who were able men might comprehend it, and that it might not be exposed to ridicule at the hands of the common people. Timon attacks this man also, saying:

Among them came that cuckoo Heraclitus
The enigmatical obscure reviler
Of all the common people.

Theophrastus asserts, that it was out of melancholy that be left some of his works half finished, and wrote several, in completely different styles; and Antisthenes, in his Successions, adduces as a proof of his lofty spirit, the fact, that he yielded to his brother the title and privileges of royalty.1

And his book had so high a reputation, that a sect arose in consequence of it, who were called after his own name, Heracliteans.

VI. The following may be set down in a general manner as his main principles: that everything is created from fire, and is dissolved into fire; that everything happens according to destiny, and that all existing things are harmonized, and made to agree together by opposite tendencies; and that all things are full of souls and daemones. He also discussed all the passions which exist in the world, and used also to contend that the sun was of that precise magnitude of which he appears to be. One of his sayings too was, that no one, by whatever road he might travel, could ever possibly find out the boundaries of the soul, so deeply hidden are the principles which regulate it. He used also to call opinion the sacred disease; and to say that eye-sight was often deceived. Sometimes, in his writings, he expresses himself with great brilliancy and clearness; so that even the most stupid man may easily understand him, and receive an elevation of soul from him. And his conciseness, and the dignity of his style, are incomparable.

In particulars, his doctrines are of this kind. That fire is an element, and that it is by the changes of fire that all things exist; being engendered sometimes by rarity, sometimes by density. But he explains nothing clearly. He also says, that everything is produced by contrariety, and that everything flows on like a river; that the universe is finite, and that there is one world, and that that is produced from fire, and that the whole world is in its turn again consumed by fire at certain periods, and that all this happens according to fate. That of the contraries, that which leads to production is called war and contest, and that which leads to the conflagration is called harmony and peace; that change is the road leading upward, and the road leading downward; and that the whole world exists according to it.

For that fire, when densified becomes liquid, and becoming concrete, becomes also water; again, that the water when concrete is turned to earth, and that this is the road down; again, that the earth itself becomes fused, from which water is produced, and from that everything else is produced; and then he refers almost everything to the evaporation which takes place from the sea; and this is the road which leads upwards. Also, that there are evaporations, both from earth and sea, some of which are bright and clear, and some are dark; and that the fire is increased by the dark ones, and the moisture by the others. But what the space which surrounds us is, he does not explain. He states, however, that there are vessels in it, turned with their hollow part towards us; in which all the bright evaporations are collected, and form flames, which are the stars; and that the brightest of these flames, and the hottest, is the light of the sun ; for that all the other stars are farther off from the earth; and that on this account, they give less light and warmth; and that the moon is nearer the earth, but does not move through a pure space; the sun, on the other hand, is situated in a transparent space, and one free from all admixture, preserving a well proportioned distance from us, on which account it gives us more light and more heat. And that the sun and moon are eclipsed, when the before-mentioned vessels are turned upwards. And that the different phases of the moon take place every month, as its vessel keeps gradually turning round. Moreover, that day and night, and months and years, and rains and winds, and things of that kind, all exist according to, and are caused by, the different evaporations.

For that the bright evaporation catching fire in the circle of the sun causes day, and the predominance of the opposite one causes night; and again, from the bright one the heat is increased so as to produce summer, and from the dark one the cold gains strength and produces winter; and he also explains the causes of the other phenomena in a corresponding manner.

But with respect to the earth, he does not explain at all of what character it is, nor does he do so in the case of the vessels; and these were his main doctrines.

VII. Now, what his opinion about Socrates was, and what expressions he used when he met with a treatise of his which Euripides brought him, according to the story told by Ariston, we have detailed in our account of Socrates. Seleucus, the grammarian, however, says that a man of the name of Croton, in his Diver, relates that it was a person of the name of Crates who first brought this book into Greece; and that he said that he wanted some Delian diver who would not be drowned in it. And the book is described under several titles; some calling it the Muses, some a treatise on Nature; but Diodotus calls it--

A well compacted helm to lead a man
Straight through the path of life.

Some call it a science of morals, the arrangement of the changes2 of unity and of everything.

VIII. They say that when he was asked why he preserved Silence, he said, "That you may talk."

IX. Darius was very desirous to enjoy his conversation; and wrote thus to him:--



"You have written a book on Natural Philosophy, difficult to understand and difficult to explain. Accordingly, if in some parts it is explained literally, it seems to disclose a very important theory concerning the universal world, and all that is contained in it, as they are placed in a state of most divine motion. But commonly, the mind is kept in suspense, so that those who have studied your work the most, are not able precisely to disentangle the exact meaning of your expressions. Therefore, king Darius, the son of Hystaspes wishes to enjoy the benefit of hearing you discourse, and of receiving some Grecian instruction. Come, therefore, quickly to my sight, and to my royal palace; for the Greeks in general, do not accord to wise men the distinction which they deserve, and disregard the admirable expositions delivered by them, which are, however, worthy of being seriously listened to and studied; but with me you shall have every kind of distinction and honour, and you shall enjoy every day honourable and worthy conversation, and your pupils' life shall become virtuous, in accordance with your precepts."



"All the men that exist in the world, are far removed from truth and just dealings; but they are full of evil foolishness, which leads them to insatiable covetousness and vain-glorious ambition. I, however, forgetting all their worthlessness, and shunning satiety, and who wish to avoid all envy on the part of my countrymen, and all appearance of arrogance, will never come to Persia, since I am quite contented with a little, and live as best suits my own inclination."

X. This was the way in which the man behaved even to the king. And Demetrius, in his treatise on People of the same Name, says that he also despised the Athenians among whom he had a very high reputation. And that though he was himself despised by the Ephesians, he nevertheless preferred his own home. Demetrius Phaleruus also mentions him in his Defence of Socrates.

XI. There were many people who undertook to interpret his book. For Antisthenes and Heraclides, Ponticus, and Cleanthes, and Sphaerus the Stoic; and besides them Pausanias, who was surnamed Heraclitistes, and Nicomedes, and Dionysius, all did so. And of the grammarians, Diodotus undertook the same task; and he says that the subject of the book is not natural philosophy, but politics; and that all that is said in it about natural philosophy, is only by way of illustration. And Hieronymus tells us, that a man of the name of Scythenus, an iambic poet, attempted to render the book into verse.

XII. There are many epigrams extant which were written upon him, and this is one of them:

I who lie here am Heraclitus, spare me
Ye rude unlettered men: 'Twas not for you
That I did labour, but for wiser people.
One man may be to me a countless host,
And an unnumbered multitude be no one;
And this I still say in the shades below.

And there is another expressed thus:

Be not too hasty, skimming o'er the book
Of Heraclitus; 'tis a difficult road,
For mist is there, and darkness hard to pierce.
But if you have a guide who knows his system,
Then everything is clearer than the sun.

XIII. There were five people of the name of Heraclitus. The first was this philosopher of ours. The second a lyric poet, who wrote a panegyrical hymn on the Twelve Gods. The third was an Elegiac poet, of Halicarnassus; on whom Callimachus wrote the following epigram:

I heard, O Heraclitus, of your death,
And the news filled my eyes with mournful tears,
When I remembered all the happy hours
When we with talk beguiled the setting sun.
You now are dust; but still the honeyed voice
Of your sweet converse doth and will survive;
Nor can fell death, which all things else destroys,
Lay upon that his ruthless conquering grasp.

The fourth was a Lesbian, who wrote a history of Macedonia. The fifth was a man who blended jest with earnest; and who, having been a harp-player, abandoned that profession for a serio-comic style of writing.

1. According to Strabo, the descendants of Androclus, the founder of Ephesus (of which family Heraclitus came), bore the title of king, and had certain prerogatives and privileges attached to the title.

2. There is probably some corruption in the text here.