Life of Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 BCE)
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Heraclitus, from Thomas Stanley, (1655)
LIFE OF HERACLITUS
"Heraclitus was the son of Blyson, or, as some say, of Heracion, and a citizen of Ephesus. 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 Hecatæus. 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.”
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 ?”
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.
(From the Wellcome Library of Portraits)
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.
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 dæmones.
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.
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.
They say that when he was asked why he preserved silence, he said,
“That you may talk.”
Darius was very desirous to enjoy his conversation; and wrote thus to him:
KING DARIUS, THE SON OF HYSTASPES, ADDRESSES HERACLITUS OF EPHESUS, THE WISE MAN, GREETING 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.”
HERACLITUS, OF EPHESUS, TO KING DARIUS, THE SON OF HYSTASPES, GREETING.
“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.”
This was the way in which the man behaved even to the king.