Heraclitus Defragmented

The original Fragments of Heraclitus are powerful and puzzling. No one is sure of the original or meaning. No one is sure of the original order, context, and complete set. Hence, any presentation of the fragments, must make choices. Any choice will present some, not others, in a particular order, and thus will interpret Heraclitus.

Since interpretation is inevitable, each editor will interpret, and each reader will interpret; this interpretive effort is usually reserved and cautious.

I thought it would be interesting exercise to go whole hog. In this interpretation I have freely interpreted the fragments we have in order to construct a (purely hypothetical) coherent unity. The result is quite obviously not a reconstruction of “Heraclitus,” but a kind of “found poem” of my own using Heraclitian fragments as raw material. The result is, we might say, inspired by Heraclitus. Though it stands a chance to falsify the spirit of the author, my hope is that such an exercise stands an equal chance of resonating with the spirit of the author.

My strategy was simple. First, I used this translation and replaced “reason” with the Greek “Logos” to bring out the unity of a central concept. Second, I tried to organize the fragments thematically. I imposed a four-line form on them, organizing lines into sets of four. Third, if a sentence was too long I paraphrased it down. Fourth, and most brashly, I supplied by invention new lines if a sentence was lacking (the invented are noted by italics).

The result is an original poem. It “flows” in a way certainly unlike Heraclitus’ original, but offers a look at what a coherent version of Heraclitus’ fragments might have looked like.

Keith Buhler, 2016

Heraclitus Defragmented - An Interpretation


Although the Law of Logos is common,
the majority live as though they alone were wise.
It is wise for those who hear, not me, but the universal Logos,
to confess that all things are one.

Although the Law of Logos is common,
the majority live as though they alone were wise.
Alhough all things happen according to this Logos,
men act as though they had never heard of it.

The God whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks plainly
nor conceals, but indicates by signs.
There is only one supreme Wisdom:
It wills and wills not to be called by the name of Zeus.

For humans do not understanding, but the divine does.
The thoughtless man understands the voice of the Deity
as little as the child understands the man.
Yet it pertains to all men to know themselves.


Hesiod was a “teacher” of the masses but knew not day and night.
Homer, Archilochus, Xenphanes? They should be exiled and flogged.
Pythagoras? He made a wisdom of his own–much learning and bad art.
Much learning does not teach one to have understanding,

Things men consider mysteries, they celebrate sacrilegiously.
Night-roamers, Magians, bacchanals, revelers in wine, the initiated,
They pray to images and prattle much but know nothing of gods or heroes.
Hades and Dionysus, for whom they rave in bacchic frenzy, are the same.

When defiled, they purify themselves with blood,
As if one who falls in the mud could clean himself with mud.
It is better to conceal ignorance than to expose it,
but it is hard to conceal in relaxation and over wine.

Let us not draw conclusions rashly about the greatest things;
Dogs, also, bark at what they do not know.
He who wishes to be good shall often err,
But presumption must be quenched even more than a fire.


To me, one is ten thousand if he be the best.
In Priene there lived Bias, son of Teutamus,
whose word was worth more than that of others.
One who knows that wisdom is apart from all is worth a thousand.

The Ephesians deserve, man for man, to be hung,
For they banished Hermodorus, the worthiest man among them.
“Let no one of us excel, but let him go elsewhere and among other people.”
There is one wisdom: to understand the Logos of all.

To this universal Logos which I unfold,
although it always exists, men make themselves insensible,
both before they have heard it
and when they have heard it for the first time.

Nature loves to conceal herself.
Gold-seekers dig over much earth and find little gold.
But the raging Sibyl uttering things solemn, rude and unadorned,
reaches with her voice over a thousand years, because of the God.


Though the eyes are more exact witnesses than the ears,
Whatever concerns seeing, hearing, and learning, I particularly honor.
Even eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men having rude souls.
They understand neither how to hear nor how to speak.

To those who are awake, there is one common world,
but of those who are asleep, each is in his own private world.
And some men are as ignorant of what they do when awake
as they are forgetful of what they do when asleep.

Those who hear and do not understand are like the deaf.
Of them the proverb says: “Present, they are absent.”
They are at variance with that with which
they are in most continual association.

And some men are as ignorant of what they do when awake
as they are forgetful of what they do when asleep.
Death is what we see waking.
What we see in sleep is a dream.


In thirty years a man may become a grandfather.
Being born, they will only to live and die,
or rather to find rest, and they leave children
who likewise are to die.

The most approved of those who are of repute knows how to cheat.
Nevertheless, justice will catch the makers and witnesses of lies.
Time is a child playing at draughts, a child’s kingdom.
There awaits men after death what they neither hope nor think.

To souls it is joy to become wet.
A man when he is drunken is led by a beardless youth,
stumbling, ignorant where he is going, having a wet soul.
The dry soul is the wisest and best.

Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal,
living in their death and dying in their life.
Man, as a light at night, is lighted and extinguished.
Corpses are more worthless than excrement.


The majority of people have no understanding
of the things with which they daily meet,
nor, when instructed, do they have any right knowledge of them,
although to themselves they seem to have.

The Law of Understanding is common to all.
By its incredibility, it escapes their knowledge.
Every animal is driven by blows.
A stupid man loves to be puzzled by every Logos.

They do not understand: what separates unites with itself.
It is a harmony of oppositions, as with the bow and of the lyre.
Unite whole and part, agreement and disagreement,
accordant and discordant; from all comes one, and from one all.

Cold becomes warm, and warm, cold;
wet becomes dry, and dry, wet.
It disperses and gathers, it comes and goes.
All things arise by universal strife.


The harmony of the world is a harmony of oppositions,
as in the case of the bow and of the lyre.
We must know that war is universal and strife right,
The name of the bow is life, but its work is death.

Sea water is very pure and very foul,
To fishes it is drinkable and healthful,
to men it is hurtful and unfit to drink.
Hogs wash themselves in mud and doves in dust.

Asses would choose stubble rather than gold.
The straight and crooked way of the woolcarders is one and the same.
Most people revel in their ignorance
Just as and pigs revel in dirt.

If you do not hope, you will not win that which is not hoped for,
since it is unattainable and inaccessible.
Greater fates gain greater rewards.
Gods and men honor those slain in war.


This world, the same for all,
neither any of the gods nor any man has made,
but it always was, and is, and shall be,
an ever living fire, kindled and extinguished in due measure.

All things are exchanged for fire and fire for all things,
just as wares for gold and gold for wares.
The transmutations of fire are, first, the sea;
and of the sea, half is earth, and half the lightning flash.

Into the same river you could not step twice,
for other waters are flowing.
Into the same river we both step and do not step.
We both are and are not.

The sea is poured out and measured
to the same proportion as existed before it became earth.
Fire coming upon all things, will sift and seize them.
Lightning rules all.


One day is like all.
The sun is new every day.
The way upward and downward are one and the same.
The beginning and end are common.

We cannot escape the sun yet we mistake it for new
Though it is the most bright, we see it the least.
Attend to words and works as I am now relating,
describing each thing according to its nature.

The limits of the evening and morning are the Bear,
and opposite the Bear, the bounds of bright Zeus.
The sun will not overstep his bounds,
for if he does, the Erinyes, helpers of justice, will find him out.

To souls it is death to become water,
and to water it is death to become earth,
but from earth comes water, and from water, soul.
By strife all things arise and are used.


Fire lives in the death of earth,
air lives in the death of fire,
water lives in the death of air,
and earth in the death of water.

A mixture separates when not kept in motion.
It is weariness upon the same things to labor
and by them to be controlled.
In change is rest.

The intelligent speaker must hold fast to the common,
even more strongly than a city holds fast to its law.
For all human laws are dependent upon one divine Law,
for this rules as far as it wills, and suffices for all.

The people must fight for their law as for their walls.
It is law, also, to obey the will of one.
How can one escape that which never sets?
If there were no sun, it would be night.


The hidden harmony is better than the visible.
War is the father and king of all,
and has produced some as gods and some as men,
and has made some slaves and some free.

They would not know the name of justice,
were it not for these things.
For there could be no harmony without sharps and flats,
nor living beings without male and female which are contraries.

God is day and night, winter and summer,
war and peace, plenty and want.
But he is changed, just as when incense is mingled with incense,
but named according to the pleasure of each.

Living and dead, awake and asleep, young and old, are the same.
To God all things are beautiful and good and right,
though men suppose that some are right and others wrong.
Good and evil are the same.


I have inquired of myself.
The limits of the soul you would not find out
though you should traverse every way.
A man’s character is his daemon.

It is hard to contend against passion,
for whatever it craves it buys with its life.
For men to have whatever they wish, would not be well.
Sickness makes health pleasant and good; hunger, satiety; weariness, rest.

Most men follow minstrels and take the multitude for a teacher,
not knowing that many are bad and few good.
But the best men choose one thing above all – immortal glory –
While the masses stuff themselves like cattle.

Self-control is the highest virtue,
and wisdom is to speak truth
and consciously to act according to nature.
It pertains to all men to know themselves.

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