Tag: James Hillman

Heraclitus’s Fragments: Ancient Wisdom for a Changing World

“Many fail to grasp what they have seen,
and cannot judge what they have learned,
although they tell themselves they know.”
— Heraclitus


As with Baltasar Gracián and The Art of Worldly Wisdom, the insights found in Heraclitus‘s Fragments are strikingly modern.

The overarching message of his collection is that all things change; all things flow.

The body of work attributed to him consists in a collection of incendiary sparks that scholarship calls “fragments,” as if to say the work is incomplete only shards of a lost whole. But scholarship misses the fact that the style is the message. The snapshot, the aperçu, reveals things as they are: “The eye, the ear, the mind in action, these I value” (13). To speculate about the lost book distracts from the power of the fragments and their message: all things change, all things flow. The world is revealed only in quick glances.

“Heraclitus,” writes James Hillman in the foreword, “has moved philosophers from Plato through Nietzsche, Whitehead, Heidegger, and Jung …”

Heraclitus believed that energy is the essence of matter. Of course, he didn’t put it quite that way. In ancient Greek he wrote:

All things change to fire,
and fire exhausted
falls back into things.

Einstein, of course, agreed.

What do we know about Heraclitus?

Heir to the throne in Ephesus, one of the world’s richest and most powerful cities, Heraclitus gave up the kingdom and chose, instead of the trappings of power, to seek the Word of wisdom. His writings survived the Persian empire, dominant in his time, and then the Greek, and Roman. For hundreds of years, great writers, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and others, quoted him with respect. Then, his book, with thousands of the finest works of that world, disappeared forever. So all we are left with are his fragments.

“To be evenminded is the greatest virtue,” Heraclitus persuades us. “Wisdom is to speak the truth and act in keeping with its nature.”

There is hardly a page in this brief book that I haven’t marked or flagged.

Those unmindful when they hear,
for all they make of their intelligence,
may be regarded as the walking dead.

furthering this…

Many fail to grasp what they have seen,
and cannot judge what they have learned,
although they tell themselves they know.

The circle of life.

Air dies giving birth
to fire. Fire dies
giving birth to air. Water,
thus, is born of dying
earth, and earth of water.

The world is constantly changing.

The river
where you set
your foot just now
is gone—
those waters
giving way to this,
now this.

Or as he put it in his most famous fragment

You cannot step in the same river twice.

The universe operates in a series of tensions

The cosmos works
by harmony of tensions,
like the lyre and bow.

On acquiring wisdom, he writes

Applicants for wisdom,
do what I have done:
inquire within.

and perhaps foretelling the direction of the word, he offered this nugget:

Although we need the Word
to keep things known in the common,
people still treat specialists
as if their nonsense
were a form of wisdom.

He followed that up with “Fools seek counsel from the ones they doubt.”

On having what we want, he notes the delicate balance between deprivation and satisfaction.

Always having what we want
may not be the best good fortune.
Health seems sweetest
after sickness, food
in hunger, goodness
in the wake of evil, and at the end
of daylong labor sleep.

On stupidity, he offers some advice: keep your mouth shut.

Stupidity is better
kept a secret
than displayed.

You can spend an hour reading Fragments and a lifetime thinking about it.