Re-reading Heraclitus

HeraclitusI started to re-read Haxton’s 2001 translation of Heraclitus last night. I came across references to him when reading introductory material on Montaigne recently and I wanted to flesh out my knowledge and understanding.

Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived during the transformational Axial Age, roughly contemporary with other philosophers like Gautama Buddha, Zarathustra, Confucius and Lao Tzu. He wrote a significant treatise (On Nature) consisting of three books, one on the cosmos, one on politics and the third on theology. It may have been, like the fragments, a collection of aphorisms and epigrams.

That master work vanished around the time of Plutarch ( 46-120CE) and has has long been lost. Heraclitus’ words only survive in the famous gnomic “fragments” which give but a small and incomplete glimpse into his thoughts. Still, Heraclitus was an important part of the development of Greek thought that led to Plato and Aristotle, and he influenced the later Roman philosophers and writers who still had his complete work to read.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus held that,

…(1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so that (3) everything is and is not at the same time.

Haxton’s is one of many translations into English (at the moment my sole printed version), making the fragments into a more poetic rendition than some of the more literal and drier translations. His version also includes the Greek – just in case you’re schooled in reading ancient Greek (I’m not; I took it for a semester when I started university, but found my facility for learning it was stunted…).

For example, the famous verse (41 in Haxton, but sometimes numbered as verse 12 or another number in different translations) is translated by Haxton is:

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

In comparison, G. W. Paxton translates it as:

Into the same river you could not step twice, for other waters are flowing.

Samuel Béreau translates it as:

You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.

John Burnet’s translation is thus:

On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow.

Which has also been reported as:

You cannot step twice into the same rivers;
for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.

And in Wikisource as this form:

You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.

And by William Harris:

They do not step into the same rivers . It is other and still other waters that are flowing.

This one by Arthur Fairbanks:

You could not step twice in the same rivers; for the other and yet other waters are ever flowing on.

This one by Malcolm Crowe:

as they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow over them.

Crowe suggests that the verse is actually party of a more complete selection, and in his translation, the verse is introduced with the line: “They are at odds with what they have most continuous involvement:…” and followed by, “They fail to recognise how things can diverge while being brought together; it is a harmony that changes back, like that of the bow and the lyre.” In his version, you need to read the entire collection of fragments as a continuous piece to make sense of it.

The verse translated by T. M. Robinson:

As they step into the same rivers, different and (still) different waters flow upon them.

Charles Kahn renders it as:

As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.

And finally this one by Richard Hooker:

On those who step in the same river, different and different waters flow.

So you see, the meaning in each translation is similar – maybe even the same to some – but the effect from reading that verse differs in each. Perhaps subtly, yet the wording, the order, the style can affect reception and retention. And the choice of singular and plural voices in the translation also colour the meaning. Patrick Miller comments on this:

“You cannot step into the same river twice,” goes this version, so that you, the stepper, are assumed to be a stable thing, but the river’s waters flow so quickly as to pass by the moment you step into them. The form of Heraclitus’s own aphorism, however, encodes a far richer content. The subjects of the stepping are plural, as are the rivers into which they step, so that the subject of the interaction need be no more unified than the object. In other words, reprising the popular version to express this alternate meaning, “the same you cannot step into the river twice.”

Personally, I find a poetic rendering more satisfying to read than a literal one.

However, there are arguments against Haxton’s work, too, as this review shows: it may be less a translation than a rendering and a flighty one at that, if the reviewer is to be believed.

But as James Hillman writes in the introduction to Haxton a defence of the poetic, non-literal approach,

…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. There can be no completion. “Things keep their secrets” (10), because they cannot be fixed into the comprehensive formulations of a book. No sooner known and explained, the event has changed. Therefore, “the known way is an impasse” (7).

Faced with this impasse, usual thinkers try to grasp the flow either by religious mystifications or overprecise and reductive explanations (11). Whereas the thinker (the “true prophet”) who is on track speaks in signs, much like gestures, hints, and metaphors that neither reveal nor conceal. These signs allow for many meanings with ambiguous and suggestive possibilities.

As in most cases with non-English language works like this, it helps to have access to several versions to compare translations to help get a sense of what the author meant. And then you need to assign meaning to them, fit them into your own world view.

Are these parts of a larger world picture, or as some have suggested, standalone snippets, like Zen koans? A rather cogent point on the similarity between the koan and the fragments is made here:

Heraclitus observed that opposites, such as living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, are connected by change: without one contrary the other would not exist.With this line of thought, he had much in common with Zen Buddhist masters who used koans – riddles – to train their students. The ultimate law or reality does not change. In spite of the conflicts and contradictions, there is a hidden harmony, “a tension of opposites, like that of a bow of a lyre”. Thus “the way up and the way down are one and the same.” The logos, the great transcendental governing principle of the universe, is common to all.

You can also listen to a podcast about Heraclitus translations and trying to find a balance between poetry and the vernacular here (the verse above is not included in the spoken fragments).

The late author, Jorge Luis Borges, wrote, in his 1940s’ essay, ‘A New Refutation of Time’ that,

…each time I recall fragment 91 of Heraclitus, “You cannot step into the same river twice,” I admire his dialectical skill, for the facility with which we accept the first meaning (“The river is another”) covertly imposes upon us the second meaning (“I am another”) and gives us the illusion of having invented it… we can postulate, in the mind of an individual (or of two individuals who do not know each other but in whom the same process is operative), two identical moments. Once this identity is postulated, we may ask: Are not these identical moments the same moment? Is not one single repeated terminal point enough to disrupt and confound the series in time [(or) the history of the world, to reveal that there is no such history]? Are the enthusiasts who devote themselves to a line of Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?

And as a last comment, Marie George has written in What Wisdom Is According To Heraclitus The Obscure:

…it is far from plain that Heraclitus is the relativist which he is often made out to be. It is further worthy of note that the reason many attribute a relativistic doctrine to him, namely, because of his statements concerning the continual flux of the objects of sense perception, is not as telling as it might first seem. For Heraclitus does not only say “it is not possible to step twice into the same river” (DK 91a), but also “we step and do not step into the same rivers” (DK 49a), which latter could be reasonably taken to express the fact of experience: objects of sense both change continually as to certain things, and are stable as to others. Indeed, this is what he himself says in DK 12: “As they step into the same rivers, different and [still] different waters flow upon them.”

When you step into Heraclitus’ river, you step not simply into flowing water, but into flowing mind, into a changing stream of consciousness, into a duality of being and not being. No wonder philosophers have pondered, argued and delighted over his words.

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About Ian Chadwick

Writer, editor, reviewer, communications consultant, former municipal politician, researcher, ukulele musician, media relations consultant, fan of Shakespeare and Chaucer, tequila aficionado, lay historian, chess player, PC gamer, avid reader, skeptic, website tinkerer, companion to two dogs and four cats, loving husband, harmonica & bass player, passionate about my small town, and perennially curious about everything.