A 'Fragment' of Sense in a Mediocre World

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Heraclitus — "the obscure philosopher," the pre-Socratic thinker who was a contemporary 2,500 years ago of Confucius, Lao Tzu and the Buddha — is best known as the man who said that you cannot put your foot into the same river twice.

Here is how the poet Brooks Haxton, in his fine new translation of Heraclitus ("Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus," Viking, 99 pages, $19.95) puts the thought:

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

The Fragments are all that are left of Heraclitus's great book, "On Nature," which was lost many centuries ago. The Fragments have a scattered, enigmatic quality — epigrams and bits of poetry saved from the ruins. But they have a wit, and, for an "obscure" philosopher, a prismatic clarity that travels well across centuries. The thoughts remain fresh and profound. Haxton's translation shines them up handsomely.

"To a god the wisdom/ of the wisest man/ sounds apish. Beauty/ in a human face/ looks apish too./ In everything/ we have attained/ the excellence of apes."

Heraclitus was of royal blood but renounced his heritage. He looked on his fellow Ephesians with a certain aristocratic desdain. He hated the mediocrity of those who "eat their way/ toward sleep like nameless oxen." The Ephesians, he wrote, "say, No man should be/ worthier than average. Thus,/ my fellow citizens declare/ whoever would seek/ excellence can find it/ elsewhere among others."

It's bracing to come upon an intelligent elitist long, long dead, especially when we live in an Ephesus of our own, filled, as his was, with mediocrities and idiot intoxications. Haxton writes in his introduction: "To a sober mind, the drunkenness of cultic worshipers must have been particularly unappealing in a cosmopolitan city like Ephesus, with gods of wine on every side, drunken Greeks initiated into the Thracian ecstacies of Dionysius running amok with drunken Phrygians worshipping Sabazius, Lydians possessed by Bassareus, and Cretans in the frenzy of Zagreus, all claiming in their cups to have transcended understanding."

Heraclitus said: "Stupidity is better/ kept a secret/ than displayed." And: "Seekers of wisdom first/ need sound intelligence."

He was sardonically hard-headed: "Hungry livestock,/ though in sight of pasture,/ need the prod."

And disdainful of mystic transports: "Pythagoras may well have been/ the deepest in his learning of all men,/ and still he claimed to recollect/ details of former lives,/ being in one a cucumber/ and one time a sardine."

The Fragments speak in an eerily contemporary voice. Heraclitus anticipated Einstein in the realization that energy is the essence of matter: "All things change to fire,/ and fire exhausted/ falls back into things." The metaphor of Heraclitean fire posited an absolutely unstable world, in constant flux, consuming and creating, the alternation and reconciliation of day and night, waking and sleeping, life and death, wet and dry, good and evil. "What was cold soon warms,/ and warmth soon cools./ So moisture dries,/ and dry things drown." And: "The earth is melted/ into the sea/ by that same reckoning/ whereby the sea/ sinks into the earth."

Here is the ultimate economy: "As all things change to fire,/ and fire exhausted/ falls back into things,/ the crops are sold/ for money spent on food."

But at least these words have, for 2,500 years, survived the fire.