Heracleitus (540-480 BC) (SIMON CRITCHLEY)

Heracleitus (540-480 BC) (SIMON CRITCHLEY)

Traditionally Heracleitus was known as the “weeping philosopher” or “the obscure.” He was, according to Plutarch, afflicted with terrible diseases. All that remains of his work are 139 fragments. Some of these are as obscure as his moniker would suggest: “Souls have a sense of smell in Hades.” Others are colourful illustrations of his views on the relativity of judgement, such as “Donkeys prefer chaff to gold,” and “Pigs wash themselves in mud, birds in dust and ashes.”

The cause of Heracleitus’ tears was human behaviour, in particular that of his fellow citizens of Ephesus. As the first of his extant fragments insists, everyone should follow logos, a term meaning something like the law, principle or reason for the existence of the universe. However, the vast majority of people do not follow logos, but act instead as if they were asleep and have as much awareness of what they do as chaff-munching donkeys.

Heracleitus became such a hater of humanity that he wandered in the mountains and lived on a diet of grass and herbs (no beans are mentioned). Sadly, his malnutrition gave him dropsy and he returned to the city to seek a cure. It was through this cure that he met his end, for he asked to be covered in cow dung. Now, there are two stories of Heracleitus dying in cow dung. He apparently believed that its action would draw the bad humours out of his body and dry up his dropsy. In the first story, the cow dung is wet and the weeping philosopher drowns; in the second, it is dry and he is baked to death in the Ionian sun.

(There is a third story told by Diogenes Laertius, which relates that Heracleitus’ friends were unable to remove the dried cow dung from his body and, being unrecognizable, he was devoured by dogs. This confirms fragment 97, “Dogs bark at those whom they do not recognize.” Sadly, they also bite.)





The Book of Dead Philosophers

Simon Critchley



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