Heraclitus, Fragment 10 (D 123)


“Nature loves to hide.” (Kahn 10, W 17, DK 123)

“Nature tends to hide itself.” (Sweet 123)

“The true nature of a thing tends to hide itself.” (WF 25)

“A nature tends to hide.” (LM D35)

Here the translations vary most dramatically depending on the use of an article. I shall consider interpretations using the various, perhaps purposefully ambiguous, variations.

One of the most striking things about the passage is the active character of “nature” in each of the translations: whether “a” or “the nature” or simply “nature” generally, it is ascribed with agency. It loves to hide or tends to hide. Is this just perhaps for poetic effect? Is it to simply say nature seems to act, it is in process? Perhaps this can be taken up later.

In fact what is said here seems to apply to nature in general and specific “natures.” The fragment can be fruitfully read as indicating that nature in general or specific natures evades sound judgment by humans. As Heraclitus notes in Fragment 55, divine nature knows sound judgment, human nature does not. Further, Heraclitus has indicated, in Fragment 54, that objects are to be understood in reference to their purposes. Heraclitus seems to have preempted Aristotle in understanding natures in reference to their teleology. Wisdom, or the wise one, he tells us, knows the plan steering all things. But his views on the ability of humans to know these things are more ambiguous: some passages appear to admit that humans can learn such purposes; some appear to preclude this. Does full objective reality always hide from humans? If not, what are the conditions under which we might know it? One thing is clear: At the very least, such knowledge is rare.

While this is one productive route for interpretation, a further interpretive possibility draws attention to Heraclitus’ dialectic. Heraclitus sees reality generally, as well as specific beings, as involved in a continual process of dialectical change. “Nature” generally and “a nature” or “the nature” more specifically continually undergo changes–even into their opposites. As D 57 notes: “Cold things become warm; warm things become cold, wet becomes dry, parched becomes moist.” Things slip from possessing one characteristic over into possessing the opposite one. Or the same objects or “natures” can be viewed as having opposing characteristics when observed from different perspectives: In reference to the character of honey, as we have seen, it is sweet for the healthy and bitter for the jaundiced. What is its nature? It is relational and shifting. It is always manifest in a context or changing over time. In one context or relationship or time it is one thing; in another, it is another. Similarly pointing to radical transitions in even what appear to be quite stable objects, Heraclitus states, “the sun rises new every day” (D 91). Realities are in flux. In light of examples like these, what is more fitting than to say, “a nature tends to hide” or “the true nature of a thing tends to hide” or more generally “nature loves to hide”? Insofar as these natures or nature generally can be known, this will require, as we saw in Fragment 9, “good inquiry into many things”; and as Fragment 8 reminds us, such golden wisdom will be hard to dig up.

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