Heraclitus, Fragment 8 (D 22)


“Seekers of gold dig up much earth and find little.” (here Kahn 8; cp. DK B22, S 22, W 4, LM D39)

Not knowing the original order of the fragments poses a difficulty for interpretation, especially of a fragment like this one. Wheelwight collects this quote together with others in a section he titles “the way of inquiry.” Kahn also treats this together with our last fragment in a commentary focusing on truth.

Assuming that Diogenes Laertius is correct about the original ordering of Heraclitus’ fragments into sections on cosmology, politics (including ethics) and theology (see Graham), we might wonder where this would have found itself.

The focus on truth might fit with any of them: Truth, like gold, is precious, yet not easily found, as Heraclitus has elsewhere affirmed. Much labor is required to get to the deeper meaning, under the surface. This applies to truth whether about things cosmological, theological, or ethical-political (that is truths about right living).

Another interpretive possibility, fitting this more neatly into a section on ethics, is to read this as a repudiation of the attempt to amass money. Much work goes into the finding of gold. But is the gold worth the price in labor paid? And is the mineral rock unearthed of lesser value than the gold because of any standard other than convention?

We know little of Heraclitus. However, he seems to have cared little for honor or money and to have cared much about truth. He is said to have given up the title of “king” of the Ionians and to have spent his last days in the mountains “nourishing himself on grass and roots” (quoted from D. Laertius IX 1, 5-7; quoted in Wheelwright, 81).

So his own life shows him in any case both to have repudiated efforts to gain wealth and prestige and to have exerted efforts to unearth truth. We might then conclude that either interpretation would serve to unveil his thought in a meaningful manner. As a philosopher who loved paradox, perhaps he would be pleased with the ambiguity.

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