Heraclitus, Fragment 1 (Sent. 2, 3)


The second sentence of Heraclitus’ first fragment (in the Waterfield translation, DK B1) reads:

“For although everything happens in accordance with this principle, they [people] resemble those with no familiarity with it, even after they have become familiar with the kinds of accounts and events I discuss as I distinguish each thing according to its nature and explain its constitution. But the general run of people are as unaware of their actions while awake as they are of what they do while asleep.”

Sweet: ” For since everything comes to be according to this logos, they are like ignorant people when experiencing such words and actions as I expound — when I describe each according to its nature, indicating how it is. But what other people do when awake is unnoticed [by them] just as they forget what they do when sleeping.”

Like the first sentence of Fragment 1, the second sentence of the fragment underlines that those who have heard of the principle of the logos but not grasped it are like those who have never heard of it at all.  Their senses allow them to hear audible words. But they lack the understanding. Understanding does not reside in the senses but is a product of mind.

These statements focus on action — on occurrences or happenings. The logos is responsible for actions occurring the way they occur, for things happening as they happen. Logos allows us to explain objects — that is, the “nature” and “constitution” of each thing. It can be compared to “the thunderbolt,” the symbol of Zeus, that Heraclitus states “pilots all things” (cp. Fragments 119-120). The nature and constitution of the thing are tied to what happens to the thing. Or more aptly, the nature of an object sets the appropriate type of activity for that object. Heraclitus here is pre-empting Aristotle’s teleology, highlighting than an object is, at least in part, to be understood in reference to what it does or what is done with it. We understand an object when we understand its purpose.

While the first two sentences speak of those who have heard or been familiarized with the principle or logos but remain ignorant of it, the third sentence compares such people with the sleeping. In Waterfield’s translation, two types of people here are presupposed: “the general run,” who are unaware; and those not yet named, who are aware. “The general run” are as if asleep. Does “the general run” refer to “most people” or is it better understood qualitatively as a reference to “course people”? In the Wheelwright and Sweet translations, the contrast is between the narrator, the I, presumably Heraclitus, and others. In all translations, much here plays on the contrast between the sleeping and the awake. “The general run,” to stay with Waterfield, are unaware of their action, even when awake.

As Heraclitus will later draw to our attention, those sleeping live to some extent in a private world, a world of remembered impressions and imagination. They are trapped in their individual private worlds not active participants in the shared world. They rely on their own impressions and ideas rather than testing private ideas against those of others in a shared world. Those who are aware are not merely awake live in a shared world, not in the world of their private imaginings.


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