Fragment 52: [[It rests by changing]]
Fragment 53: [[It is weariness to toil at the same tasks and be always beginning.]]
Compare 84a, 84b, in Robinson (also S, DK 84a, 84b; L&M: D58)
Most commentators are at a loss as to how to interpret these fragments. Plotinus, from whom the fragments come to us, was the first left unsure of their meaning. As he introduces the first fragment: “Heraclitus left us to guess what he means when he said, it rests by changing” (Qtd. in Kahn, p. 53).
Speculatively, I’d suggest, with Robinson, that we take the first fragment as cosmological. The second, I would interpret, not as sociological, as Robinson does, but as phenomenological. Like many of Heraclitus’ observations, this one expresses the first-person perspective of the human experience.
It might make some sense to read Fragment 52 as indicating Heraclitus’ view that change occurs always within the context of unchanging laws of nature. There is something ever-new — as fire continually turns to water, which turns to air and earth [F 41] or as the sun rises new each day. Yet this change, as Heraclitus hardly tires of emphasizing, is part of a system of natural laws: The change in elements is not capricious but ordered. The sun keeps its daily and annual course, always according to the laws of cosmic justice [F 48b]. As stated explicitly by Heraclitus elsewhere: “There is a certain order and fixed time for the change of the cosmos in accordance with some fated necessity” [F 43b]. Change is constant but as a part of a homeostatic system governed by laws of justice that balance opposites.
There is not a lot of agreement about how to best translate Fragment 53. Kahn provides Burnet’s alternative translation of the fragment: “It is a weariness to labor for the same masters and be ruled by them.” Robinson follows that version more closely. Sweet follows more closely Kahn’s first choice.
Perhaps this is a case where the ambiguity is purposeful. On Kahn’s translation, Heraclitus appears to be expressing a kind of existential frustration at spinning our wheels — toiling that comes to nothing, as in the myth of Sisyphus. With some unease, I’d suggest Burnet’s version might be viewed as lightly hinting at social criticism — but it is not clear that this imagined prototypical Master/Slave dialectic leads anywhere, ever.