Heraclitus, Fragment 84 (D 27)


“What awaits men at death they do not expect or even imagine.” (Cp. D, S, R 27)

“What awaits humans after they have died is everything that they do not expect nor suppose.” (L&M D111)

From imaginations and expectations of reincarnation to those of bodily resurrection or dreamless sleep — human expectations and imaginations of the afterlife run the gamete. For their views, most Greeks were influenced by Homer, who Heraclitus maintained “should be beaten with a staff” (F 21). Homer told tales of Hades, god of the underworld and sibling of Zeus and Poseidon. In his nether region, Charon ferried passengers across the river Styx, the river or woe. Is Heraclitus here simply indicating that the traditional view of the realm of Hades should be abandoned? Is he including other expectations that were emerging?

Pythagorus, who Heraclitus labeled the “prince of impostors” (F 26), believed in the transmigration of souls. Mystery cults, emerging, spoke of rites that would cleanse the soul and allow successful navigation in the world after death.

Of course, none of these views, nor any of the others that have since emerged, such as the view of the resurrection of the body, can be disproven. But this is not the same as to maintain that there are good reasons for believing any of them. An argument from ignorance is not persuasive.

The first translation is quite amenable to a view that Heraclitus is agnostic about the after life — simply asserting that we do not know what will come after death. His hostile attacks on those who were well-known for strong stances on one view or the other of the afterlife suggest his general skepticism about such claims. The second translation, by contrast, seems to imply that he himself may claim to know what lies in store. The supposition that Heraclitus might claim to know what really lies in death does align with some positive statements to that affect, such as F111, where Heraclitus notes “souls smell things in Hades.” But it is all but clear why anyone should believe that Heraclitus might know such things.







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