Heraclitus, Fragment 89 (D 21)


“Death is what we see when awake, but sleep is what we see when sleeping.” (S 21; Cp. R 21, K 89)

It is not without reason that Heraclitus is known as “the obscure.” In various fragments Heraclitus speaks of death, awakeness, sleep. In Fragment 1 Heraclitus speaks of the failure to comprehend the logos. He speaks of those “oblivious of what they do awake” and “forgetful of what they do asleep.”

Though Heraclitus hints at a human potential for a godly (god’s eye) view of things in some places, he often also indicates that men fail to achieve it. Men, as he apparently sees it here, move from seeing death to sleeping and back again, unaware of the logos or the true account of things that holds for ever. As Heraclitus tells us elsewhere, the dream world, in contrast to the world possible to those awake, is a private world (F 6). In early fragments, Heraclitus compares those who do not think to those who remain asleep, who remain caught in thought that they view as a “private possession.” They do not recognize the common world. Here, his analogy is harder still. Yet he does not actually say men are dead but that they see death. Perhaps they live in fear of death.

Might Heraclitus, the philosopher of flux, be offering a early critique of what has become known as reification. Men, awake, do not recognize the character of life as changing and instead reify ideas and concepts. They make dead objects of them rather than recognizing their true character — as always in flux?

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