“Lifetime is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. Kingship belongs to the child.” (Kahn 94, Cp. S 52, R 52)
Sweet opts for “life” rather than “lifetime” to open the first phrase, or what Kahn here provides as the first sentence. But he indicates that the term aion should be understood to mean both a “human lifetime,” as in Homer, and “life” generally.
Robinson translates the beginning of the second sentence here not as “kingship” but as “kingly power” or, as he suggests alternatively, “the kingdom.”
To take a colloquial route: we might see Heraclitus here as indicating “life is a game” or as indicating that we should not take life too seriously. Or perhaps, there is the hint here that we should be childlike. Kings of course are sovereign. We might, colloquially, see the fragment as hinting that those who approach life in a childlike spirit, in a spirit of play, achieve sovereignty. This could align with a later Heraclitian inspired Stoicism, which sees us as having no control over life, but only of our attitudes toward what will happen. But we are surely selling Heraclitus short with this alone.
Here, in any case human agency is not explicitly emphasized. Rather “life” is depicted as having agency. In light of that, it may be a mistake to interpret the second phrase as speaking to human attitudes that ought be adopted. Isn’t Heraclitus saying that “life” is sovereign, not the individuals who would be reading or hearing his words?
The fragment is fruitfully interpreted, as Kahn and Robinson point out, in connection with Fragment 83, which follows it directly in the Diels-Kranz classic German translation and their own orderings of the fragments (as Fragment 53 in those translations). There Heraclitus also speaks of a kingship analogy. “War,” in that fragment, is said to be “father of all and king of all.” It’s noteworthy that Fragment 94 speaks of a “child” not a “father.” It too, though, speaks of “kingship.” Might there be a fruitful way to imagine one borne of another — “lifetimes” borne from “life” more generally? Or are these simply two different imperfect analogies for “life” — both which may highlight some imperfect yet fruitful view about it?
Various conundrums arise when reading these two fragments together. While Fragment 83 characterizes life as war-like, here it is characterized as play-like. We can hardly imagine a more extreme contrast. Both fragments use language of kingship: the warrior father is king; the playful child has “kingly power.” War tends to be strategized. A child’s play might not be. Yet, it is commonly pointed out that the term for game used here in Greek, pessoi, implies a game with dice that has clear rules. Robinson even goes so far as to suggest the following translation of the phrase: “Lifetime is a child playing, moving pieces in a backgammon (?) game.” We do see that Heraclitus repeatedly emphasizes that cosmological change occurs according to established laws and rules. A dice game however also indicates an element of chance. The reference to “a child at play” also hints at some randomness. Heraclitus’ favored analogies of “fire” and a “river” also suggest regular movement that is not entirely predictable. And even his more deterministic sounding passages, like Fragment 119, which states “The Thunderbolt steers all things,” need not be interpreted as indicating absolute control.
A final note: It is of course a bit odd to see “lifetime” anthropomorphized, or even “life” for that matter. The phrasing seems to indicate that “lifetime” does acts on its own. We are more accustomed to this type of a statement about “life.” This makes sense given Heraclitus’ view of the logos within his metaphysics. “Life” in this sense can be understood as meaning “being.” Even if it is characterized in general alignment with a substance metaphysics, as logos, it can, like Hegel’s “subject,” be viewed as in motion — here “moving pieces in a game.”