Heraclitus, Fragment 123 (D 67)


“The god: day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger. It alters, as when mingled with perfumes, it gets named according to the pleasure of each one.” (K 123; cp. D, R, S 67)

This fragment is the only explicit description of Heraclitus’ view of god. Here the focus is on the singular “god.” No mention is made of other members of the Greek pantheon.  This thus underlines Heraclitus’ monism. Generally, one of the most important elements of Heraclitian theology, if we can call it that, is that while he retains a view of god and often expresses a monism, he also continues to speak of individual gods. However, god, and any specific gods to which he appeals, now function completely determinate and law-like. They do not break laws of nature. They enforce them. Rituals and rites do not sway them one way or another. The follow laws and mete out rewards according to justice. (Cp. Vlastos, The Presocratics, pp. 4ff.)

Here the focus is on dialectical processes. The first two are cosmic processes (the change of day to night and the change of seasons). The second two express extremes of human life (war/peace and desire/satiety). The god thus is present far and near.

Quite in contrast to monistic expressions of god in Hinduism or Taoism, Heraclitus’ has no focus on ritual, worship, or other “spiritual” practices. This unity of oppositions is certainly not to be prayed to. It doesn’t need sacrifices. It isn’t harnessed with incantations. Yet, for all that, this god, this nature, this unity of opposing forces can delight. There is a pleasure in the experience of this multifaceted and plural unity.

Most commentators also accept that it is this god itself that undergoes change. The cosmos itself (this god) undergoes change, even though according to law-bound necessity. Of importance here is that individuals have limited perspective, from which they name this deity according to their preference. One might view this somewhat in line with the Taoist view of the Tao itself beyond all words. However, Heraclitus does seem to think that some few can achieve sound thinking about this god.

According to Hippolytus, this fragment was found in the Heraclitus text that he had together with fragments 120-121 (D65-D66). These texts are thus linked together by Diels as well as Kahn. Because of its thematic link Kahn also adds (F 122 [D16]) here.

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