Dear Rebecca,

There are a lot of stories about the so-called “pre-Socratics.” Most of the stories come from their late critics like the Epicurean biographer Diogenes Laertius or from the apocryphal Epistle to the Ephesians (actual author, Clement of Alexandria, who is also one of the primary sources for Heraclitean aphorisms), when it’s read the right way. The stories don’t add up to me. I’ve been piecing together the fragments of Heraclitus myself to come up with something plausible. Here’s a first draft.

Heraclitus was an Ephesian author of scholia on Homer’s Iliad. His commentaries primarily concerned Homeric descriptions of death and criticisms of later (and, in his view, defective) descriptions of death by the tragedians. In his view, the tragedians populated their dramas with the same characters who appear in Homer but did not do so properly. Thus Heraclitus wrote, “Let us not throw together at random anything concerning the greatest ones [i.e., the characters of Homer].” Further, he argued that all Homeric poetry is contained in the so-called ‘catalogue of the ships’ – indeed, that everything is contained therein. All lives and heavenly motions, all generation and corruption, is described and predicted in those lines of poetry. So he says, “We live their death and they live our death.” His most famous fragment (“Homer was an astronomer”) inspired the North Syrian School of Applied Homeric commentary in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD. The Syrian School attempted to predict the appearance of comets using only the text of the Iliad and large reflective pools lined with silver. The School dissolved at the end of the 4th Century when their comet predictions came true and the members retreated to the mountains to dig their own reflective pools and await immortality in solitude (no word on the mountain hermits since the start of the Syrian civil war). Their idea of immortality was inspired by a Heraclitan fragment (“For souls it is joy or death to become wet…”), which they understood to mean that souls can become immortal (“joy”) only in the ‘water of solitude’.

Contrary to the Syrians, the local Ephesian followers of Heracltus read his scholia not as commentaries on Homer but as thinly-veiled philosophical treatises in which ideas and propositions are revealed to be not ‘true’ or ‘false’ but rather ‘liquid’, ‘solid’, or ‘in-between’. The central activity of the Ephesians was determining the relative wetness of the soul. Their means for such determination are now lost to the sands of time. It is these followers who formed the bulk of the early Ephesian church and whose correspondence with Clement, along with Diogenes’ Epicurean hatchet job, is responsible for the popular idea of Heraclitus (see, for example, the 15th C. portrait by Donato Bramante).

Heraclitus himself led a quiet life and never lived to know any of his followers. He is said to have memorized the Iliad at a young age. He never left Ephesus. I visited his grave, and like the crossroads where Oedipus killed Laius, it really is uncanny, ominous.

Thank you for the poems.

vale pancratice,