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Flicker and Flux: Versions of Heraclitus

February 8, 2011

by Magda Kapa and Teju Cole

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus sounds strikingly modern. He wrote in fragments, of which only fragments survive, and this is part of the secret of his seemingly miraculous talent for compression. Not a word is wasted. Each aphorism strikes the ear like a mathematical formula: direct but gnomic, amoral and shorn of sentiment. One of the fragments might be read as an apologia for this mode of working: ὁ ἄναξ, οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει. (“The lord whose oracle is at Delphi is neither clear nor cryptic. He signals.”)

We were interested in doing “versions” or “readings” of Heraclitus rather than “translations” because we wished to test the fragments against modern expression. We tried to find a voicing balanced somewhere between poetry, vernacular speech, and laconic statement, always with an eye to brevity. We began with the ancient Greek text, and were guided by German, English, and modern Greek translations. What we aimed for was not a word-for-word rendering of each fragment, but a statement that retained the pith of the original while plundering it for new signals. Our version of fragment 49a, probably the best known of the Heraclitean fragments, illustrates our approach.

(The Greek fragments are taken from, and numbered as in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker [9 ed. Berlin 1960], edited and translated by Hermann Diels and Walter Kranz.)



ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. (119)
Human being, human daimon.


ξυνόν ἐστι πᾶσι τὸ φρονέειν. (113)
Mind is all, and in all.


ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν. (101)
I have searched myself.


ὅσων ὄψις ἀκοὴ μάθησις, ταῦτα ἐγὼ προτιμέω. (55)
The things I can see or hear or study are the things I prefer.


ὀφθαλμοὶ γὰρ τῶν ὤτων ἀκριβέστεροι μάρτυρες. (101a)
Eyes see better than ears.


χρυσὸν γὰρ οἱ διζήμενοι γῆν πολλὴν ὀρύσσουσι καὶ εὑρίσκουσιν ὀλίγον. (22)
Goldminers mine earth mostly.


. . . μεταβάλλον ἀναπαύεται. (84a)
Things are at ease in flicker and flux.


τοὺς καθεύδοντας ἐργάτας εἶναι καὶ συνεργοὺς τῶν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ γινομένων. (75)
Even sleepers are at work on the work of the cosmos.


ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν. (49a)
We cannot enter a river at all. We are and are not.


Magda Kapa was born in Greece and now lives in translation in Northern Germany. She has worked as a freelance screenwriter and teaches Modern Greek and English. She writes poetry and short stories.

Teju Cole (website) is a Nigerian-American novelist, photographer, and historian of art. He is the author of Open City, just out today from Random House.

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  1. Alex Cigale
    February 8, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    How fortuitous! Congratulations on your book, Teju! Can’t wait to get a hold of your Open City. Yes, flux, and yet there seems to be a guiding signal, if not a purpose. Of course, chance favors the prepared mind…. Thank you for giving us shall I say a “more directed” Heraclitus, Maria and Teju!

  2. February 8, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Love this. Especially 6.

    Congrats Teju!

  1. September 19, 2012 at 10:14 am
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