The wisdom of Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC), the ancient Greek philosopher who is considered one of the founders of ontology (the study of being) and greatly influenced the philosophy of the Stoics, particularly Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Sadly most of his writings have been lost to the sands of time, save for about 125 fragments, epigrams, that appear in the writings of other Ancient Greeks. These early philosophers were very fond of epigrams, an idea expressed in a clever way. (The word epigram is derived from the Greek work epigramma, meaning “an inscription.”) Moreover, many of Heraclitus’ epigrams are paradoxical requiring contemplation and interpretation; therefore, in many cases, there is no one right answer. Those early philosophers were really onto something…
Despite being more than 2,500 years old, the epigrams of Heraclitus have been a tremendous wellspring for modern authors who have rediscovered and repurposed them in the last few decades. Authors like Ryan Holiday (The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living); William Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy); and Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior), for example, have very successfully mined the wisdom of the stoics for valuable insights into how to live and have a meaningful life. In 2001, creativity expert Roger von Oech (author of A Whack on the Side of the Head), stumbled onto the wisdom of Heraclitus as a key to unlocking creativity. In his book, Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It), he writes: “I’ve selected thirty epigrams which I believe best express Heraclitus’ philosophy of the creative spirit. I call these his Creative Insights… Viewed as a whole… [they] provide us with a set of tools on how to be more creative… Indeed, Heraclitus’ enigmatic style in itself forces us to think differently. To understand his vivid metaphors and unusual paradoxes, we’ve had to tolerate ambiguity and probe for symbolic meanings. We’ve also had to be imaginative and think of multiple interpretations… [These epigrams are] a treasure box of creative inspiration.” The 30 Creative Insights of Heraclitus of Ephesus are listed below:
1. The cosmos speaks in patterns.
2. Expect the unexpected, or you won’t find it.
3. Everything flows.
4. You can’t step into the same river twice.
5. That which opposes produces a benefit.
6. A wonderful harmony is created when we join together the seemingly unconnected.
7. If all things turned to smoke, the nose would become the discerning organ.
8. The Sun will not exceed its limits, because the avenging Furies, ministers of Justice, would find out.
9. Lovers of wisdom must open their minds to very many things.
10. I searched into myself.
11. Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight.
12. Many fail to grasp what’s right in the palm of their hand.
13. When there is no sun, we can see the evening stars.
14. The most beautiful order is a heap of sweepings piled up at random.
15. Things love to conceal their true nature.
16. Those who approach life like a child playing a game, moving and pushing pieces, possess the power of kings.
17. Sea water is both pure and polluted: for fish it is drinkable and life-giving; for humans undrinkable and destructive.
18. On a circle, an end point can also be a beginning point.
19. It is disease that makes health pleasant, hunger that makes fullness good, and weariness that makes rest sweet.
20. The doctor inflicts pain to cure suffering.
21. The way up and the way down are one and the same.
22. A thing rests by changing.
23. The barley-wine drink falls apart unless it is stirred.
24. While we’re awake, we share one universe, but in sleep we each turn away to a world of our own.
25. Dogs bark at what they don’t understand.
26. Donkeys prefer garbage to gold.
27. Every walking animal is driven to its purpose with a whack.
28. There is a greater need to extinguish arrogance than a blazing fire.
29. Your character is your destiny.
30. The sun is new each day.
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For further reading: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Fragments by Heraclitus
Whack on the Side of Your Head by Roger von Oech
Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It): A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger von Oech
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
A Guide to the Good Life; The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine
Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book that Changes Life by Dan Millman
The Life You Were Born to Live: A Guide to Finding Your Life Purpose by Dan Millman