When I was looking for information about the novel The Collector, there was a paragraph on the writer's intention of writing about a division supposedly proposed by ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, between "aristoi" which is somehow "elite" and "hoi polloi" which is somehow "the mass", between which there is a very sharp contrast. It surprises me for its seemingly reactionary nature. Upon further Googling I find this information most frequently appear when the writer Fowles is involved, and I didn't find any information about it in the Wikipedia page of Heraclitus, so I'm not sure whether it was indeed Heraclitus's original intention. However I also found articles such as this one which says people like Karl Popper had accused Heraclitus of being "the grandfather of totalitarianism" by creating such a division. In the same article, however the author of the book refutes, saying that they misinterpreted Heraclitus' idea of "everyone has a role" into "everyone is given a role".

I would like to know, is the above interpretation of a division of people an accurate representation of Heraclitus' idea? If yes, was such a clearly aristocratic/discriminatory perspective on people(which to me appears to be retroactive and against every spirit of our modern society which values equality of every person as a basis) common in ancient Greek philosophy? (Though if yes I would not be so surprised because in effect the ancient Greek were still regimes based on slavery).

  • Very little has survived of what Heraclitus wrote; perhaps a little fictional license is involved. Jun 29, 2014 at 8:03
  • Yeah, this is basically unanswerable as written except to say that we don't know much about Heraclitus so it's nearly impossible to say whether one of his few interpreters was wrong.
    – virmaior
    Jun 29, 2014 at 8:35

3 Answers 3


According to the Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy on Heraclitus, there is some hint that this might be the case:

Although he does not speak in detail of his political views in the extant fragments, Heraclitus seems to reflect an aristocratic disdain for the masses and favor the rule of a few wise men, for instance when he recommends that his fellow-citizens hang themselves because they have banished their most prominent leader (DK22B121 in the Diels-Kranz collection of Presocratic sources).

The idea of this division even among free people was not unheard of in antiquity, with the most prominent example coming in Plato's The Republic, discussing how the "gold-souled" people should govern over others.


First, a little philological note: hoi polloi οἵ πολλοί literally translates as "the many" and is often used in a derisive sense. Aristoi ἄριστοι literally translates as "the best," but is often used as a marker for the elite or the select. Hence, for example, the English word "aristocracy." That this division is common in Greek philosophy is beyond dispute, but what it means, i.e., who counts as "the best" versus "the many" is an issue that can change, and, at times, those referred to as aristoi are a bit closer to what, in contemporary English, we might call a meritocracy, i.e., those who are the best at ...

Second, Heraclitus is exceptionally hard to interpret, not only because so few of his writings/sayings (around 135 fragments of various lengths but usually no longer than a few sentences, not collected in a single book, but rather quoted---often from memory---by a wide variety of authors), but even in antiquity, his work was known for its obscurity and he was nicknamed "the obscure" and "the riddler." Furthermore, some of the earliest commentators we have on his work (Plato and Aristotle in particular) had little interest in offering a "correct" interpretation---Plato often refers to him derisively and it is questionable whether Aristotle had ever read the book he is supposed to have written.

What is clear, however, is that he long had a reputation as someone who saw himself as superior to other men. Thus, the ancient biographer, Diogenes Laertius (separated by at least 800 years from Heraclitus) records that

He grew up to be exceptionally haughty and supercilious ... Finally he became a misanthrope, withdrew from the world, and lived in the mountains feeding on grasses and plants.

Kirk & Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, p. 182

That said, he does, at times, appear to have written things that were almost democratic in spirit:

It belongs to all men [anthropoi] to know themselves and to think well.

Thinking [phroneein] is shared by all.

DK 116 & 113

The first, as Kahn points out in his excellent commentary, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, offers a democratisation of the Delphic oracle's famous injunction gnothi seauton, "know thyself," which suggests something that is hard to do, something that only few can achieve. Yet, Heraclitus seems to be saying that, however hard it may be, it is something incumbent on everyone, and hence something everyone is capable of.

Yet, despite this sense of capacity, it is clear that Heraclitus has a sense that very few fulfil this capacity, thus, for example:

One man is ten thousand, if he is the best [aristos].

The best [aristoi] choose one thing in exchange for all, everflowing fame among mortals; but most men [hoi polloi] have sated themselves like cattle.

What wit or understanding do they have? They believe the poets of the people and take the mob as their teacher, not knowing that "the many [hoi polloi] are worthless", good men [agathoi] are few.

DK 49, 29 & 104

So what are we to make of this? Obviously it is open to many possible interpretations and not much will be done to resolve this. Perhaps the most charitable reading would be to say that for Heraclitus, everyone has a certain equality, but that the majority do not choose to exercise that equality, that equal capacity, and so those that do, those that truly excel, should be set apart and held up as paradigms.

Finally, on Popper, although the interpretation that totalitarianism may grow out of Heraclitus' thought is not in and of itself wrong, it is possible that Popper had additional reasons for offering a less charitable reading of Heraclitus: he is cited, by Engels in Anti-Dühring as a fore-runner of historical materialism.

Bibliographic note: My citations of the fragments are given by their Diels-Kranz number for easy reference, e.g., in this resource. The translations are from Kahn's The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, though I have added the transliterated Greek words where I thought relevant to the question.


It seems Heraclitus the Obscure is open to interpretation. Regardless of Heraclitus' authorial intentions, Fowles' own interpretation is made explicit in the 1968 preface to his book 'The Aristos' - an aphoristic and somewhat dogmatic philosophical and poetic text. Fowles writes:

'The principle them in this book - as also in The Collector - has been similarly misunderstood. In essence it comes from a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. We know very little of Heraclitus, sine he lived before the great age of Greek philosophy, and all that remains of his work are a few pages of frequently obscure fragments. In a famous book - The Open Society - Professor Karl Popper has made a convincing case against Heraclitus (if for nothing else, because he influenced Plato) as the grandfather of modern totalitarianism. Now Heraclitus saw mankind divided into a moral and intellectual élite (the aristoi, the good ones, not - this is a later sense - the ones of noble birth) and an unthinking, conforming mass - hoi polloi, the many. Anyone can see how such a distinction plays into the hands of all those subsequent thinkers who have advanced theories of the master-race, the superman, government by the few or by the one, and the rest. One cannot deny that Heraclitus has, like some in itself innocent weapon left lying on the ground, been used by reactionaries: but it seems to me that his basic contention is biologically irrefutable.

In every field of human endeavour it is obvious that most of the achievements, most of the great steps forward have come from individuals - whether they be scientific or artistic genius, saints, revolutionaries, what you will. And we do not need the evidence of intelligence testing to know conversely that the vast mass of mankind are not highly intelligent - or highly moral, or highly gifted artistically, or indeed highly qualified to carry out any of the nobler human activities. Of course, to jump from that to the conclusion that mankind be split into two clearly defined groups, a Few that is excellent and a Many that is despicable, is idiotic. The gradations are infinite; and if you carry no other idea away from this book I hope you will understand what I mean when I say that the dividing line between the Few and the Many must run through each individual, not between individuals. In short none of us are wholly perfect; and none are wholly imperfect.'

The Aristos is a great book. Check it out.

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