Can someone give an explation on the meaning of "θάνατός ἐστιν ὁκόσα ἐγερθέντες ὁρέομεν, ὁκόσα δὲ εὕδοντες ὕπνος," a remaining fragment by Heraclitus.

This website translated it as "All the things we see when awake are death, even as all we see in slumber are sleep".

  • 1
    Google translate gives: "death of the eldest we raised, we drove eighteen times". Whenever I use Google translate I'm far less worried about the AI apocalypse.
    – user4894
    Jun 15 '19 at 19:00
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    You can try Latin SE, they handle Greek as well if someone happens to be there who knows it.
    – Gordon
    Jun 15 '19 at 19:10

B21: 'Death is all things we see awake; all we see asleep is sleep (thanatos estin hokosa egerthentes horeomen, hokosa de ehudontes hupnos). ('B21' - numeration from 6th edition of Diels-Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1951).

No easy fragment to elucidate:


In sleep men make up a world of their own, a world of dreams. "A man strikes a light for himself in the night, when his sight is quenched" (B26), just as most men make up a world of their own when they "conjecture for themselves" and "do not think things in the way they encounter them" (B 17). Heraclitus, unlike most in antiquity, does not credit dreams or sleep with the possibility of yielding anything of positive epistemic value. Homer credits those dreams that come by way of the "gate of horn," as opposed to those that come by way of the "gate of ivory," with truth (Od. 19.560-67), and the gods may send messages, some truthful (Od. 4.795-837), some deceptive (II. 2.5-6), to humans through their dreams. The souls of the dead may visit the living in their sleep and communicate with them. The soul of the dead Patroclus visits Achilles in his sleep and urges him to bury his body as quickly as possible so that his soul may enter the realm of the dead (H. 23.65-98, cf. Pind. Pyth. 4.159-63). Pindar even believes that sleep pro- vides a superior epistemic condition."I The soul, aionos, eidolon, which is of a divine nature, is inactive, asleep, when a man is awake; it becomes active during his sleep, and "in many dreams it reveals an approaching decision of things pleasant or distressful" (frag. 131b). For Heraclitus, "all we see asleep is sleep" (B21). (Herbert Granger, 'Death's Other Kingdom: Heraclitus on the Life of the Foolish and the Wise', Classical Philology, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 260-281: 264.)

Main text

B21 opens cryptically with, "Death is all things we see awake," and, as Kahn argues, this clause plausibly comments upon the constant state of change within nature, in which bodies emerge from the perishing of other bodies, that the "birth" of one element is the "death" of another (B36). On this interpretation Heraclitus might just as well have said that "life" is all we see awake. He might, however, readily agree with this because of his drawing together of opposites into some sort of unity, in particular, life and death (B88, B48, B15); and his focus on "death" may reflect his predilection for stressing the negative of any opposing pair (B80, B53). However this may be, B21 corroborates the cognitive worthlessness of sleep. All "we see" awake is death, but, if we turn to sleep, no epistemic advantage seems to be gained, in disagreement with Pindar (frag. 131b), since "all we see asleep is sleep." Yet since B26 ties sleep and death together ['A man strikes a light for himself in the night, when his sight is quenched'], this fragment may, in turn, comment on B21. If sleep is "contact," whatever that may mean exactly, with the dead, then the two clauses of B21 are more balanced than might at first be presumed,44 since they both concern death in some respect. Awake "we see" only death; asleep all we see is sleep, but as B26 indicates in sleep we are in "contact" with the dead. Then, just as in our waking state, we also have to do with the dead in our sleep. In addition, hapthesnai could even mean "perceive," at least in the time of Sophocles, so that B26 might be read to mean that in sleep humans "perceive" the dead. In the light of this reading of B26, B21 would mean no matter where we turn, in waking or in sleeping, we "perceive," or perhaps "experience," death in some form or another. The grammatical construction of B21 bears out the connection between death and sleep. Its first word is thanatos; and its last hupnos;, and their positions at the extremes of the sentence Heraclitus may intend as a comment upon their nature. Just as in B90 the location of "fire" at the beginning and "gold" at the end of the sentence are surely intended to reflect the parallel between fire and gold Heraclitus develops in B90, since if the sentence is thought to form a ring, it would end where it began.

But on this reading of B21, after the fashion of the ring construction of B90, "sleep" should be death, or a state much like death, and the "contact" the living in their sleep have with the dead in B26 should amount to a version of death. hapthestai can contribute to this interpretation also, where ''contact,'' in the sense of "come up to" or "reach," may mean something like "match." This seems to be how Freeman reads haptetai in the second clause when she translates it as, "while living, he approximates to a dead man during sleep": the sleeper, although alive, is like the dead. The third clause of B26 reads on Freeman's rendering, "while awake, he approximates to one who sleeps." The state of the common man in his ignorance amounts in his waking life to sleep (B 1, B 89), but Heraclitus likely has more in mind than this. As others have observed, the second and third clauses form a proportional statement, as waking is to sleeping, sleeping is to death. On the view that haptetai means something like "resemble," sleep would be the term, on the basis of the proportion, that draws together waking life and death. The opposites of life and death are somehow the "same," as Heraclitus makes explicit in B88, and, for that matter, so too are waking and sleeping the "same": "the same things in us, living and dead and the waking and sleeping and young and old." As waking life resembles sleep, sleep resembles death; thus life resembles death, so much so, perhaps Heraclitus thinks, that he is willing to say that life and death are the "same." (Herbert Granger, 'Death's Other Kingdom: Heraclitus on the Life of the Foolish and the Wise', Classical Philology, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 260-281: 273-4.)

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