BMCR 2022.11.43


, Héraclite. Qui es-tu?. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2022. Pp. 134. ISBN 9782204144087 €14,00.

In this volume, Jean-François Pradeau offers a brief overview of Heraclitus’ philosophy in which he condenses the interpretation articulated more fully in his recently reprinted 2002 edition of the Ephesian’s fragments and testimonies.[1] The book consists of an Introduction, three Chapters and an Epilogue followed by a short Bibliography. In the Introduction, Pradeau makes preliminary remarks about the historical context, life and doctrine of Heraclitus. Chapter 1 (‘L’œuvre de l’obscur’) addresses the issue of the original form of Heraclitus’ book, introduces Pradeau’s translation of the fragments and discusses how Plato and Aristotle viewed Heraclitus. Chapter 2 (‘La philosophie d’Héraclite’) then lays out the main tenets of Heraclitean thought: fire, flux, cosmic unicity and order, unity of opposites, and logos. Chapter 3 (‘Les respirations de l’âme’) presents the Sceptics’ interpretations of Heraclitus and closes by discussing the nature of the soul. The Epilogue briefly wraps up the book’s argument and is followed by a short Bibliography.

One of the book’s virtues lies in Pradeau’s selective but extensive citation of the sources on Heraclitus, which allows the non-specialist to get a sense of how scholars identify testimonies on Heraclitus’ life and doctrine, evaluate their authenticity and acquire interpretive clues from their contexts. An example of this procedure is offered in the Introduction regarding Diogenes Laertius’ reports on Heraclitus’ life. As most scholars, Pradeau holds that Diogenes’ alleged biographical data are later fabrications based on the preserved fragments. This is generally true, yet one might now wonder whether Diogenes’ whole biographical report (‘la biographie de Diogène tout entière’: p. 18) is derived from the fragments. As a matter of fact, various scholars have recently brought attention to evidence about Heraclitus’ political engagement that could actually be found in the biographical tradition.[2]

Chapter 1 examines the paradoxical attitude of ancient interpreters towards Heraclitean texts, simultaneously cited widely and declared difficult or even obscure. This issue is linked to the question about the original form of Heraclitus’ book—was it written in continuous prose or rather aphoristically structured? As other scholars,[3] Pradeau looks for answers in Heraclitus’ poetic language, which imitates oracular sentences through its refined use of literary figures, marking the fragments off as units of meaning connected by common threads and terminological resonances, but intended to stand on their own. The chapter closes with a summary of how Plato and Aristotle interpreted Heraclitus. Pradeau agrees with Aristotle’s Metaphysics A that dealing with le « problème » Héraclite—the view that all sensibles change and no knowledge of them is possible—was crucial to Plato’s philosophical development. Furthermore, Pradeau argues that Aristotle too saw movement and change as a privileged departure-point for philosophical inquiry (e.g. in Physics V.4, 228a9) and in this sense inherited from Plato a version of le «problème» Héraclite.[4]

In Ch. 2, Pradeau begins by introducing the doctrine of flux and noting its apparent incompatibility with the doctrine of an ordered and knowable cosmos, a problem famously tackled by Plato (cf. Tht. 179d3–183c3, Cra. 439b–440e). He suggests that a first clue to understanding the relation between these two Heraclitean theses lies in the unity of opposites, which he characterizes as a ‘rélativisme « objectif »’ (p. 70) that considers the nature of things as determined by the tension-ridden relations of their opposite constituents. A second point of contact between cosmic flux and order lies in fire, the material principle/substrate that perpetually undergoes transformations, but which nevertheless preserve its original measures, thus ensuring cosmic order.

Pradeau takes it that Heraclitus’ main philosophical problem lies not merely in understanding cosmic nature through the doctrines just mentioned, but rather in the phenomenon of human (in-)comprehension of cosmic nature.[5] Accordingly, Pradeau commits to interpreting Heraclitean logos in an epistemological key. His reading takes logos as the mode of reasoning that yields knowledge of reality and not—as has been usual from the Stoics down to G. S. Kirk and beyond—as the (divine) reason, structure, or pattern inherent in reality itself.[6] This epistemological reading accords well with seeing Heraclitus as a philosopher concerned with the Stellung of human beings within the cosmos and thus helps to highlight the ethical and political significance of Heraclitean thought, which has recently come to the attention of several scholars.[7] Now, one can ask whether the epistemological reading could not allow for recognizing in logos an ‘objective reality’ beyond the ‘epistemic’ dimension that the author sees in it. In fact, Pradeau claims that ‘Héraclite n’accorde jamais au lógos la réalité objective qu’il accorde en revanche aux autres termes qu’il emploie dans ces mêmes textes, ceux de « mesure », d’« harmonie » ou de « proportion »’ (p. 92). Such a general statement could stumble on fragments like 22 B31 DK, where Pradeau himself takes logos as standing for a proportion between the quantities of the elements, a proportion which must obtain objectively and thus can hardly be seen as just ‘le résultat du calcul qui établit la quantité’ of each element at some point of their reciprocal transformation (p. 88).[8]

Chapter 3 addresses the Sceptics’ interpretation of Heraclitus. Pradeau contrasts Aenesidemus’ view of Heraclitus as a forerunner of Scepticism with that of Sextus Empiricus, who regards Heraclitus as dogmatic. According to Sextus, Heraclitus is dogmatic because he advances from perceiving the coexistence of opposites in nature to the claim—allegedly supported by reason—that opposites indeed belong to the nature of things, this step being avoided by proper Sceptics. Sextus’ critique shows that he sees the Heraclitean doctrine of the unity of opposites as ‘une compréhension ontologique de la rélativité et de la contrariété’ (p. 115). The chapter closes with a brief examination of Sextus’ attribution to Heraclitus of the doctrine that human souls partake in common reason through their contact with the cosmic ‘air igné’ (p. 122). With due caution, Pradeau judges Sextus’ attribution favorably and connects it with Heraclitus’ alleged doctrine of the soul as exhalation.

Pradeau’s translation of the fragments in Ch. 1 is reprised from his 2018 edition and therefore is not the object of this review, but the format of the section requires some comment. At first sight, the reader is puzzled by the fact that the numbering of the fragments suggests apparently random omissions, as well as by the repetition of a few fragments under two different numbers. Thus, the reader will look in vain for fragments (in Pradeau’s numbering) 14, 16, 19–27, 31–32, 34–35, 39, 44–45, 56–64, 72, 76, 99–100, 114, and 130, but will instead find that fr. 8 is identical with fr. 28.7, fr. 11 with fr. 28.3, and fr. 28.2 with fr. 93. The reason for this is clear from Pradeau’s 2018 edition. Here the numbering includes fragments and testimonies, whereas the book under review only includes fragments, while maintaining the numbering of the 2018 edition: not every item in the 2018 edition is a fragment in the present book. Moreover, in the 2018 edition fragments are cited with their contexts, which makes three fragments transmitted by two different authors (22 B55, 57, 61 DK) appear under two different numbers; this has been reproduced in the book under review, where however the context is not given. There are a couple more format issues. While fragments are generally in bold type, some are not (B117 [p. 18]; B91 [p. 68]), or they are at one point of the book but not at another (B59–61 [pp. 35, 70]; B35 [pp. 42, 99]). Also, in the translation of B35 (Pradeau’s fr. 84) on p. 42, the words ‘les hommes philosophiques’ (philosophous andras) are bracketed, signaling that they are not Heraclitus’ but Clement’s, whereas the same words appear unbracketed on p. 99. Needless to say, these issues prevent to a certain extent a swift reading of the volume; specially for the non-specialist, they are bound to stir up confusion.

Although the Bibliography lists a few classical studies and editions of Heraclitus, one cannot but notice the absence from it of recent works such as those mentioned in the notes to this review—as a matter of fact, Pradeau only cites studies from the 20th century! Since, presumably because of the non-specialistic aim of the Qui es-tu series, Pradeau does not discuss secondary literature in the book, it is not possible to evaluate to what extent his reading of Heraclitus actually engages with recent literature, which represents a significant shortcoming from the specialist’s perspective. Furthermore, while the Bibliography includes the relatively recent Italian edition by Francesco Fronterotta, it amazingly ignores André Laks and Glenn W. Most’s 2016 Early Greek Philosophy / Les débuts de la philosophie.[9] In this reviewer’s opinion, this absence counts as another considerable flaw of the book.

The shortcomings mentioned above notwithstanding, Pradeau’s well-articulated book does make for an enjoyable read. The volume is mostly to be recommended as an introduction for the non-specialist Francophone reader, although specialists too could find in it a suggestive synthesis of Pradeau’s interpretation of Heraclitean thought.



[1] J.-F. Pradeau (2002, 2018), Héraclite. Fragments, Paris: Flammarion.

[2] See the essays by M. Franz, K. A. Raaflaub, and C. Schubert in E. Fantino et al. (eds.) (2017), Heraklit im Kontext, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

[3] E.g. M. M. Sassi (2018), The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece, Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 103–106.

[4] An alternative picture of Aristotle’s attitude towards Heraclitus is argued for by C. Rapp, ‘His Dearest Enemy. Heraclitus in the Aristotelian Oeuvre,’ in E. Fantino et al. (eds.), op. cit., (n. 2 above), pp. 415–438.

[5] A point made in detail by R. Dilcher (2013), ‘How Not to Conceive Heraclitean Harmony,’ in D. Sider, D. Obbink (eds.), Doctrine and Doxography: Studies on Heraclitus and Pythagoras, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 263–280, p. 265 ff.

[6] G. S. Kirk, Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A more recent ‘cosmological’ reading of Heraclitus is that of D. Graham (2006), Explaining the Cosmos. The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy, Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, ch. 5.

[7] Cf. the essays mentioned in n. 4 above; see also D. Sider (2013), ‘Heraclitus’ Ethics,’ in D. Sider, D. Obbink (eds.) op. cit. (n. 5 above), pp. 321–334; M. Schofield (2015), ‘Heraclitus on Law (Fr. 114 DK),’ Rhizomata 3(1): 47–61; L. R. Schluderer (2017), ‘Speaking and Acting the Truth: The Ethics of Heraclitus,’ Méthexis 29(1): 1–19; J. M. Robitzsch (2018), ‘Heraclitus’ Political Thought,’ Apeiron 51(4): 1–22.

[8] For a recent reading that integrates the ‘objective’ and the ‘epistemic’ dimensions for the case of Heraclitean physis, see S. Tor (2017), ‘On second thoughts, does nature like to hide? Heraclitus’ B123 reconsidered,’ in Rereading Ancient Philosophy: Old Chestnuts and Sacred Cows, V. Harte, R. Woolf (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 8–31. Anyway, Pradeau’s purely epistemological reading could be better served by consistently translating the opening words of 22 B1 DK (tou de logou toud’eontos aei) as ‘cette explication / raisonnement qui est toujours vrai’ (pp. 78, 95) and not as ‘cette explication qui existe toujours’ (pp. 30, 40, 75 f., 78, 90). The word ‘existe’ in the latter translation suggests that Pradeau takes estin in its existential sense, thus introducing the very objective dimension that he seeks to deny the Heraclitean logos.

[9] A. Laks, G. W. Most (2016), Early Greek Philosophy. 9 volumes. Loeb Classical Library, 524-532, Cambridge (MA), London: Harvard University Press / Les débuts de la philosophie. Des premiers penseurs grecs à Socrate, Paris: Fayard.