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A Brief History of Time

(with apologies to Stephen Hawkings)

From Thales to Callippus

Chris Weinkopf
April 9, 1995

This paper is now featured on the Discovery Channel School Web site.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Initial Evidence of Time
  3. The Presocratics
  4. Changing Attitudes Towards Time
  5. The Platonic Application
  6. The Dawn of the Sundial
  7. Bibliography

Look at the comments on this paper.


Whether for agricultural, legal, or religious purposes, the ability to measure time was of the utmost importance in ancient Greece. Homer and Hesiod both suggest that men recognized some connection between the sun, stars, moon, earth, and time, but were unable to observe very effectively the cosmos for purposes of chronology. Only with the advancement of astronomy, beginning with Thales in the early sixth century BC, could the Greeks begin to utilize the heavens for designing accurate calendars and sundials. Eventually, Plato, in is Timaeus, would declare, “The sun, moon, and… planets were made for defining and preserving the numbers of time. “

With our without astronomy, casual observation over the course of one’s life makes the cyclical nature of seasons self-explanatory. One need have no appreciation of the earth’s orbit around the sun to discover that fall invariably follows summer, which is preceded by spring, the successor of winter. This order is unfailing, and easily discernible to the naked or even blind eye.

But as any resident of New England can attest, determining the beginning and the end of the seasons without the assistance of astronomical guides is not so easy. According to the earth’s location within its year-long orbit, the first day of spring 1995 was in late March, but the freezing temperatures which persisted for several weeks thereafter suggested otherwise. Climate, compared to astronomy, is a poor measure of season.

Knowledge of the advent or conclusion of seasons, however, is critical to the success of civilization. A farmer dependent exclusively on his own perceptions of season is at a grave disadvantage when he plants his crops. A premature warm front, for example, could cause him to plant too early. Conversely, belated warm temperatures might cause him to wait too long before planting, resulting in his crop’s destruction by winter frost before harvest time.

Likewise, the success of civic calendars hinges on their ability to correlate with the solar reality. Accuracy demands that calendars be based on the earth’s revolution around the sun. Imagine a society that chose to create a 200 day-long year, as opposed to our current 365.25-day long model. While the first month of the calendar might be in the winter one year, it would fall in the late spring the next. Not only would the civil calendar be useless for farmers, it would also render considerably more difficult the scheduling of outdoor festivals or any other event demanding a prior knowledge of the time of season.

Because the moon is easily visible and changes in appearance each day, it made a convenient basis of a calendar for many ancient societies. The lunar cycle, however, lasts only 29 or 30 days. Although the moon is sufficient for delineating months, it fares less well in determining years. A solar (tropical) year, as we know, lasts 365.25 days– a figure not conveniently divisible by 29.5. Twelve lunar months cover only 354 days. Thus the lunar calendar loses 45 days every four years. Keeping a lunar calendar consistent– that is, regulating it such that the same months fall in the same seasons from year to year– requires intercalation.

The creation of an accurate tropical or properly intercalated lunar calendar requires an understanding of the mechanics of the solar system, as does the creation of a reliable sundial. The initial developments in Greek astronomy, beginning with Thales and continuing through Callippus, enabled philosophers and the masses alike to better understand, measure, and gauge time.

Initial Evidence of Time

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey personify and deify notions of time. Frequently, for example, the poems contain such verses as “Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over the face of all the earth,” to describe the start of a new day. But the Homeric texts do not simply relegate the passage of time to divine actions. There exists also in Homer a cognizance of earthly cycles that operate regardless of divine interaction.

In his Elementa astronomiae, the Greek astronomer Geminus refers to a passage in Book X of The Odyssey which belies an appreciation of the differing lengths of a day (hours of daylight) in various regions of the world. The passage explains that in Telepylus of the Laestrygons, one who chooses to forego sleep can work two full-time jobs in a single day, because there, ‘”the out goings of the night and of the day are close together.”

Geminus’ astronomical explanation for this phenomenon, which surely eluded the Mycenaeans, describes the city’s geographical location. Areas close to the north pole, at the solstice, have 24 hours of daylight, due to the earth’s angle in its revolution. Although Homer and his contemporaries did not understand the astronomical reason for differing day lengths, they did recognize them as the product of a geographical or astronomical cycle.

Hesiod’s Works and Days conveys a more sophisticated understanding of astronomy. Rather than relying on inaccurate civil calendars, Hesiod uses natural phenomena– solstices and equinoxes– for delineating periods of time. His instructions on farming recommend planting according to the solstices. Hesiod lacks a scientific understanding of the solar system, but Works and Days demonstrates a clear recognition of the connection between time and astronomy. It also evidences the beginning of a shift from arbitrary civic or lunar calendars to a solar model.

The Presocratics

There is no evidence of scientific/astronomical calendar theory in Greece before the 5th century BC (Samuel 1972: 22), but its eventual development rests heavily on the discoveries of presocratic philosophers a century earlier. Although each of the presocratics had his own theories about cosmology, this section deals specifically with those who contributed most significantly to the Greeks’ ability to understand and measure time: Thales, Anaximander, the Pythagoreans, and Anaxagoras.

Naturally, our discussion of the presocratics begins with Thales of Miletus, whose famous prediction of the eclipse that would terrify General Nicias 170 years later indicates a rudimentary comprehension of solar cycles. Thales had observed that the most recent eclipses fell seventeen years apart, and therefore concluded that eclipses occur at seventeen year intervals. The extension of his logic was that in 170 years the eclipse cycle would repeat another ten times. As luck would have it, he happened to be correct.

Because eclipses depend on a rare alignment of the, sun, earth and moon, however, and because the revolutions of the latter two operate at vastly different rates, there exists no seventeen year cycle, as Thales believed. Thales’ prediction exposes an ignorance of the workings of solar and lunar orbits; but more importantly, it demonstrates an appreciation of their cyclical nature. Diogenes Laertius credits Thales with the discovering the solstices and the obliquity of the zodiac (ecliptic). One should not, however, overstate Thales’ contribution to the Greeks’ understanding of time. His cosmology, which dictates that the earth floats on top of water, hardly makes for a precise understanding of the cosmos. Nevertheless, his exploration of the relationship between stars, the sun, the moon, and the earth, as demonstrated by his studies of navigation, as well as his appreciation of universal cycles, provided an excellent foundation for later discovery.

Some 35 years after Thales, Anaximander of Miletus made several astronomical studies which greatly facilitated the understanding and measuring of time. Diogenes Laertius credits Anaximander with the introduction of the gnomon, which Herodotus claims was originally a foreign invention. The gnomon was merely two pieces of wood attached at a right angle. Ancient astronomers used it to cast shadows, which they could then measure to gauge the passage of time, or predict the coming of solstices and equinoxes.

Suda attributes to Anaximander the construction of a sundial in Sparta which observed solstices and equinoxes. Suda makes no mention of the device being used to measure the passage of hours, as it likely did not (Gibbs 1976: 7). The technological development of sundials will be discussed more fully in the “Dawn of the Sundial” section later in this work, but is mentioned here because Anaximander’s introduction of the sundial is representative of his expansive astronomical discoveries.

Anaximander contributed to the ancient study of astronomy the notion that the world is round (not actually a sphere, more like a cylinder, but round nevertheless) and was the first, according to Diogenes Laertius, to argue that moonlight is a lunar reflection of the sun. He also parted from conventional wisdom in his conviction that the sun is larger than the earth, and not vice versa. He established the incorrect but practical (in terms of measuring time) belief that the earth was at the center of the universe, which would be embraced by most of his successors, save the Pythagoreans.

Anaximander’s understanding of the gnomon is undoubtedly due, in large part, to his progress in the study of astronomy. It is also, however, consistent with his philosophical understanding of time. Anaximander viewed the world as a steady state; shifts in one direction were always succeeded by shifts in the other. He reasoned, for example, that the number of hot days are offset by an equal number of cold days. Time, he claimed, ultimately serves as the great equalizer, maintaining the steady state in its due course.

This philosophy of time is cyclical, and is consistent with the notion that time and cosmological phenomena can be observed as operating in cycles. Anaximander’s philosophy gave time a quantifiable, hence measurable dynamic. His notions of astronomy, most notably the roundness of the globe, enabled him to attempt such calculation. The gnomon, which provided an accurate estimation of solstices and equinoxes, further advanced the shift to a tropical calendar. It would later be used to determine the time of day.


The Pythagoreans most revolutionary theory, with respect to time, was unfortunately not embraced by any of their immediate successors. The Pythagoreans were the first to conclude that the sun (De Caelo B13, 293 AI8), and not the earth, is the center of the solar system. Consequently, the Pythagoreans were the first to understand the true cause of an eclipse. More important for our purposes, this superior notion of the solar system would have enabled a more accurate gauging of time.

Anaxagoras’ model of the universe was similar to that of the Pythagoreans, although it was geocentric. He generally shared, but refined the Pythagorean explanation of eclipses, by determining that solar eclipses must occur at the new moon phase. Anaxagoras was the first to explain lunar eclipses as the earth blocking the moon from the sun’s light. The significance of this discovery is that it belies an awareness of the moon’s orbit, precise enough to conclude that its motion brings the moon to a point where blocking was possible only once a month.

The presocratic philosophers’ study of Greek astronomy established the necessary tools and theories for the accurate measure of time in calendars and sundials. Thales’ recognition of the cyclical nature of the solar system, Anaximander’s observations and introduction of the gnomon, the Pythagoreans universal theory, and Anaxagoras’ mastery the lunar model, all set the course for their successors’ advanced studies of chronology. In the following section, we will examine how the further exploration of astronomy and its correlation to chronology continued after the presocratics.

Changing Attitudes Towards Time

As previously noted, the mid-fifth century historian Herodotus was aware of the advances made in astronomy and chronology. In the second book of his histories, he explains in great detail the Greek and Egyptian calendars, indicating that by his time both societies had a strong sense of the relationship between earthly time and the heavens. The Egyptian calendar clearly took into account the lunar cycles, as it, according to Herodotus, “consist[ed] of twelve divisions of the seasons.”

Both societies recognized the limitations of lunar calendars, as they used forms of intercalation to keep the lunar calendar seasonally consistent. “The Greeks add an intercalary month every other year, so that the seasons agree,” writes Herodotus; “but the Egyptians, reckoning thirty days to each of the twelve months, add five days in every year over and above the total, and thus the completed circle of seasons is made to agree with the calendar.” Seemingly, neither society directly incorporated the solar calendar into its calculations of time, but did so at least indirectly in their consideration of the seasons.

In his Memorabilia, Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates, displays a basic understanding of the solar system’s mechanics which implies that the presocratics’ theories were still influential by the mid-fourth century BC. Xenophon describes the sun as on a voyage around the earth, careful never to approach too closely and scorch mankind, but equally prudent to avoid moving too far away, and leaving people to freeze. Although he supports the geocentric universal model, Xenophon’s description demonstrates that he believes the ecliptic to be oblique. This belief manifests itself in an accurate understanding of the seasons– winter is cold because the sun is the farthest away; summers are hot because the sun is close by.

Fourth century astronomers built upon the theories first put forward by the presocratics and reflected in the works of Xenophon. According to Aristotle, Eudoxus explained the motions of all celestial bodes in terms of concentric spheres, with the earth at the center. Each body was connected to the equator of a sphere, which revolved constantly around its own poles. The spheres were all, literally, inside one another, as if layers of one super-sphere. Eudoxus suggested that there were three spheres in total, which carried the sun, stars, moon, and planets.

Eudoxus’ universal model explained the apparent motions of the sun and moon, and enabled astronomers to predict their positions with a great degree of accuracy. By tracking the pace of individual bodies through their respective orbits, one could calculate their velocity and thus determine the lengths of their cycles. As Alan Samuel notes, “It was no longer necessary to depend solely upon the relatively unsophisticated gnomon to determine the lengths of the periods, but mathematical calculation, based on the theory of the spheres, could bring greater precision” (Samuel 1972: 31).

Callippus improved upon Eudoxus’ theory of concentric spheres by adding an additional two layers. The flaw in the Eudoxus model is that it treated the velocities of the “sun” (the velocity of the earth traveling around the sun, but understood by the geocentrists as precisely the opposite) and moon as constant. In reality, however, the moon travels faster when it is closer to the earth, as the earth travels more quickly when it is near the sun. Callippus supported Eudoxus’ theory that the sun and moon’s velocities were constant, but his additional two spheres made solar calculations more accurate, albeit more complex, than under Eudoxus’ model (Samuel 1972: 32).

The Platonic Application

Plato’s astronomy, although less precise than Eudoxus’ and riddled with mythology, was unique because it most boldly asserted and articulated the interrelation between astronomy and time. Plato thought the cosmos not only practical for the measurement of time, but considered them created by god specifically for that purpose. He often used astronomical phenomena, such as solstices and equinoxes, not references to civic calendars, to refer to dates. Moreover, he carefully defined periods of time according to the lunar and solar calendars.

Plato’s astronomy, in short, was somewhat similar to that of Eudoxus and Callippus, in as much that it depicted the various bodies of the universe as layers of a comprehensive whole. Its most fundamental difference from Eudoxus and Callippus’ cosmologies was that the latter treated the layers as spheres, but Plato considered them “whorls,” hollow hemispheres, neatly stacked, one on top of the other.

The moon in Plato’s description of the solar system is rightfully the celestial body closest to the earth. The sun exists in a whorl above the earth and the moon, below another whorl containing the Morning Star and “that which is held sacred to Hermes.” This fourth whorl, claims Plato, rotates at the same speed as the one containing the sun, but in the opposite direction. God placed the remaining planets, according to the Timaeus, in their own orbits. Plato correctly explains that the planets complete their revolutions at different rates, depending on the size of their orbits.

The Timaeus also includes Plato’s conviction that “the sun, the moon, and the five other stars which are called planets were made for defining and preserving the numbers of time.” He defines the units of time beginning with the day and night, which he argues are the product of the earth’s not rotating on its axis. (Dicks 1970: 132-3). “A month,” explains Plato, “has passed when the moon, having completed her own orbit, overtakes the sun.” And a year, “when the sun has completed its own orbit.”

Plato also defines the Perfect Year, a concept which has since been renamed, in his honor, the “Platonic year.” He describes an occurrence of the perfect year as, “when the relative speeds of all the eight revolutions accomplish their course together and reach their starting point.” Since Plato did not have calculations for the velocities of every planet’s orbit, he did not estimate the duration of a Perfect Year, but as one could imagine, such an occurrence would be infrequent. In a Perfect Year, all of the celestial bodies reach their starting point (whatever that is) simultaneously. Since the bodies all move at different speeds, they could all go around their orbits tens of thousands of times before achieving such a level of synchronicity.

Although the Perfect Year is hardly a convenient standard by which to measure time, Plato’s consideration of it is evidence of his commitment to exploring all the connections between the passage of time and astronomy. This commitment manifests itself in Plato’s own usage of astronomical phenomena as a practical mean of denoting time. In The Laws, he calls for officials to assemble at the temple the day before their new term in office, “which comes with the month next after the summer solstice.” In this quotation, he employs both the solar calendar, by referring to the solstice, and the lunar, in his use of months, but makes no reference to any existing civil calendar, or official names for months. Likewise, Plato demands that the whole state must come together annually, “after the summer solstice.” Here Plato defines the year by the sun, conveying his conviction that only solar calendars are accurate.

Dawn of the Sundial

The bulk of this undertaking has focused on the correlation of astronomy and calendars in ancient Greece, but with the exception of the treatment of Anaximander, it has not discussed in any great deal the impact of astronomical progress on the construction of sundials. The chief explanation for the discrepancy in treatments is that there exists much more information on the study of solar years than on the use of the gnomon for measuring the passage of time. Nevertheless, the scientific exploration begun by Thales enabled astronomers to build more effective sundials. It would be a shame not to grant the gnomon at least cursory consideration in a document chronicling Greek conceptions of time. According to Sharon Gibbs of Yale University, author of Greek and Roman Sundials, despite Anaximander’s fabled sixth century construction of a dial in Sparta, “there were few, if any, sundials, marking the seasons and seasonal hours in Greece before the third century BC” (Gibbs 1976: 7-8). Consequently, it is not surprising that there are few literary references to sundials between the ages of Anaximander and Callippus. However, in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, a character notes that he determines dinner time by the length of a gnomon’s shadow, suggesting that by the fourth century BC, Greeks were already familiar with the device.

Gibbs notes that sundials worked as both crude clocks and calendars. Three day curves on the dial enabled one to trace the gnomon shadow’s path at solstices and equinoxes The dial was also divided by eleven hour lines, the first hour beginning at sunrise; the last one ending at sunset.

As an understanding of the solar orbit facilitates the creation of good calendars, it also enables the better construction of sundials. To the philosophers who mapped the “sun’s” orbit and advanced the use of astronomy to measure time, the third century sundial architects owe a great debt of gratitude.

Within the origins of science lies the fountainhead of time. The presocratics, Eudoxus and Callippus, and most notably Plato, by mapping the solar system and measuring astronomical cycles, set the foundation for the modern understanding of chronology. As seasonal accuracy was indispensable for attaining material prosperity in ancient societies, the ability to measure periods of time has been of increasing importance ever since. Indeed, many scientific advances rest ultimately upon the ancient discovery of such concepts as the oblique zodiac, the spherical earth, or the prediction of solstice.

7. Bibliography

Dicks, D.R., Early Greek Astronomy; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1970.

Gibbs, Sharon L., Greek and Roman Sundials; Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1976.

Heath, Thomas, Greek Astronomy; Dover Publications, New York, NY, 1991.

Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E., and Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers; Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 1983.

Samuel, Alan E., Greek and Roman Chronology; Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Munich, Germany, 1972.


3jpeg-1.gifReprinted from playingwith time.org



Schopenhauer on Suicide

On Suicide

Arthur Schopenhauer

As far as I know, none but the votaries of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, look upon suicide as a crime. This is all the more striking, inasmuch as neither in the Old or in the New Testament is there to be found any prohibition or positive disapproval of it; so that religious teachers are forced to base their condemnation of suicide on philosophical grounds of their own invention. These are so very bad that writers of this kind endeavor to make up for the weakness of their arguments by the strong terms in which they express their abhorrence of the practice; in other words, they declaim against it. They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice; that only a madman could be guilty of it, and other insipidities of the same kind; or else they make the nonsensical remark that suicide is wrong, when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.

Suicide, as I have said, is actually accounted a crime; and a crime which, especially under the vulgar bigotry that prevails in England, is followed by an ignominious burial and the seizure of the man’s property; and for that reason, in a case of suicide, the jury almost always bring in a verdict of insanity. Now let the reader’s own moral feelings decide as to whether suicide is a criminal act. Think of the impression that would be made upon you by the news that someone you know had committed the crime, say, of murder or theft, or been guilty of some act of cruelty or deception; and compare it with your feelings when you hear that he has met a voluntary death. While in the one case a lively sense of indignation and extreme resentment will be aroused, and you will call loudly for punishment or revenge, in the other you will be moved to grief and sympathy; and mingled with your thoughts will be admiration for his courage, rather than the moral disapproval which follows upon a wicked action.

Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relations, who of their own free will have left this world; and are these to be thought of with horror as criminals? Most emphatically No! I am rather of the opinion that the clergy should be challenged to explain what right they have to go into the pulpit, or take up their pens, and stamp as a crime an action which many men whom we hold in affection and honor have committed; and to refuse an honorable burial to those who relinquish this world voluntarily. They have no Biblical authority to boast of, as justifying the condemnation of suicide; nay, not even any philosophical arguments that will hold water; and it must be understood that it is arguments we want, and that we will not be put off with mere phrases or words of abuse. If the criminal law forbids suicide, that is not an argument valid in the church; and besides, the prohibition is ridiculous; for what penalty can frighten a man who is not afraid of death itself? If the law punishes people for trying to commit suicide, it is punishing the want of skill that makes the attempt a failure.

The ancients, moreover, were very far from regarding the matter in that light. Pliny says: Life is not so desirable a thing as to be protracted at any cost. Whoever you are, you are sure to die, even though your life has been full of abomination and crime. The chief of all remedies for a troubled mind is the feeling that among the blessings which Nature gives to man there is none greater than an opportune death; and the best of it is that every one of us can avail himself of it 1. And elsewhere the same writer declares: Not even to God are all things possible; for he could not compass his own death, if he willed to die, and yet in all the miseries of our earthly life this is the best of his gifts to man 2. Nay, in Massilia and on the isle of Ceos, the man who could give valid reasons for relinquishing his life was handed the cup of hemlock by the magistrate, and that, too, in public 3. And in ancient times how many heroes and wise men died a voluntary death. Aristotle 4 , it is true, declared suicide to be an offense against the State; but in Stobaeus’s exposition of the Peripatetic philosophy there is the following remark: The good man should flee life when his misfortunes become too great; the bad man, also, when he is too prosperous. And similarly: So he will marry and beget children and take part in the affairs of the State, and, generally, practice virtue and continue to live; and then, again, if need be, and at any time necessity compels him, he will depart to his place of refuge in the tomb5. And we find that the Stoics actually praised suicide as a noble and heroic action as hundreds of passages show; above all in the works of Seneca, who expresses the strongest approval of it. As is well known, the Hindus look upon suicide as a religious act, especially when it takes the form of self-immolation by widows; but also when it consists in casting oneself under the wheels of the chariot of the god of Juggernaut, or being eaten by crocodiles in the Ganges, or being drowned in the holy tanks in the temples, and so on. The same thing occurs on the stage – that mirror of life. For example, in L’Orphelin de la Chine 6, a celebrated Chinese play, almost all the characters end by suicide; without the slightest hint anywhere, or any impression being produced on the spectator, that they are committing a crime. And in our own theater it is much the same – Palmira, for example, in Mahomet, or Mortimer in Maria Stuart, Othello, Countess Terzky. Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is. But there lies the rub!

The reasons advanced against suicide by the clergy of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, and by those philosophers who adapt themselves thereto, are weak sophisms which can be easily refuted 7 . The most thorough-going refutation of them is given by Hume in his Essay on Suicide. This did not appear until after his death, when it was immediately suppressed, owing to the scandalous bigotry and outrageous ecclesiastical tyranny that prevailed in England; and hence only a few copies of it were sold under cover of secrecy and at high price. This and another treatise by that great man have come to us from Basle, and we may be thankful for the reprint 8. It is a great disgrace to the English nation that a purely philosophical treatise, which, proceeding from one of the first thinkers and writers in England, aimed at refuting the current arguments against suicide by the light of cold reason, should be forced to sneak about in that country as though it were some rascally production, until at last it found refuge on the Continent. At the same time it shows what a good conscience the Church has in such matters.

In my chief work I have explained the only valid reason existing against suicide on the score of morality. It is this: that suicide thwarts the attainment of the highest moral aim by the fact that, for a real release from this world of misery, it substitutes one that is merely apparent. But from a mistake to a crime is a far cry; and it is as a crime that the clergy of Christendom wish us to regard suicide.

The inmost kernel of Christianity is the truth that suffering – the Cross – is the real end and object of life. Hence Christianity condemns suicide as thwarting this end; whilst the ancient world, taking a lower point of view, held it in approval, nay, in honor. But if that is to be accounted a valid reason against suicide it invokes the recognition of asceticism; that is to say, it is valid only from a much higher ethical standpoint than has ever been adopted by moral philosophers in Europe. If we abandon that high standpoint, there is no tenable reason left, on the score of morality, for condemning suicide. The extraordinary energy and zeal with which the clergy of monotheistic religions attack suicide is not supported either by any passages in the Bible or by any considerations of weight; so that it looks as though they must have some secret reason for their contention. May it not be this – that the voluntary surrender of life is a bad compliment for him who said that all things were very good? If this is so, it offers another instance of the crass optimism of these religions – denouncing suicide to escape being denounced by it.

It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his own life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world. Perhaps there is no man alive who would not have already put an end to his own life, if this end had been of a purely negative character, a sudden stoppage of existence. There is something positive about it; it is the destruction of the body; and a man shrinks from that, because his body is the manifestation of the will to live.

However, the struggle with that sentinel is, as a rule, not so hard as it seems from a long way off, mainly in consequence of the antagonism between the ills of the body and the ills of the mind. If we are in great bodily pain, or the pain lasts a long time, we become indifferent to other troubles; all we think about is to get well. In the same way great mental suffering makes us insensible to bodily pain; we despise it; nay, if it should outweigh the other, it distracts our thoughts, and we welcome it as a pause in mental suffering. It is this feeling that makes suicide easy; for the bodily pain that accompanies it loses all significance in the eyes of one who is tortured by an excess of mental suffering. This is especially evident in the case of those who are driven to suicide by some purely morbid and exaggerated ill-humor. No special effort to overcome their feelings is necessary, nor do such people require to be worked up in order to take the step; but as soon as the keeper in whose charge they are given leaves them for a couple of minutes they quickly bring their lives to an end.

When, in some dreadful and ghastly dream, we reach the moment of greatest horror, it awakes us; thereby banishing all the hideous shapes that were born of the night. And life is a dream; when the moment of greatest horror compels us to break it off, the same thing happens.

Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment – a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to an answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things? It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.


1 Hist. Nat. Lib. XXVIII, ch. 1.

2 Loc. cit. Lib., ch. 7.

3 Valerius Maximus; hist. Lib., II, ch. 6, secs. 7 et 8. Heraclides Ponticus; fragmenta de rebus publicis, ix. Aellani variae historiae, III, 37. Strabo; Lib., X, ch. 5, 6.

4 Eth. Nichom., V, 15.

5 Stobaeus, Ecl. Eth. II, ch. 7, pp. 286, 312.

6 Tradhuit par St. Julien, 1834.

7 See my treatise on the Foundation of Morals, sec. 5.

8 Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, by the late David Hume, Basle, 1799, sold by James Decker.

3jpeg-1.gifReprinted from Suicide and Philosophy



  The following translation of the Heraclitus fragments is by John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd Ed., London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908.

1. It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Word [Logos], and to confess that all things are one.

2. Though this Word is true evermore, yet men are as unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, though all things come to pass in accordance with this Word, men seem as if they had no experience of them, when they make trial of words and deeds such as I set forth, dividing each thing according to its nature and showing how it truly is. But other men know not what they are doing when awake, even as they forget what they do in sleep.

3. Fools when they do hear are like the deaf: of them does the saying bear witness that they are absent when present.

4. Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand not their language.

5. The many do not take heed of such things as they meet with, nor do they mark them when they are taught, though they think they do.

6. …knowing not how to listen nor how to speak.

7. If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.

8. Those who seek for gold dig up much earth and find little.

10. Nature loves to hide.

11. The lord whose is the oracle at Delphoi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign.

12. And the Sibyl, with raving lips uttering things mirthless, unbedizened, and unperfumed, reaches over a thousand years with her voice, thanks to the god in her.

13. The things that can be seen, heard, and learned are what I prize the most.

14. …bringing untrustworthy witnesses in support of disputed points.

15. The eyes are more exact witnesses than the ears.

16. The learning of many things teacheth not understanding, else would it have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hekataius.

17. Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, practiced inquiry beyond all other men, and choosing out these writings, claimed for his own wisdom what was but a knowledge of many things and an art of mischief.

18. Of all whose discussions I have heard, there is not one who attains to understanding that wisdom is apart from all.

19. Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things.

20. This world [kosmos], which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures kindling, and measures going out.

21. The transformations of Fire are, first of all, sea; and half of the sea is earth, half whirlwind…

22. All things are an exchange for Fire, and Fire for all things, even as wares for gold and gold for wares.

23. It becomes liquid sea, and is measured by the same tale as before it became earth.

24. Fire is want and surfeit.

25. Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.

26. Fire in its advance will judge and convict [overtake?] all things.

27. How can one hide from that which never sets?

28. It is the thunderbolt that steers the course of all things.

29. The sun will not overstep his measures; if he does, the Erinyes, the handmaids of Justice, will find him out.

30. The limit of East and West is the Bear; and opposite the Bear is the boundary of bright Zeus.

31. If there were no sun it would be night, for all the other stars could do.

32. The sun is new every day.

34. …the seasons, that bring all things.

35. Hesiod is most men’s teacher. Men think he knew very many things, a man who did not know day or night! They are one.

36. God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savour of each.

37. If all things were turned to smoke, the nostrils would distinguish them.

38. Souls smell in Hades.

39. Cold things become warm, and what is warm cools; what is wet dries, and the parched is moisted.

40. It scatters and it gathers; it advances and retires.

41, 42. You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.

43. Homer was wrong in saying: “Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!” He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away…

44. War is the father of all and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free.

45. Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.

46. It is the opposite which is good for us.

47. The hidden attunement is better than the open.

48. Let us not conjecture at random about the greatest things.

49. Men that love wisdom must be acquainted with very many things indeed.

50. The straight and the crooked path of the fuller’s comb is one and the same.

51. Asses would rather have straw than gold.

51a. Oxen are happy when they find bitter vetches to eat.

52. The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive.

53. Swine wash in the mire, and barnyard fowls in dust.

54. …to delight in the mire.

55. Every beast is driven to pasture with blows.

56. [Same as 45]

57. Good and ill are one.

58. Physicians who cut, burn, stab, and rack the sick, demand a fee for it which they do not deserve to get.

59. Couples are things whole and things not whole, what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.

60. Men would not have known the name of justice if these things [unjust things?] were not.

61. To God all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some right.

62. We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away [?] through strife.

63. All the things we see when awake are death, even as all we see in slumber are sleep.

64. The wise is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus.

65. The bow is called life, but its work is death.

66. Mortals are immortals and immortals are mortals, the one living the others’ death and dying the others’ life.

67. For it is death to souls to become water, and death to water to become earth. But water comes from earth; and from water, soul.

68. The way up and the way down is one and the same.

69. In the circumference of a circle the beginning and end are common.

70. You will not find the boundaries of soul by traveling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it.

71. It is pleasure to souls to become moist.

72. A man, when he gets drunk, is led by a beardless lad, tripping, knowing not where he steps, having his soul moist.

73, 74, 75. The dry soul is the wisest and best.

76. Man is kindled and put out like a light in the night-time.

77. And it is the same thing in us that is quick and dead, awake and asleep, young and old; the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former.

78. Time is a child playing draughts; the kingly power is a child’s.

79. I have sought for myself.

80. We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.

81. It is a weariness to labour for the same masters and be ruled by them.

82. It rests by changing.

83. Even the posset separates if it is not stirred.

84. Corpses are more fit to be cast out than dung.

85. When they are born, they wish to live and to meet with their dooms — or rather to rest — and they leave children behind them to meet with their dooms in turn.

86, 87, 88. A man may be a grandfather in thirty years.

89. Those who are asleep are fellow-workers…

90a. Thought is common to all.

90b. Those who speak with understanding must hold fast to what is common to all as a city holds fast to its law, and even more strongly. For all human laws are fed by the one divine law. It prevails as much as it will, and suffices for all things with something to spare.

91. So we must follow the common, yet though my Word is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.

92. They are estranged from that with which they have most constant intercourse.

93. It is not meet to act and speak like men asleep.

94. The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.

95. The way of man has no wisdom, but that of God has.

96. Man is called a baby by God, even as a child by a man.

97, 98. The wisest person is an ape compared to God, just as the most beautiful ape is ugly compared to man.

99. The people must fight for its law as for its walls.

100. Greater deaths win greater portions.

101. Gods and men honour those who are slain in battle.

102. Wantonness needs putting out, even more than a house on fire.

103. It is not good for men to get all they wish to get. It is sickness that makes health pleasant; evil, good; hunger, plenty; weariness, rest.

104, 105, 106. It is hard to fight with one’s heart’s desire. Whatever it wishes to get, it purchases at the cost of soul.

107, 108. It is best to hide folly; but it is hard in times of relaxation, over our cups.

109. And it is law, too, to obey the counsel of one.

110. For what thought or wisdom have they? They follow the poets and take the crowd as their teacher, knowing not that there are many bad and few good. For even the best of them choose one thing above all others, immortal glory among mortals, while most of them are glutted like beasts.

111. In Priene lived Bias, son of Teutamas, who is of more account than the rest. [He said, “Most men are bad.”]

112. One is ten thousand to me, if he be the best.

113. The Ephesians would do well to hang themselves, every grown man of them, and leave the city to beardless lads; for they have cast out Hermodorus, the best person among them, saying, “We will have none who is best among us; if there be any such, let him be so elsewhere and among others.”

114. Dogs bark at every one they do not know.

115. [The wise man] is not known because of men’s want of belief.

116. The fool is fluttered at every word.

117. The most esteemed of them knows but fancies; yet of a truth justice shall overtake the artificers of lies and the false witnesses.

118. Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped, and Archilochus likewise.

119. One day is like any other.

120. Man’s character is his fate.

121. There awaits men when they die such things as they look not for nor dream of.

122. …that they rise up and become the wakeful guardians of the quick and dead.

123. Night-walkers, Magians, priests of Bakchos and priestesses of the wine-vat, mystery-mongers…

124. The mysteries practiced among men are unholy mysteries.

125. And they pray to these images, as if one were to talk with a man’s house, knowing not what gods or heroes are.

126. For if it were not to Dionysus that they made a procession and sang the shameful phallic hymn, they would be acting most shamelessly. But Hades is the same as Dionysus in whose honor they go mad and keep the feast of the wine-vat.

127, 128. They vainly purify themselves by defiling themselves with blood, just as if one who had stepped into the mud were to wash his feet in mud. Any man who marked him doing thus, would deem him mad.


from things that have happened and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing finer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason… E.HEMINGWAY

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propogate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death. To plow and harrow his soul.” ANDREI TARKOVSKY

“As I see it, life is an effort to grip before they slip through ones fingers and slide into oblivion, the startling, the ghastly or the blindingly exquisite fish of the imagination, before they whip away into the endless current and are lost forever in oblivion’s black ocean.”

The purpose of art is to tidy up one’s interior and exterior worlds. MERVYN PEAKE

“One absorbs all these feelings and ideas: if one is lucky they undergo an alchemestic transformation into gold and that is creative work.” JOHN WELLS 1948

“The symbol is not an allegory and not a sign, but an image of a content that largely transcends consciousness.”

…to take memory and make it new – to take the forgotten dead of the past and bring them to life again, through memory. . . . the psyche is an instrument for both caring for and containing the past, and for reconciling it to the present. . . .the power of inspiration that dwelt in memories of loss.