Heraclitus DK 36

Marcovich’s text reads: νέκυες κοπρἰων ἐκβλητότεροι.

My translation: “corpses [are] more to be thrown out than dung.”

1. When used of dead bodies, ἐκβάλλω has the idiomatic sense of “expose” (LSJ). This always has overtones of disgrace. Thus in Sophocles’s Aias, Teukros cries for Zeus to avenge Agamemnon and Menelaos’ injustice for ordering “to expose it,” i.e. Aias’s body, “without a tomb” (1388: αὐτὸν ἐκβαλεῖν ταφῆς ἄτερ). Likewise, Euripides’ Creon orders Polyneices’ body be exposed unburied (Phoenician Women 1629-30: νέκυν | ἐκβάλετ’ ἄθαπτον). And finally Plato, quoting Euripides almost verbatim, has his Athenian stranger suggest the same as punishment for false diviners seeking monetary gain (cf. Laws 909a-d, esp. c4). The words for tomb here are all derivative of θάπτω, which properly refers to the ceremony or rites surrounding death.

2. What is the indignity? In each case, the indignity is tied to a lack of funeral rites, understood commonly, i.e. initially, in the sense of a tomb. The natural process of death stands at the beginning of the human being’s return to nature. We follow this natural process with the human process of funeral rites qua tomb. At first blush, the tomb seems to preserve the dead person’s individuality, whose dissolution death threatens. But not every rite’s “tomb” simply preserves. Rather, the added process allows its performer to come to terms with or approve of the return to nature. If we assume for the moment that such approval takes the form of a tomb’s concealment, then the funeral rite puts death under the control of the will, so far as possible: “I, not death, have returned the dead to nature.” The indignity is the frustration of this will (thus a god must guarantee rites) to control death’s consequences, i.e. the dissolution of the dead person’s individuality.

3. κόπριον is in the plural, which is odd for a mass noun, as with, e.g., water, air, etc. Mass nouns name things lacking articulated, proper parts. Every dung is already dungs. Precisely what dung is by nature does death bring about in humans. The return to nature threatens to expose that “man” is just a mass noun: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” The plural κοπρία thus draws attention to the difference between it and ἄνθρωποι: the possibility of individuation.*

4. Why is ἔκβλητος comparative? Funeral rites expedite the return to nature. In this sense, what tomb conceals is what’s common to man and dung. And while we know what dung is, we do not know ourselves. The proper action is not a funeral rite, therefore, but exposure, throwing out. The funeral rite is comprehensible at the price of being concealing, as a tomb; it is revealing at the price of being incomprehensible, of being a letting-lie, an action of inaction.

5. But isn’t exposure, throwing out, also a human process, even if only negatively, and so in some sense a sort of rite? “Of this λόγος that is always do human beings come to be uncomprehending” (DK 1): Heraclitus speaks to the nature of a thing in an apparently illogical λόγος, while this rite speaks to the nature of death in an apparently unritualistic rite. Both accept the challenge to find a point of access to a thing’s universal nature from within the variety of experiences of that thing; but both confound thereby the comprehension of everyday speech and action.


*Accordingly, the translation of κοπρία as “dunghills” does not affect the issue: two human beings surely do not come together in the way two dunghills do.