Heraclitus DK 125

Marcovich’s text reads: ὁ κυκεὼν διίσταται <μὴ> κινούμενος.

My translation: “the barley-drink separates when not stirred.”

1. “Barley-drink” translates κυκεών. This translation, proposed by LSJ, is based on Iliad XI.623-41, where Nestor’s servant Hekamede prepares a κυκεών made of wine, grated goat cheese, and barley. This barley-drink is intended to heal the wounded Machaon, whom Nestor has ushered from battle to his shelter. The ingredients of the drink of course call for stirring. We might compare this κυκεών to a Bloody Mary.

2. Whether Heraclitus intends this particular drink is not clear; but that he intends a heterogeneous drink is. The desired homogeneity of the parts of the drink is achieved only with stirring. And likewise, when homogeneity is achieved, the stirring may stop, but at the price of the eventual loss of homogeneity.

3. When juxtaposed, each of the fragment’s three words—κυκεών, διίστημι, and κινέω—has both a general and a precise sense. Κυκεών derives from the verb κυκάω, “to mix” or “to stir,” and so could also simply mean “mixture.” Further, διίστημι generally means “to stand apart.” And finally, κινέω usually means “to move” or “to set in motion.” A second translation is therefore possible: “the mixture stands apart when not moved.”*

4. The fragment thus locates in a particular experience a general rule, namely that the unity of homogeneity comes only through the mixing movement of the heterogeneous parts. What stand apart are not yet a mixture, for they only reveal themselves as a mixture upon being set in motion. The same holds true not just of the barley-drink, but of that admittedly incomprehensible juxtaposition of parts, the Heraclitean saying—and, more generally, Heraclitus’ λόγος. The saying only reveals its meaning upon a consideration of the various parts, not simply in their apartness, i.e. in the various meanings of the individual words, but in the consideration of the unified meaning that emerges from their various combinations.

5. And yet this fragment serves as more than Heraclitus’ hermeneutics. The text locates a general rule in two experiences, that of preparing a drink and that of reading Heraclitus. In so doing, it functions as a model of knowledge, in which the heterogeneous variety of experiences discloses its unity only with the motion of thought. But as the fragment shows, the unity of the general always shows itself in the heterogeneity of its parts—first in the ingredients of the drink, second in the words of the saying, and third in the two experiences of the general. The fragment itself shows the way to knowledge through two particulars, stirring and reading, and only through these particulars does the way show itself as a way.

6. Thus, when not stirring or stirred by our experiences, we fall into the ignorance of particularity. More than many of the other fragments, if not all, does 125 appear to state with clarity that ambiguous approximation of human wisdom to the divine.**


* It appears that κυκεών usually has the precise sense of “barley-drink” and κινέω the general sense of “set in motion,” while the precise and general senses align more for διίστημι than for the other two. If this is the case and the original word order Heraclitus’, then he brings us word-by-word from the precise to the general. Cf. LSJ entries for κυκεών, II: “metaph[orically],” i.e. only secondarily, “of any mixture, medley”; for κινέω, B.1, where “stir” has the sense found in “not a creature was stirring”; and for διίστημι generally.

** If, as Iliad XI suggests, the κυκεών is primarily medical in purpose, then the word lends urgency to understanding. Of course, the question remains as to whether the metaphor is meant to apply not only to mixing the κυκεών, but drinking it, as well. Cf. Aristophanes Peace 710-12 and Plato Republic 407e-8b contra LSJ entry for κυκεών, I: “later, various ingredients were used, esp[ecially] for medical use” (emphasis added).