The Curious Case of Heraclitus and the Cow Dung

Heraclitus of Epheseus is without doubt the most diverting of the pre-Socratic philosophers. Not, it must be said, for his philosophical output, which is irksomely enigmatic, but rather for his curmudgeonly nature, and, in particular, for his spectacularly malodorous death.

It is true that we do not know exactly how Heraclitus died, but Diogenes Laertius seems convinced it involved copious amounts of cow dung.

"And at last becoming a complete misanthrope, he used to live, spending his time in walking about the mountains; feeding on grasses and plants, and in consequence of these habits, he was attacked by the dropsy, and so then he returned to the city... [H]e shut himself up in a stable for oxen, and covered himself with cow-dung, hoping to cause the wet to evaporate from him, by the warmth that this produced. And as he did himself no good in this way, he died, having lived seventy years...

But Hermippus states, that what he asked the physicians was this, whether any one could draw off the water by depressing his intestines? and when they answered that they could not, he placed himself in the sun, and ordered his servants to plaster him over with cow-dung; and being stretched out in that way, on the second day he died, and was buried in the market-place. But Neanthes, of Cyzicus says, that as he could not tear off the cow-dung, he remained there, and on account of the alteration in his appearance, he was not discovered, and so was devoured by the dogs."

(Source: Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book 9)

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