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Heraclides Ponticus


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4th cent. bc philosopher of the Academy. Born of a wealthy and aristocratic family in Heraclea Pontica, he came to Plato's Academy in Athens as a pupil of Speusippus. Like other Academics, he wrote a version of Plato's lectures On the Good; he also studied with Aristotle, probably while Aristotle was still in the Academic school (he does not really belong to Die Schule des Aristoteles, the ‘school of Aristotle’). He was placed in temporary charge of the Academy during Plato's third visit to Sicily (361/0) and after the death of Plato's successor Speusippus (338) he was runner-up for the headship of the school. He returned to Heraclea. He was still alive at the time of Aristotle's death in 322.

The fragments of his writings, mostly dialogues, reveal the wide variety of his interests—ethical, political, physical, historical, and literary. Diog. Laert. 5. 86–8 gives a list of his writings; more are mentioned in other sources.

Heraclides' significance for posterity lies in four directions: in the distinctive form of his dialogues; in physics, particularly astronomy; in his eschatology; and in his contribution to the Pythagorean legend (see PYTHAGORAS). His dialogues were famous for their elaborate proems, their colourful use of historical personages, and the seductive quality of their anecedotes and myths. They influenced Cicero, whose De republica may give some indication of their characteristics, and Plutarch.

On astronomy, although the evidence is confused and even contradictory, it seems probable that Heraclides held (1) that the universe is infinite; (2) that the earth rotates on its axis once daily from west to east at the centre of the cosmos; (3) that the sun circles around the earth from east to west in the ecliptic once a year; and (4) that the planets Venus and Mercury move in circular orbits with the sun as centre. One repeated testimonium (113 Wehrli) says that he claimed along with certain Pythagoreans that each of the stars is a separate cosmos.

(1) that the universe is infinite; (2) that the earth rotates on its axis once daily from west to east at the centre of the cosmos; (3) that the sun circles around the earth from east to west in the ecliptic once a year; and (4) that the planets Venus and Mercury move in circular orbits with the sun as centre. One repeated testimonium (113 Wehrli) says that he claimed along with certain Pythagoreans that each of the stars is a separate cosmos.

In physics he had a theory of ‘seamless masses’ (anarmoi onkoi), a term also found in testimonia about the physiology of the doctor Asclepiades of Prusias in Bithynia (1st cent. bc). Whatever significance they had for Asclepiades, it seems probable that for Heraclides they represented the elementary particles of Plato's Timaeus, which unlike atoms can somehow dissolve into fragments and regroup so as to form a different element.

In a way typical of 4th-cent. philosophy, Heraclides combined this interest in science with an interest in eschatology and in such shamanistic figures, real or invented, as Empedotimus, Abaris, Pythagoras, and Empedocles. In the vision of Empedotimus (frs. 96 and 98 Wehrli) the soul is described as substantial light, having its origin in the Milky Way.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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