I lit upon this quote on p. 177 in National Geographic's photo book Sublime Nature, that I riffled through based on recent posts. Goodreads has it.

I don't know any philosophy, and don't understand these comments. The first one explains my bewilderment. How can a human expect the unexpected?

It contains within it the standard sort of paradoxical reasoning that Heraclitus usually employs - we can expect and encounter the unexpected, and yet we cannot search for it? What on earth this means is a bit bewildering. You might think, after all, that the unexpected is exactly the thing you can't expect, and this must be Heraclitus' more general point. You can try to expect the unexpected as such, but unexpected as it is you can't go looking for it (by definition) in the particular.


TL;DR: No-one knows exactly what Heraclitus meant. The trouble is that Heraclitus’ book has been lost and all that remains are fragments that survived through being quoted by other authors.

Here’s a selection of translations of this fragment:

If you do not hope, you will not win that which is not hoped for, since it is unattainable and inaccessible.

Ingram Bywater (1889). The Fragments of the Work of Heraclitus of Ephesus on Nature, p. 86. Baltimore: N. Murray.

Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find [truth], for it is hard to discover and hard to attain.

Philip Wheelwright (1959). Heraclitus, p. 20. Princeton University Press.

If 〈he〉 doesn’t expect 〈the〉 unexpected, 〈he〉 will not discover 〈it〉; for 〈it〉 is difficult to discover and intractable.

T. M. Robinson (1987). Heraclitus: Fragments, p. 94. University of Toronto Press.

Whoever cannot seek
the unforeseen sees nothing
for the known way
is an impasse.

Brooks Haxton (2001). Fragments: the Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. Viking Penguin.

The fragment was preserved by the second-century Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata (miscellanies). In book II, chapter 4, Clement is discussing whether faith is the foundation of knowledge:

Now to hear is to understand. If, then, faith is nothing else than a preconception of the mind in regard to what is the subject of discourse, and obedience is so called, and understanding and persuasion; no one shall learn aught without faith, since no one [learns aught] without preconception. Consequently there is a more ample demonstration of the complete truth of what was spoken by the prophet, “Unless ye believe, neither will ye understand.”† Paraphrasing this oracle, Heraclitus of Ephesus says, “If a man hope not, he will not find that which is not hoped for, seeing it is inscrutable and inaccessible.”

Clement of Alexandria (c. 200). Stromata, book II, chapter 4. Translated by William Wilson (1867). Ante-Nicene Christian Library, volume XII, p. 11. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Isaiah 7:9. ‡ “ἐὰν μὴ ἔλπηται ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει, ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον.”

You can see that Clement has interpreted Heraclitus as if he were paraphrasing Isaiah, and expressing the idea that you have to make a leap of faith in order to understand the truth. Of course this is anachronistic—Heraclitus could have known nothing of Isaiah or Christianity—but it is in keeping with the Neoplatonist project to make Christianity acceptable to the Greeks and Greek philosophy acceptable to Christians. Maybe Heraclitus really meant something along these lines, but since the context has been lost we can’t be sure.

Here’s a modern interpretation, for contrast:

Two slightly different interpretations of this fragment are possible, depending on whether one understands ἔλπηται to mean ‘expect’ or ‘are hoping for’ (both are in theory possible). […] Heraclitus’ point seems to be the straightforward one that life after death is different from what people expect and imagine; further discussion of the matter, as so often, he tantalizingly avoids. One inference can, however, fairly be drawn from this and other fragments: his conviction of the misleading nature, if not downright falsity, of the detailed accounts of the afterlife prevalent in contemporary Orphism.

T. M. Robinson (1987). Heraclitus: Fragments, p. 94. University of Toronto Press.

I don’t find Robinson’s interpretation at all compelling, because there’s no indication in the fragment that Heraclitus is referring to the afterlife, and Clement (who, even if he is motivated to shoehorn Heraclitus into the Christian point of view, has the advantage of having read Heraclitus in context) doesn’t seem to take him that way; because we don’t know that Heraclitus avoided further discussion, but only that Clement did not quote it; and because if you take “he doesn’t expect the unexpected” to mean “life after death is different from what people expect” then what does “he will not discover it” mean?

  • I think it would be fair enough to say that Heraclitus' meaning was closer to "expecting the unexpected" (as the OP quotes, from whatever translation it comes; something similar is in Charles Kahn's translation) than "hoping for the unhoped for" as Clement's translator has it, just because the meaning is more coherent. (FYI Platonists before Plotinus are called "Middle Platonists" by convention, not "Neoplatonists")
    – b a
    Jan 6 at 3:16
  • @ba: Thanks for correcting the pointing. I've added some more translations for comparison. Jan 6 at 9:49

It's straight forward to me, without any paradox.

Philip Wheelwright's translation (taken from Gareth Rees's answer) seems to say it most clearly:

Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find [truth], for it is hard to discover and hard to attain.

When you are searching, if you look at only those facts and ideas that fit with what you already know, you'll never find the truth.

Consider the current US political situation. Suppose a Democrat/Republican is searching for proof that the Republicans/Democrats somehow managed to rig the election. They expect to eventually find the proof, and will almost certainly only follow leads that confirm what they already know. It would be a very unexpected event if they were to encounter something potentially indicating that their own party cheated. Their closed minds might not even be aware that it is there, and they'll almost certainly not follow that path.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead — Extract from Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, 27 Dec. 1820

To find the truth one must be prepared to be surprised by it.

  • 1
    This is what you would have meant by the sentence, but is it what Heraclitus meant?! The word "truth" doesn't appear in the original Greek: the translator has had to add it (that's what the square brackets indicate). But why does the translator think that Heraclitus is referring to truth at all? Because that's what Clement seems to think Heraclitus means, and Clement has the advantage over us of having read Heraclitus. But if you are going to accept Clement's interpretation of one part of the quote, how can you reject his interpretation of the rest of it? Jan 7 at 11:37
  • @GarethRees, yes, "truth" can be a metaphor for anything one is looking for; the word itself isn't of great importance. ¶ Clement's paraphrase, "If a man hope not, he will not find that which is not hoped for, seeing it is inscrutable and inaccessible" is the exact opposite of what is quoted in the question Title. Is there even a source for that wording: "if you do not expect the unexpected", or is it a modern English saying that sounds something like what Heraclitus meant? ¶ My answer is based on the Title question, assuming that Heraclitus actually said that phrase. Jan 7 at 14:22
  • 1
    All the different English versions, including the one in the question, are attempts to translate the sentence attributed to Heraclitus by Clement of Alexandria. See here for the full context in which Clement quotes it. Jan 7 at 14:49

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