A white-haired man clad in black is weeping sadly. He is praying earnestly with his hands clasped in front of a giant globe. The strong light that shines from the left against the dark background highlights the man’s deep wrinkles and tears streaming from his closed eyes. Who is he and why is he weeping?
The man in the picture, painted by 17th-century Holland artist Johannes Moreelse, is Greek philosopher Heraclitus. “Good and bad are one,” “Life and death, young and old are alike,” “We cannot enter the same river twice,” are some of the philosopher’s famous quotes. His riddle-like yet philosophic words had a great impact on later generations such as German philosophers Nietzsche and Hegel.
Heraclitus was born into an aristocrat family 535 B.C., but gave up all his social status and lived as a free man. He studied on his own and obtained philosophical understanding, but he was known for his sharp tongue, criticizing leading thinkers of his time as well as the public. He was always alone and suffered from gloom and opted to live in seclusion. Naturally he became known as “dark philosopher” or “weeping philosopher.”
Many artists painted the philosopher as a symbol of sadness and loneliness, but Moreelses’ painting is the most well-known. Having passed away at 31 years, the artist did not leave many paintings behind but he was brought into the spotlight of this painting for his bold composition, strong light and shade contrast and outstanding character expression.
The artist painted a large globe, which symbolizes the world, in the left of the picture. Thus the white-haired philosopher is not weeping for his own good, but crying out of concern for the world. Tears are not expressions of weakness; rather they are expressions of strong feeling. The sadness, loneliness and despair felt by modern-day people would be just as intense as the emotions of the ancient philosopher. What do we weep for? This may be the question posed by the painting “Heraclitus.”