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Heraclitus of Ephesus

Heraclitus of Ephesus

(fl. ca. 500 b.c.)

moral philosophy, natural philosophy.

Heraclitus wrote a book (see Diogenes Laërtius IX, 5), fragments of which survive in other authors of classic antiquity as quotations, paraphrases, and references. The work was apparently a collection of apothegms similar in style to the Delphic oracle, which (as he says in fr. 93) “neither states anything nor conceals it but gives a sign.” The surviving fragments are full of word play and deliberate ambiguity. For ideas about the order of Heraclitus’ exposition, and about the context and interpretation of particular fragments, we are dependent on later authors, who certainly quote him tendentiously. They themselves found him difficult to understand and nicknamed him “the dark one.” There is very little agreement among modern scholars and philosophers on the nature of Heraclitus’ thought.

Heraclitus is the first Greek philosopher to emerge as a personality. His style is unique, and he seems determined to tease his hearers with difficult challenges to their understanding, accompanied by caustic remarks about their lack of intelligence. The ancient biography (Diogenes Laërtius IX, 1) says he was an arrogant misanthrope.

In the discussion below, references are given according to the arrangement in Diels and Kranz, Fragmente dcr Vorsokratiker.

Heraclitus presents himself as the vehicle, rather than the author (see fr. 50), of a divine logos which is uttered by him but is also something like a law which directs the natural world just as a city’s laws, which are “nurtured by the one divine law,” maintain balanced relationships among the citizens (see frs. 1, 2, 114).

The balance that is maintained in the universe is between opposites in tension with each other. “Men do not understand how, being pulled apart, it is in accord with itself: a harmony, turning back on itself, as in the bow and the lyre” (fr, 51). The bow and the lyre have their virtue in the tension of a string pulled in opposite directions. The most striking feature of the surviving fragments is the frequent recurrence of binary oppositions. They are not the same as the “contraries” which Aristotle picked out as crucial to the theories of the early Greek physiologoi (Physics A, 4–5): the hot and the cold, the dry and the wet, and other pairs of opposed physical properties and things. It is possible to recognize the hot and the cold, the dry and the wet, in fragment 126; but the majority of the pairs are either concerned with the properties of living beings (for instance, sleeping and waking, life and death, plenty and hunger, youth and age, men and gods, health and sickness), or else they are verbal expressions (to be willing and unwilling, to be present and absent, to agree and to differ, to kindle and to quench).

Heraclitus characteristically says that these binary opposites are the same, that they are one. “The way up and the way down is one and the same” (fr. 60); “Beginning and end, on a circle’s circumference, are common” (fr. 103); “Hesiod is the teacher of most men: they are convinced that he knows most—who did not know day and night; for they are one” (fr. 57); “Junctions are wholes and not wholes, agreeing and diverging, being in tune and out of tune, and out of all, one, and out of one, all” (fr. 10).

Heraclitus’ logos, it seems, is this pattern of sameness and contrariety, manifested in the physical world and in human life. The opposites are sometimes unified by being in tension with each other, or by being at war. “War is father of all, king of all; some he reveals as gods, some as men, some he makes slaves, some free” (fr. 53); “It must be known that war is common and strife is justice and all things happen in accordance with strife and necessity” (fr. 80). Sometimes opposites are unified by being changed into each other: “In us the same is living and dead, awake and asleep, young and old, for these, transformed, are those, and those, transformed, are these” (fr. 88); “Cold things are warmed, warm cooled, wet dried, parched moistened” (fr. 126). Sometimes they are unified as correlatives: “It is sickness that makes health sweet and good, hunger satiety, tiredness rest” (fr. 111). Other modes of unification can be distinguished, but it is hard to find any systematic importance in the different modes.

It may be that for Heraclitus himself the main point was a message about the human soul, its continuity in life and death, and its connection with the divine logos and the “ever-living fire.” Yet in the history of natural philosophy it was for the physical doctrine attributed to him that he won most fame. Plato (Cratylus, 402a) attributes to him the doctrine that “all things are in flux and nothing is stable,” and this doctrine is taken to imply that sense perception cannot be equated with knowledge (Theaetetus, 181c-k). The same view of Heraclitus was taken by Aristotle (for instance, Metaphysics A 6, 987a29; Physics VIII 3, 253b9; Topics A 11, 104b19) and passed into common tradition.

The best direct evidence for the flux doctrine is contained in the fragments that use the images of fire and rivers. “This cosmos was made by no god or man, but always was and is and will be: ever-living fire, kindling in measures and quenching in measures” (fr. 30), Unfortunately. it is unclear what “cosmos” means here, since it is not certain that it was used in the sense of world order as early as Heraclitus; some argue that in this fragment it means any instance of order in the natural world. Ancient doxographers, taking a hint from Aristotle (Metaphysics A 3, 984a5), assumed that for Heraclitus fire played the same role—that of originative substance from which the whole world grew—as water for Thales, the Boundless for Anaximander, and air for Anaximenes. This assumption led to the attribution to Heraclitus of the Stoic doctrine of a periodic world conflagration (ekpyrosis). This attribution has had some recent defenders (especially O. Gigon), but it is more likely that Heraclitus meant to use fire as a paradigm for explaining (some or all) continuing natural processes: fire consumes things and changes them into itself, as smoke or hot vapor, and later there is condensation and the re-formation of liquids and solids. This description may well apply to such things as seasonal changes in the cosmos (see especially fr. 31);, but there is some rather uncertain evidence that it also has to do with life cycles. This depends on fragments about souls (psychai), which seem to associate life and good functioning with a fiery state, and death with water (frs. 66, 68).

Aristotle (Metaphysics Γ 5, 1010a7 ff.) says that Cratylus criticized his master Heraclitus for saying that it is not possible to step twice into the same river: Cratylus thought it was impossible even once. Ancient writers took this argument to refer to a doctrine that all things are in flux and unknowable. It has recently been argued, especially by G. S. Kirk, that nothing in the relevant fragments (12, 49a, 91) requires us to think that the river analogy must apply to all things; and that the main thrust of Heraclitus’ thought is not that all things change even though they seem permanent, but that the changes that do take place are measured and balanced. The tradition about the doctrine of universal flux is probably right, but there is no evidence that Heraclitus turned the doctrine into an argument to show that the natural world is unknowable.

A strange astronomy, in which the heavenly bodies are bowls of fire, is attributed to Heraclitus by the doxographers. It is very unlikely to have been intended seriously as a rival to others. When Heraclitus was placed in succession with other physiologoi, it was supposed that he answered the same questions as the others, and odd hints in his work were elaborated into a theory. He wrote “The sun is new every day” (fr. 6), but without context this is hard to interpret. “The sun will not overstep his measures, otherwise the Furies, ministers of Justice, will find him out” (fr. 94) appears to notice the regularity of the sun’s motions but does not otherwise seem like astronomy.

Heraclitus criticized Hesiod, Pythagoras, and Xenophanes by name (fr. 40). It appears likely that he also criticized the doctrines of the Milesian school, chiefly for misunderstanding the role of opposites in the world. They believed opposites to be a secondary development from an original undifferentiated stuff; for Heraclitus, opposites and the constant tension between them were primary. Whether or not he developed a positive cosmological system of his own, the system attributed to him by Plato and Aristotle was a very important factor in Greek cosmology, as can be seen, for instance, in Plato’s Theaetetus 181a, where thinkers are divided into “flux men” and “stationary men.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. The complete Greek fragments, with German trans., are collected in H. Diels and W. Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 5th ed., I (Berlin, 1934); there are many later reprints. Other noteworthy eds. are I. Bywater, Heracliti Ephesii reliquiae (Oxford, 1877); R. Walzer, Eraclito: Raccolta dei franmmenti e traduzione italiana (Florence, 1939; repr. Hildesheim, 1964); G. S. Kirk, Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge, 1954: repr. with corrections, 1962); R. Mondolfo, Heráclito: Textos y problemas de su interpretación (Mexico City, 1966); and M. Marcovich, Heraclitus: Greek Text With a Short Commentary (Mérida, 1967).

II. Secondary Literature. Books and articles on Heraclitus include the following, listed chronologically: O. Gigon, Untersuchungen zu Heraklit (Leipzig, 1935); H. Fränkel, “A Thought Pattern in Heraclitus,” in American Journal of Philology, 59 (1938), 309–337; K. Reinhardt, “Heraklits Lehre vom Feuer,” in Hermes (Wiesbaden), 77 (1942), 1–27; H. Fränkel, Dichtung und Philosophic des früher Griechentums (New York, 1951), pp. 474–505, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1963), pp. 422–453; G. Vlastos, “On Heraclitus,” in American Journal of Philology, 76 (1955), 337–368; E. Zeller and R. Mondolfo, La filosofia dei greci nel suo sviluppo storieo I. 4 (Florence, 1961); W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, I (Cambridge, 1962), 403–492; Charles H. Kahn. “A New Look at Heraclitus.” in American Philosophical Quarterly, 1 (1964), 189–203; and M, Marcovich, in Pauly-Wissowa, supp. X (Stuttgart, 1965), cols. 246–320.

David J. Furley

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Heraclitus

Heraclitus

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (active 500 B.C.) attempted to explain the nature of the universe by assuming the existence of the logos, that is, order or reason, as the unifying principle which guides all things and by specifying fire as the basic substance which underlies physical reality.

Heraclitus was born in the lonian city of Ephesus and is said to have renounced the privileges to which his social rank entitled him (perhaps the kingship) in favor of his brother. The available evidence for his life is too scanty for a clear picture to emerge. He is a solitary figure who claims to have sought the truth within himself, and although his work shows familiarity with the writings of other philosophers, particularly those of Anaximander, both his unique ideas and his peculiar literary style set him apart.

Many fragments of Heraclitus's work, commonly known as On the Nature of the Universe, have survived, although their interpretation is made difficult by their lack of context and by the abbreviated, oracular style in which they were written. Because of the difficulty of his thought, Heraclitus was known throughout the ancient world as "the Obscure" (skoteinos). The basis of his philosophy is the world of appearance, the sensible world. All things are constantly changing, and thus it is impossible to step into the same stream twice. Change is due to the mutual resolution of opposites such as hot and cold, day and night, hunger and satiety, although underlying all change and guiding it is a basic unity expressed by the idea of the logos. He also believes that that which seems to be at variance with itself through conflict or tension is in reality expressive of a kind of harmony. He asserts that the truth of the logos is partially expressed by the concept of Zeus.

Although the cosmos, in Heraclitus's view, has always existed and therefore did not come into being at some arbitrary point in time, fire, under the influence and guidance of the logos, is the basic substance in it, and all elements are some transformation of it. It is not completely independent but is infused with the logos, as is the human soul, and it is for this reason that the soul may come to grasp the truth of the cosmos, although human understanding may reach only childish limits.

Heraclitus enjoins men to learn the nature of the universe through an understanding of their own souls and has been considered as the first mental philosopher. Exact language and thought are of paramount importance to him, since he conceives of the logos as both the underlying order in the cosmos and the soul's discourse upon it. Since the truth is complex and difficult to grasp, he uses the oracular style of Delphi and merely hopes to "indicate" the truth.

He is important as one of the first Greek philosophers to take up the problem of knowledge, and he is undoubtedly the first to stress the importance of an understanding of the soul as a step toward understanding the external world order. His writing provided much of the theoretical basis for Stoicism.

Further Reading

Selected passages of Heraclitus's work with English translation and commentary are in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (1965). Excellent discussions of Heraclitus's importance are in John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (1920), and Kathleen Freeman, The Presocratic Philosophers (1948). See also Philip E. Wheelwright, Heraclitus (1959). General discussions of Pre-Socratic philosophy in its intellectual tradition are in the standard histories of Greek literature, such as that by Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature (1966). □

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Heraclitus

Heraclitus (hĕrəklī´təs), c.535–c.475 BC, Greek philosopher of Ephesus, of noble birth. According to Heraclitus, there was no permanent reality except the reality of change; permanence was an illusion of the senses. He taught that all things carried with them their opposites, that death was potential in life, that being and not-being were part of every whole—therefore, the only possible real state was the transitional one of becoming. He believed fire to be the underlying substance of the universe and all other elements transformations of it. He identified life and reason with fire and believed that no man had a soul of his own, that each shared in a universal soul-fire.

See his Cosmic Fragments, ed. by G. S. Kirk (1954, repr. 1962); study by G. O. Griffith (1977).

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Heraclitus

Heraclitus (c.536–c.470 bc) Greek philosopher, b. Ephesus, Asia Minor. He believed that the outward, unchanging face of the universe masked a dynamic equilibrium in which all things were constantly changing, but with opposites remaining in balance. The elemental substance connecting everything was fire. Two sayings sum up his world view: “All things change” and “You cannot step into the same river twice”.

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Heraclitus

Heraclitus (c.500 bc), Greek philosopher. He believed that fire is the origin of all things and that permanence is an illusion, everything being in a (harmonious) process of constant change.

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Heraclitus

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