Heraclitus of Ephesus

views updated May 23 2018


Heraclitus of Ephesus is an early Greek philosopher who lived around the end of the sixth century BCE. He was a native of Ephesus, an important Ionian city just north of Miletus on the western coast of Asia Minor, and his father's name was Bloson. If the story can be credited that he voluntarily surrendered to his brother a hereditary right to a ceremonial kingship, Heraclitus would be the oldest son of an old noble family. His birth and death dates are uncertain, but the evidence of our doubtful sources would place his floruit in the reign of Darius I of Persia. The authors Heraclitus names make it impossible for his single book to be dated much before the end of the sixth century, and since he is fond of naming his rivals, the lack of any reference or allusion in his surviving words to Parmenides of Elea argues for dating Heraclitus's book before the publication of Parmenides's poem.

Tradition tells us that Heraclitus deposited his book at the great temple of Artemis in Ephesus. His dedication of his book to the goddess may be tantamount to publishing it and to making his thoughts publicly available rather than hiding his thoughts away from the vulgar, as some have surmised. This publicity would be in keeping with Heraclitus's conviction that the truth is common and open to anyone and is not a private possession of the privileged few. From antiquity, Heraclitus is infamous for his obscurity, and he was dubbed early on "the dark." His obscurity has often been credited to his emulation of the Pythian Apollo, whose oracular deliverances Heraclitus analyzes insightfully: "The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither tells nor conceals, but gives a sign" (frag. 93 Diels-Kranz). He highlights the indirection of the lord because of his conviction that the nature of things reveals itself indirectly, and he may mimic in his obscure writing what he takes to be the obscurity in reality itself. Instead of the hexameters of Apollo's priests and of the heroic poets, Heraclitus writes in prose, like most of the new intellectuals of the sixth century who were critical of the poetic tradition and undertook independent inquiry, or historiê, in a wide variety of areas.

The Milesian natural philosophers Anaximander and Anaximenes wrote on cosmology and cosmogony, while their fellow Milesian Hecataeus composed the first comprehensive geography of the Greeks, which in part he based upon what he learned from his own voyages. The fragments of Heraclitus's book, of which there are more than a hundred, provide the first substantial sample of Greek prose. Yet Heraclitus is also the most poetic of the early prose authors; he displays skillful use of traditional poetic devices, such as parallel and antithetical sentence constructions, chiasmus, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and ring composition, as well as an adept use of wordplay that enhances his message. His book was probably not a continuous treatise of unbroken prose but a sequence of short passages, some of which are pithy enough in their moral import to look like a maxim of the Seven Wise Men: "It is hard to fight with anger; for whatever it should want it buys with the soul" (frag. 85 D-K). Despite his much-heralded obscurity, many of his sayings are as straightforward as this astute observation on moral psychology.

The Logos and the Unity of Opposites

Like his older contemporary Xenophanes of Colophon, Heraclitus is openly critical of the poets of the ancient past, but he also includes among his targets contemporary intellectuals. He is critical of "Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataeus" for their "polymathy" that does not yield "understanding" (frag. 40 D-K). He finds "much learning" an impediment to understanding, and this puts him at odds with the new intellectuals who practicehistoriê, which depends upon polymathy. "Understanding" comes from heeding what Heraclitus calls "the Logos," by which "all things come to be," and whose message the common stock of humanity fail to appreciate, as well as those reputed to be wise. They live in a private world of their own making, comparable to dreams, but those who harken to the Logos live in the one public world of the wakeful (frag. 89 D-K). Along with Xenophanes, Heraclitus is among the first of the new breed of intellectuals to make an issue of the human epistemic condition.

The nature of this Logos is contested. Some scholars understand it as the nature or essence of reality, as it shows itself in discourse, others as a universal principle or law that regulates the basic workings of reality, and a few render it as Heraclitus's true account of reality in the form of his own book, or logos. With his predilection for wordplay, Heraclitus could well allow Logos to stand for both his book and the subject of his book. He lays down a telling parallel when he urges "those speaking with understanding" to hold to what is "common to all things," presumably the Logos, just as a city holds to its "laws." The commonality of the Logos would be comparable to the way in which the laws of a city apply across the whole of its citizenry, as the rules that regulate their behavior and shape them into a single community, and not to the way the air of Anaximenes's cosmology is the common constitution of all things. What is comparable to "human laws" is also what they are "nourished by," "by one, the divine," which in his ambiguity Heraclitus may intend to be "the one divine law" (frag. 114 D-K). The importance of what sustains "human laws" devolves upon them, so that "The people must fight for the law as for a city wall" (frag. 44 D-K).

The one surviving explicit message of the Logos declares that "all things are one" (frag. 50 D-K). This unity is not the oneness of the monism Aristotle credits the earliest natural philosophers with advocating, but the unity of opposites. This "connection" lies "unseen" (frag. 54 D-K), beyond the patterns of ordinary ways of thinking, as well as the teachings of the old authorities and of the new intellectuals. A "strife" between opposing powers lies hidden within the nature of each thing, and without this strife, the cosmos and everything in it would perish. While contesting with one another, the opposing powers within the essence of each thing cooperate with one another and yield a unified object: "They do not comprehend how each thing quarreling with itself agrees; it is a connection turning back on itself, like that of the bow and the lyre" (frag. 51 D-K). There would be no bow or lyre unless there were a striving between the wood and string through their powers of pulling in opposing directions.

At the cosmic level, the unity of opposites displays itself in the strife between the great cosmic powers of the hot and cold, the dry and moist, since even as they strive with one another for dominion, in the form of fire, water, and earth, they are tightly linked. The destruction of one cosmic mass is the generation of another, "death for water is the birth of earth, from earth water is born" (frag. 36 D-K), where birth and death unite in a single event. The strife between opposing powers is beneficent and just, and "justice is strife" (frag. 80 D-K), contrary to the teaching of Anaximander, who describes the dominion of one opposite over another as "injustice." When people count some things as just and others as unjust, they divide justice from injustice, but from the objective position of god, all things are "fair and good and just" (frag. 102 D-K). The division between opposites is real enough, but so too is the unity, "it scatters and again brings together" (frag. 91b D-K). This divisive thought of the popular imagination leads to a false impression, which Homer fosters, that the positive of the pair is preferable, morally superior, and should dominate. Aristotle reports that Heraclitus criticizes Achilles's lament, "Would that strife might perish from among gods and men" (Iliad 18.107), since without strife there would be no peace, no coherent cosmos.

Heraclitus's originality lies most prominently in his efforts at establishing the integrity of each thing through the unity of opposing powers within each thing, and he revolutionizes thought about values through his insistence upon this unity. No opposite can be valued to the exclusion of its counterpart g powers, because of the various ways in which they are tied to one another for their presence in the world and their efficacy. Heraclitus goes beyond his predecessors in displaying the positive nature of those powers that ordinary ways of thinking deem to be purely negative.

Epistemology and Rationalism

The truth is "hidden," yet "obvious." The blind poet Homer, who is the "wisest of all the Greeks," fails to appreciate the "obvious" (frag. 56 D-K). The truth is obscure, yet it remains open to anyone's inspection through simple means of comprehension. The unity of opposites is no mysterious dogma handed down from on high, and its confirmation may be achieved through observation and argumentation, linguistic analysis, and self-reflection. Heraclitus has confidence in the truth-yielding capacity of observation, "Those things that come from sight, hearing, learning from experience, these I esteem" (frag. 55 D-K), although observation must be evaluated carefully: "Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for men if they have barbarian souls" (frag. 107 D-K). Simple arguments premised on trivial empirical truths provide evidence for the unity: "Sea water is the purest and foulest of water, for fish it is drinkable and life-sustaining, for men it is undrinkable and deadly" (frag. 61 D-K).

In his exploitation of everyday language as a pathway to truth, Heraclitus puns on an uncommon word for "bow," which differs only in accent from the common word for "life," so that he may make manifest the connection between life and death: "The name of the bow is life, but its work is death" (frag. 48 D-K). Death is life, since, for example, the destruction of earth is the birth of water. When Heraclitus notes that "they would not know the name of Justice, if these things did not exist" (frag. 23 D-K), presumably "unjust things," he draws together opposites in the belief that a "name" like "justice" has no meaning in isolation, but only with its opposite, "injustice." Heraclitus will also appeal to a word's etymology for his evidence. The assistants of Justice, he reports, are the Furies (frag. 94 D-K), whose name meshes well with his identification of justice and strife (frag. 80 D-K), since it derives from "strife."

Heraclitus, unlike many of the new intellectuals, has no use for travel and the information it yields as a means for gaining "understanding." The only "journey" he ever mentions is into one's soul, in search of oneself (frag. 101 D-K), and "You would not find out the limits of the soul by going, even traveling over every road, so deep is its logos (frag. 45 D-K). This inward journey reveals the value of a measured existence for human well-being. The "measured man" learns from self-examination the proper limits of the great destructive forces of emotion and desire. Despite Heraclitus's revolutionary reassessment of values, he shows himself still bound to tradition when he pairs self-knowledge with measure (frag. 116 D-K), which are values highly esteemed by the Pythian Apollo, whose Alcmaeonid temple posted prominently the famous maxims of the Seven Wise Men: "Know yourself" and "Nothing too much." Like the "measured man," the world-order "lives" a measured existence; the cosmos is "fire ever living, kindled in measures and in measures going out" (frag. 30 D-K). When one cosmic mass changes into another, a logos, or proportion, holds between them, so that, for instance, the sea "measures up to the same logos it was before becoming earth" (frag. 31b D-K). The cosmos is a self-regulating system that keeps within spatial and temporal limits the great destructive forces of nature: "The Sun will not step over his measures" (frag. 94 D-K).

The Logos belongs to the soul as much as anything else; thus, self-knowledge may provide a path to cosmic knowledge and to "understanding." One need not go far afield or draw upon extraordinary powers to discover the truth. Heraclitus is no pessimist, in contrast with Homer and the poets who believe that humans left to themselves without the aid of the Muses have no knowledge of recondite topics and are the victims of "rumor" (Il. 2.485486). Humankind has within its reach the truth of reality, "It belongs to all men to know themselves and to think in a measured way" (frag. 116 D-K), although Heraclitus thinks that few will ever exercise successfully these shared capacities. He tempers his optimism further when he maintains that a man hears from a divinity that he is "infantile" just as a child hears the same from a man (frag. 79 D-K), and some think that they detect poetic pessimism in his observation that "human character," in contrast with "divine," "has no judgment" (frag. 78 D-K).

Yet Heraclitus is also no mystic, if by "mysticism" is meant a private insight into the truth, vouchsafed to the few, which goes beyond the ordinary capacities of humankind. Instead of intuition, Heraclitus has recourse to argument and public verification. His rationalism holds, even if Aristotle is correct in charging him with contravening the principle of non-contradiction, when Heraclitus insists that the same thing displays opposing properties (Metaphysics, 1062A30-35). Aristotle's charge is plausible even if we may easily dispel the appearance of contradiction, when Heraclitus maintains, for example, that sea water is both pure and impure, by our pointing out that these properties are not contradictory since they are qualified in different ways by applying to different creatures: fish and humans. Heraclitus may have not been able to recognize that the ambiguity gives him only the appearance of contradiction. But he comes by his view of unity honestly, without mystery, through his appeal to argument and observation.

Change and Fire

Heraclitus argues for the truth of the unity of opposites, by arguing that the contrary pairs, the living and the dead, the waking and the sleeping, and the young and the old, are the "same" because the contraries of each pair mutually replace one another (frag. 88 D-K). Living things die, but from the remains of the dead living things emerge. Day and night are "one," thinks Heraclitus, probably because of their mutual succession (frag. 57 D-K). Heraclitus ties together inferentially two of his important doctrines when he derives the unity of opposites from the fact of change, and he may see change at the foundation of his speculations. Despite the centrality of change, its nature has been subject to exaggeration. Plato, who may be more under the influence of Cratylus than of Heraclitus, finds change to be incomprehensible, and he credits Heraclitus with a doctrine of universal flux in which reality is likened to the flow of a river, where "you could not step twice into the same river" (Cratylus 402A). These words indicate an extreme sort of change in which nothing retains its identity. The "river fragments" suggest something less extreme, that things constantly change but retain their identity: "As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them" (frag. 12 D-K). The rivers remain rivers; only the water that constitutes them is constantly changing.

Cosmic change is not chaotic, but occurs in an orderly way, as Heraclitus suggests when he speaks grandiloquently of the eternity of the world-order: "This cosmos, the same for all, no one of gods and men made, but always was and is and shall be fire ever living, kindling in measures and going out in measures" (frag. 30 D-K). The fire the cosmos is identified with changes, but in a measured way, changing in its extinction into the other great cosmic masses, and in an orderly pattern changing back again in its ignition. The flow of fire matches the flow of a river, but fire is more than an image when Heraclitus identifies it with the cosmos, and when he makes fire worth all else: "All things are an exchange for fire and fire for all things, just as gold for goods and goods for gold" (frag. 90 D-K). Heraclitus privileges fire, but not after the fashion of the monists, as Aristotle and Theophrastus would have us believe, as the stuff that constitutes all else. Theophrastus explains the "exchange" between fire and all things as fire's yielding everything else through its rarefaction and condensation, although he must admit that Heraclitus "sets out nothing clearly" (Diogenes Laertius 9.8).

It is not surprising that Theophrastus finds Heraclitus unclear, since the mercantile image of exchange, of "gold for goods and goods for gold," indicates that what is exchanged for fire is no more fire than the goods exchanged for gold are gold. In keeping with the mercantile image, the primacy of fire lies in its providing the standard that fixes the value of all else, as equivalent to so much fire, and Heraclitus may value fire above all else because it is psychic stuff: "For souls death is the birth of water, for water death is the birth of earth, from earth water is born, from water soul" (frag. 36 D-K). The sequential change back and forth between soul, water, earth suggests an exhaustive cosmic exchange, and thus the absence of the important cosmic mass of fire calls for its identification with soul. It is a "dry soul" that is "wisest and best" (frag. 118 D-K). Heraclitus has room for only three great cosmic masses, fire, water, earth, in his physics and no place for the air of Anaximenes.


The soul is the basis of life, but also of intelligence (frag. 107 D-K). Heraclitus links fiery stuff and intelligence when he says that "Thunderbolt steers all things" (frag. 64 D-K). "Thunderbolt," which stands for the guiding principle behind the cosmos, is the instrument of Zeus, the greatest god in the Greek pantheon, and Heraclitus intends for his ruling principle to be identified with the divine, but in a qualified way, when he says: "The one, the wise alone, is not willing and is willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus" (frag. 32 D-K). Heraclitus appropriates a divine name from popular religion, but he warns against its literal application. His ruling principle, like Zeus, is the most powerful of deities, but, unlike Zeus, it should not be conceived in an anthropomorphic manner. The traditional language of divine anthropomorphism shows up in his praise of strife, "War is father of all and king of all" (frag. 53 D-K), which recalls the Homeric description of Zeus as "the father of men and gods," and Zeus is the "king" of the gods.

Heraclitus borrows freely from the conventional language and images of popular religion, but he applies them in unconventional ways, and his practice suggests that he is trying to formulate a new way of talking about the divine within the idiom of the old. Among the Greeks Xenophanes initiated the criticism of anthropomorphism, but, unlike Heraclitus, he purifies his language of the traditional anthropomorphic vocabulary. In one remarkable passage, Heraclitus draws together the divine, the opposites, and perhaps even fire: "The god, day-night, winter-summer, war-peace, satiety-hunger, and it undergoes change, as when mingled with perfumes, it is named according to the pleasure of each one" (frag. 67 D-K). The divine is actually identified with the opposites, as if their union was the divinity itself, and Heraclitus may treat the god like fire when referring to its changing in accord with the perfumes mixed into it. The significance of fire corresponds to the importance of Logos; war, like the Logos, is common; strife, like the Logos, is what all things come to be in accord with (frag. 80 D-K). The Logos, fire, strife, and divinity would seem to come together in Heraclitus's thought, although there is no evident formula for the expression of their convergence.

When he subjects particular cult practices to criticism, Heraclitus proves to be harsher than Xenophanes. The age-old practice of purging oneself of blood guilt through blood sacrifice Heraclitus ridicules as comparable to washing off mud with mud, praying to statues is like "chatting with houses" (frag. 5 D-K), and the "mysteries" men now believe in do no more than "initiate into impiety" (frag. 14 D-K). The "procession" for Dionysus and the "chant for the phallus" would be shameful if they were not done for the sake of the god, and the participants in these practices do not even recognize that "Hades and Dionysus are the same" (frag. 15 D-K). Once again Heraclitus appropriates conventional divine names, but uses them in a shocking way by identifying traditional deities of widely contrasting natures, Hades and Dionysus, perhaps once more as a way of signifying the identity of life and death. The alcohol beloved of Dionysus Heraclitus condemns as turning a man into a boy by making his "soul moist" (frag. 117 D-K), and, despite the "joy" men take in moisture, it is death (frag. 77 D-K).

Heraclitus does not recommend any new practices to take the place of those he censures, in contrast with Pythagoras who recommends many new rituals to supplement those of tradition. When Heraclitus maintains that "Character for a man is fate" (frag. 119 D-K), he looks as if he were removing humankind from the tutelage of the gods. Daemon, the word for "fate," is [a] also the word for a guardian divinity, and thus in identifying a man's own character with his guardian, Heraclitus would be stressing that humans should take responsibility for their actions instead of laying blame upon the divine for their fortunes, both good and bad. Heraclitus is often thought to sanction immortality for at least some souls, perhaps of warriors: "Greater deaths are allotted greater portions" (frag. 25 D-K); "Those slain by Ares, gods and men honor" (frag. 24 D-K). Personal survival is not possible in a cosmos of universal destruction, and Heraclitus may mean no more than enlightenment when he speaks of those who "arise and become wakeful watchers of the living and the dead" (frag. 63 D-K). The wakeful may be those awakened from folly, since Heraclitus associates subjective misapprehension with sleep and objective comprehension with wakefulness (frag. 89 D-K).


There is little reason to think that Heraclitus makes any advances in physics or astronomy. Unlike the Milesians, he does not seem to take much interest in the details of natural philosophy, and the fragments speak little to the issue. His words testify to his belief in an eternal cosmos (frag. 30 D-K), even though Aristotle and Theophrastus report otherwise. His rejection of cosmogony would mark him out significantly from the early natural philosophers, although Xenophanes may, too, have championed an eternal cosmos. Theophrastus and the doxographical tradition he founded report some astronomical and meteorological speculations. Bright and dark exhalations arise from earth and sea, and "bowls" in the heaven trap the bright exhalations and form the heavenly bodies. The rotations of these bowls account for the phases of the moon and eclipses. The preponderance of bright and dark exhalations contributes to the explanations of day, night, months, seasons, years, rains, and winds. In what may be Heraclitus's own words, he traces daylight back to the sun, "If there were no sun, it would be night" (frag. 99 D-K), and he believes, along with Xenophanes, that the sun is "new each day" (frag. 6 D-K). Theophrastus concludes his report by saying that Heraclitus offers no explanation of "what the earth is like, or even about the bowls." The Hellenistic grammarian Diodotus finds Heraclitus's book to be about "man's life in society," and its statements on nature to serve only as "illustrations." (D. L. 9.15) The doxographical tradition may be misguided in assimilating Heraclitus's work to the discipline of natural philosophy. Theophrastus indicates further difficulties he had with Heraclitus's book when he maintains that some things Heraclitus wrote were "half-finished," others "inconsistent," which Theophrastus puts down to Heraclitus's "melancholy." (D. L. 9.6)


Of the Presocratic thinkers, Parmenides had the most influence, but Heraclitus may have had the most influence upon him, in drawing his attention to the problematic nature of change. Heraclitus may have had a certain vogue in the fifth century. Some minor Hippocratic authors reflect something of his paradoxicality, and Plato jokes about the fidgeting Ephesians, who are not stable enough to carry on an argument. Cratylus of Athens pushed change to such an extreme that he finds it necessary to rebuke Heraclitus for thinking that one could not step twice into the same river, when one could not step even once. Aristotle reports that in his youth, Plato was under the influence of Cratylus and found the objects of perception unknowable because of their instability. Heraclitus's most profound philosophical influence was upon the Stoics, who credited him with anticipating them. Fire has a primacy for them, and they, too, adopt a Logos as a ruling principle that is eternal, divine, and common to all things. Unlike Parmenides, Heraclitus exercises his charm well beyond antiquity and beyond philosophy. Hegel finds a positive parallel between his logic and the doctrines of Heraclitus, and T. S. Eliot spins out much of The Four Quartets in imagery borrowed from Heraclitus. Heraclitus's poetic prose attracts many to this day.

See also Anaximander; Anaximenes; Cosmology: Cratylus; Epistemology; God, Concepts of; Homer; Metaphysics; Parmenides of Elea; Philosophy of Religion; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Philosophy of Religion, Problems of; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Xenophanes of Colophon.




Diels, Hermann, with Walther Kranz. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, griechisch und deutsch. Vol. 1. 8th ed. Berlin: Weidmann, 19561959.

Texts and Commentaries

Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Marcovich, Miroslav. Heraclitus: Greek Text with a Short Commentary. Mérida: Los Andes University Press, 1967.

Robinson, Thomas M. Fragments/Heraclitus: A Text and Translation with a Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Books and Articles

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers, Vol. 1: Thales to Zeno. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 1: Earlier Presocratics and Pythagoreans. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 19621981.

Hussey, Edward. "Epistemology and Meaning in Heraclitus." In Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy Presented to G. E. L. Owen, edited by Malcolm S. Schofield and Martha C. Nussbaum. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Kirk, G. S., ed. The Cosmic Fragments. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1954.

Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts. 2nd ed., rev. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Nussbaum, Martha Craven. "Psuchê in Heraclitus." Phronesis 17 (1972): 116, 153170.

Vlastos, Gregory. "On Heraclitus." American Journal of Philology 76 (1955): 337368.

Wiggins, David. "Heraclitus' Conceptions of Flux, Fire, and Material Persistence." In Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Philosophy Presented to G. E. L. Owen, edited by Malcolm S. Schofield and Martha C. Nussbaum. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Herbert Granger (2005)

Heraclitus of Ephesus

views updated May 23 2018

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.”


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


views updated May 29 2018


Heraclitus of Ephesus, b. probably in the third quarter of the sixth century b.c. and reported to have died at the age of 60, was the most enigmatic and the most profound of the pre-Socratic thinkers. According to a seemingly reliable tradition, he belonged to a leading family of the Ephesian aristocracy. Nothing else is known definitely of his life.

Scroll Fragments. Most stories about Heraclitus appear to have been invented to illustrate features that emerge from sayings on a scroll handed down under his name. From the scroll there remain well over 100 fragments, as quoted in writers from the 4th century b.c. to the 13th a.d. The exact number is controversial, since in many instances an original Heraclitean saying cannot easily be distinguished from a quoting author's paraphrase. Though one comparatively lengthy fragment (frg. 1, H. DIELS, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, 3 v. [10th ed. Berlin 196061] 22B) stood at the beginning and another (frg. 2) followed shortly after, the rest defy modern attempts to rediscover their order on the scroll. In style they are incisive, well rounded, and oracular, as though pointing out truth vividly rather than reasoning to it or analyzing it. They reveal a haughty, aristocratic temperament, mordantly critical of accepted views.

Because the sayings were found to be obscure when approached for teachings on nature, they earned their author in subsequent tradition the epithet of "dark" or "obscure" (Gr. σκοτεινός, Lat. tenebrosus ). The picture of him as "the weeping philosopher" cannot be traced further back than late in the 1st century b.c., and may rest on a peripatetic term describing his style as "impulsive," but misunderstood as "melancholy."

Teaching. The philosophy contained in the fragments has been interpreted through the centuries in widely differing ways. In plato it is seen as an overall doctrine of flux in which nothing is stable, and is summed up (Crat. 439C) in the assertion that all things are always flowing (εόντων). This was understood by Plato (Theaet. 179E183C) and aristotle (Meta. 1005b 231012a34) as a denial of being in things and an explanation of all reality in terms only of change, with the consequent rejection of definite meanings for words. From another standpoint, that of material cause, the Greek doxographers looked upon Heraclitus as a philosopher of nature. The view can be traced to Aristotle's brief statement (Meta. 984a 78) that for Heraclitus the basic material principlefrom which all things in the universe developedwas fire. In accord with the doxographical tradition, most interpreters continue to regard Heraclitus as an Ionian cosmologist. A third view handed down from antiquity is that Heraclitus was primarily a moral philosopher, using physical doctrines only to establish his moral teachings (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9.12, 15).

Perhaps no more than ten of the fragments (frgs. 30, 31, 36, 64, 66, 67, 76, 90, 94, 126) have a patently cosmological meaning, and even these appear readily adaptable to driving home moral considerations. In general the fragments, including the first two, seem concerned predominantly with showing men how to live. Proclaiming that a waking life means solidarity with one's surroundings (frgs. 1, 72), they strive to base human conduct upon what is "common" (frgs. 2, 89) and ultimately upon one divine law, which is common to all (frg. 114). They are definite in the meanings they assign to words, and in the assertion of a common, enduring, unified order throughout all things. The order is achieved by maintaining the correct tensions (frg. 51) between ever-changing opposites. Hence its abiding condition is strife or war (frg. 80). Eternal, uncreated, the world order is a living fire that regulates all things according to fixed measures (frgs. 30, 66, 94). In this way fire is a medium of exchange (frg.90) as it becomes other things (frg. 31) and all other things are exchanged for it. It guides all (frg. 64).

The notion of God or the divine seems merged in the common unity of opposites (frgs. 32, 67, 102) that is the all-pervading direction of things. To understand it is wisdom (frg. 41). By Stoic and patristic writers and by most moderns it is called the logos, in a Stoic sense, though without ground in pre-Stoic tradition and with doubtful support in the fragments. The soul is described as though a material nature (frgs. 117, 118), having depths that can never be penetrated (frgs. 45, 115), and as surviving some time after death (frgs. 26, 27).

Meaning. While there is no general agreement on the meaning of Heraclitus's thought, its vigor and depth are uncontested. Though without a philosophical notion it makes intelligence supreme in the direction of things of the supersensible in regard to either God or the soul, and penetrates deeply into the basic moral problem of the common or universal in the incessantly changing circumstances of life. The fragments continue to inspire philosophers, and can always be pondered over with renewed intellectual profit.

See Also: greek philosophy.

Bibliography: heraclitus, The Cosmic Fragments, ed. g. s. kirk (Cambridge, Eng. 1954). diogenes laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, tr. r. d. hicks, Loeb Classical Library (New York 1925; reprint Cambridge, Mass. 1942). p. e. wheelwright, Heraclitus (Princeton 1959). j. owens, "The Interpretation of the Heraclitean Fragments," An Étienne Gilson Tribute, ed. c. j. o'neil (Milwaukee 1959) 148168. w. k. c. guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, Eng. 1962) 1:403492. m. marcovich, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, suppl. 10 (1965) 246320.

[j. owens]


views updated May 21 2018


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). □


views updated May 23 2018


Circa 540-Circa 480 b.c.e



An Enigma . For the ancient world, Heraclitus (also spelled Heracleitus or Herakleitos) was always skoteinos, “dark” and “obscure.” This reputation was due as much to his riddling, prophetic style as to the exact nature of the mysterious logos or reason he saw hidden beneath the flow and flux of appearances. Tradition has it that, despite the political privileges that came from his birth into one of the aristocratic families of Ephesus, he rejected leadership in favor of the life of a misanthropic hermit, living alone in the mountains, eating plants and grass. Haughty and aloof, rude and enigmatic, he was famous for his caustic wit and his rejection of most other thinkers as learned but far from intelligent or wise.

Fire. The one book that Heraclitus apparently wrote, On Nature, or Muses (circa 500 b.c.e.), is lost, and later scholars have summarized his teachings. Heraclitus believed that fire is the basis of the universe, writing that the world order is an “ever-living fire kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.” The contest between opposite forces (Good and Evil, Hot and Cold, Love and Strife) is a major theme of his teachings. Heraclitus supposedly died at the age of sixty after burying himself up to the neck in hot cow dung in an attempt to cure himself of dropsy.


David Sider, “Heraclitus,” in Ancient Greek Authors, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 176, edited by Ward W. Briggs (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Detroit: Gale Research, 1997), pp. 176-181.


views updated Jun 11 2018

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”.

Heraclitus of Ephesus

views updated May 23 2018

Heraclitus of Ephesus

fl. c. 500 b.c.

Greek philosopher to whom is attributed the doctrine that "all things are in flux and nothing is stable"—meaning the world is composed of opposites whose dynamic and constant tension gives rise to the apparent stability around us. Though often interpreted to mean everything is continually changing and therefore unknowable, Heraclitus did not deny the possibility of obtaining knowledge from sensory experience. On the contrary, he maintained that sensory experience, guided by proper understanding, was necessary to discovering the "Logos" that underlies and explains all things.


views updated Jun 11 2018

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.