Heraclitus c. 540 B.C.–c. 480 B.C.
One of the most powerful Greek thinkers and prose artists of the archaic age, Heraclitus has been described by Charles H. Kahn as "perhaps the only pre-Socratic philosopher whose thought is of more than historical interest today." A lover of metaphor and paradox, he embodied his theories concerning man's role within the universe, and the nature of knowledge and meaning in a collection of aphoristic passages, approximately 125 of which have been culled from the writings of subsequent authors who quote Heraclitus's lost work. He is best known for developing the concept of logos (often translated as "reason" or "proportion") as the governing principle of the cosmos and for the view that the natural world is in a state of constant flux. As a result of his deliberately obscure and oracular literary style, Heraclitus continues to engender a great deal of commentary among contemporary scholars and philosophers.
Virtually nothing is known with certainty about the facts of Heraclitus's life. From the meager evidence contained in his philosophical fragments, scholars believe that he belonged to an aristocratic family in Ephesus and that he resigned in his brother's favor the hereditary office of king, which is believed to have been an honorary title. There is no evidence that he ever traveled beyond Ephesus, although he clearly was conversant with the flowering of natural philosophy in the Ionian region and with the thought of such philosophers as Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes, and Pythagoras. Most scholars believe that Heraclitus responded to the questions posed by his philosophical contemporaries in a single short work which according to Aristotle, he deposited in the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. This book has not survived, and all that we know of Heraclitus's theories derives from quotations and paraphrases preserved in later writers from Plato through the early centuries of Christianity.
Scholars maintain that the unique achievement of Heraclitus was to articulate a philosophy that presented seeming opposites and contradictions as reflections of the fundamental unity of the universe. Kahn has stated that the central insight of Heraclitus was the "identity of structure between the inner, personal world of the psyche and the larger natural order of the universe." From what survives of his thought, scholars believe that Heraclitus was essentially concerned with elucidating the nature of the human condition in such a manner that life and death, youth and old age, sleeping and waking could be reconciled by a single principle. At times Heraclitus calls this unifying principle both fire and logos, a virtually untranslatable term that encompasses such meanings as speech, reason, thought, and proportion. Among the most commented upon of Heraclitus's statements are the fragments "The way up and down is one and the same" and "The sea is the purest and foulest water: for fish drinkable and life-sustaining; for men undrinkable and deadly." While he believed that there was unity in the cosmos, Heraclitus also stressed the fluid, ever-changing nature of reality. He is perhaps best known for the statements "All things flow" and "It is not possible to step into the same river twice"—statements which some scholars do not believe Heraclitus actually wrote.
The obscurity of Heraclitus's literary style has made him the source of heated inquiry for centuries. Scholars believe that Heraclitus was viewed as a seminal thinker by the time of his death. The fact that crucial Heraclitean fragments are contained in the works of Plato and Aristotle has been considered as evidence that the philosopher had acquired authoritative status early on. The Stoic philosophers particularly claimed allegiance with his philosophy and believed that his conception of the place of logos in the universe prefigured their own cosmology. Heraclitus's writings were often quoted by early Christian writers; Clement of Alexandria considered the philosopher to have been a pagan prophet of the Last Judgment, and Hippolytus of Rome saw him as a source of heresy. In the nineteenth century, Heraclitus became a serious topic of study for such philosophers as Hegel and Nietzsche. After reading the surviving fragments, Hegel exclaimed, "Here we see land! There is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my logic." The twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger was particularly influenced by Heraclitus and wrote extensively on him and other Presocratic thinkers. Throughout the twentieth century there has been an increasing amount of scholarly activity devoted to Heraclitus by Anglo-American classical scholars and philosophers. Much of this scholarship has been concerned with placing his work in historical context as well as with understanding him on his own terms. Consequently, the primary thrust of recent critical activity has been devoted to elucidating precise meanings for such key Heraclitean concepts as fire, change, the soul, and logos.
Principal English Translations
SOURCE: B. A. G. Fuller, "Heracleitus," in History of Greek Philosophy: Thales to Democritus, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 118-42.
[In the following excerpt, Fuller provides an overview of Heraclitus 's philosophical theories, focusing in particular on the doctrines of flux and wisdom.]
Just a hundred years separate Heracleitus from Thales. Born at Ephesus some time in the latter half of the Sixth Century, he was in his prime about 500 B.C., and it is probable that he lived to see the battle of Marathon, and perhaps that of Salamis. Of his work we possess only fragments, and these are written in a style which already in antiquity had gained him the title of "the obscure." By birth an aristocrat of the aristocrats—the religious title and office of "king" seems to have been hereditary in his family—he was himself, a later biographer1 tells us, an arrogant and haughty man. For the "people" and democratic government he had a keen disdain, founded not wholly upon the prejudice of his class, but in part at any rate upon a very just appreciation of their faults. Certainly he had estimated quite correctly what has proved to be a constant and apparently incorrigible petulance in the temper of democracy at all times and places, when, apropos of the exile of his friend Hermodorus, he put into the mouths of his fellow-Ephesians the cry, "We will have none who is best among us; if there be any...
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SOURCE: Heinrich Gomperz, "Heraclitus of Ephesus," in Philosophical Studies, edited by Daniel S. Robinson, The Christopher Publishing House, 1953, pp. 88-107.
[In the following excerpt originally published in 1939, Gomperz examines the Heraclitean concepts of the Cosmos, Fire, Becoming, and Change, remarking upon problems with commonly assumed views of his major tenets.]
It is a pleasure to present to an outstanding scholar of modern Greece a summary of investigations on the philosophy of Heraclitus that have now been carried on for almost thirty years. Unfortunately it will be but a very incomplete sketch, since time and space fail and much important material is not available here.
It would be interesting to know when Heraclitus' book was written—if, indeed, it was composed at any one time and does not rather represent the result of long and continuous elaboration. At any rate, it contains, in a most condensed and even compressed form, the result of lifelong speculation and we may perhaps assume that its author worked on it until he felt that death was near. Tradition will have it that he died at the age of sixty and that he had "flourished" about 500 B.C., that is to say, that he was somehow connected with some historical event connected with that date. If he was from 30 to 50 then, his book was probably completed at some time between 490 and 470. From the way in which he mentions...
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SOURCE: G. S. Kirk, "Natural Change in Heraclitus," in The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander P. D. Mourelatos, Anchor Books, 1974, pp. 189-96.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1951, Kirk examines Heraclitus's doctrine of change, contending that it emphasizes the order and regularity of change and not, as has been claimed, a universal and constant change.]
The thought of Heraclitus of Ephesus is still often summarized as "All things are flowing," panta rhei; by which it is inferred that everything is in constant change. This summary goes back ultimately to Plato, who at Cratylus 402a wrote as follows: "Heraclitus says somewhere that everything is moving and nothing stays still, and likening things to the flow of a river he says that you could not step twice into the same river." Plato's interpretation was adopted by Aristotle, and through him by Theophrastus, whose "Opinions of the Physicists" became the basis of all later ancient accounts. In recent decades, however, some scholars have become skeptical about the accuracy of the Platonic-Aristotelian interpretation of Heraclitus' views on change; and with good cause, for the fact is that there is nothing in the extant fragments about the constant flux of all things, even though one would have expected the survival of some original support for a view so widely...
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SOURCE: Edward Hussey, "Heraclitus," in The Presocratics, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 32-59.
[In the following excerpt, Hussey provides an overview of Heraclitus 's thought, particularly his concept of logos, and contends that the point of many of his paradoxical writings was to offer analogies.]
In the middle of the sixth century, the Ionian cities of the Asiatic coast had for some time been tributaries of the kingdom of Lydia. The Lydian kings were not hard masters; the last of the line, Croesus, was distinctly phil-Hellene and was sincerely admired by many Greeks. But in 546 Croesus was defeated by the invading Persians under Cyrus, and the Ionians were faced with subjection to a new and much greater power. The new Persian empire was far more efficient and on a larger scale than anything these Greeks had yet seen. The Ionian territory would form an insignificant and peripheral part of the vast areas controlled by the Great King from the region of modern Iran.
Thales, according to Herodotus (1 170), had proposed that the Ionians should form themselves into a federal state to meet the Persian danger. This novel suggestion was not adopted, and the coastal cities were reduced to submission one by one. Many Ionians emigrated; the Persians seem to have interfered in the internal politics of the cities and to have checked the spread of political equality—or it was feared that they would...
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SOURCE: Jean Beaufret, "Heraclitus and Parmenides," in Heidegger on Heraclitus: A New Reading, edited by Kenneth Maly and Parvis Emad, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1986, pp. 69-88.
[In the following essay, originally written in French and published in 1973, Beaufret argues that both the philosophy of Heraclitus and that of Parmenides are concerned with change and permanence and are not as opposed to each other as is commonly believed.]
If the world is of the opinion that the pre-Socratics are rich in original figures, then Heraclitus and Parmenides are radiantly central figures in that world. For it is with Heraclitus and Parmenides that the foundations of Western thinking are laid. It is to them that our own thinking returns, as if to a mysterious source which is still alive and always at the foundation of our thoughts. One can say that it is through them that we think, even if we do not think of them; for they are the light in which the depth of our world is initially revealed—a depth which we do not cease to be and yet which remains for us all the more enigmatic and withdrawn, the more we belong to it as the most intimate part of our history that has taken place and is still to come.
Heraclitus of Ephesus (called "the obscure") has left us a collection of utterances, of which one hundred can be regarded as genuine and are named "fragments." It is possible that these fragments are...
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SOURCE: Charles H. Kahn, in an introduction to The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 1-23.
[In the following excerpt, Kahn offers a survey of Heraclitus 's historical and intellectual context, paying particular attention to the philosopher's links with Ionian natural philosophy. Kahn maintains that Heraclitus 's "real subject is not the physical world but the human condition, the condition of mortality."]
1 The Man, the Time, and the Place
The details of Heraclitus' life are almost completely unknown. Reliable information is limited to the fact that he was a native of Ephesus, on the coast of Asia Minor north of Miletus, and that his father's name was Bloson. His approximate date is fixed by a synchronism with the reign of Darius, 521 to 487 B.C.; his traditional 'acme' in the 69th Olympiad, 504-501 B.C., is probably nothing more than a simplified version of the same synchronism.1 The rough accuracy of this date, on the threshold of the fifth century, is guaranteed by fragment XVIII (D. 40), where Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus are cited as older contemporaries or figures of the recent past. All three men seem to have died between 510 and 480 B.C.2 The book dates itself, then, in or near this period. The same approximate date could be inferred from the presence or absence of various philosophical influences: there...
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SOURCE: David Wiggins, "Heraclitus' Conceptions of Flux, Fire and Material Persistence," in Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy Presented to G. E. L. Owen, edited by Malcolm Schofield and Martha Craven Nussbaum, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 1-32.
[In the following essay, Wiggins explores the context and meaning of Heraclitean theories of flux, fire, and material persistence, arguing that Heraclitus developed these concepts as a response to the natural philosophy of the Milesian thinkers Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Thales.]
Even when they are most worthy of amazement, things of daily occurrence pass us by unnoticed.
Seneca, Quaestiones Naturelles 7.1.1
It can hardly be supposed that a false theory would explain, in so satisfactory a manner as does the theory of natural selection, the several large classes of fact above specified. It has recently been argued that this is an unsafe method of arguing; but it is a method used in judging of the common events of life, and has often been used by the greatest natural philosophers.
Charles Darwin, Origin of Species
1 Heraclitus and the Milesians
1.1 In recent decades there has been a tendency among scholars to question whether Heraclitus...
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SOURCE: Edward Hussey, "Epistemology and Meaning in Heraclitus," in Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy Presented to G E. L. Owen, edited by Malcolm Schofield and Martha Craven Nussbaum, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 33-59.
[In the following excerpt, Hussey examines several rules for the interpretation of sense-experience which he contends Heraclitus followed. The editors have included only those footnotes which pertain to the excerpt.]
1. Epistemology: the programme
1.1 The hypothesis to be explored claims that at the heart of Heraclitus' thought there lies a remarkable and characteristic epistemology, and that it is this above all that must first be grasped if his account of the world is to be understood. It will help to begin with a statement of what would be agreed about Heraclitus' epistemology by many scholars.
I shall treat as non-controversial the position summarised in the rest of the present paragraph. Heraclitus is deeply interested in the problem of knowledge. He sharply rejects the claims to be guides to knowledge of (a) ordinary common sense; (b) popular and traditional beliefs; (c) much of traditional Greek religion; (d) the older accepted authorities, Homer and Hesiod; (e) more recent claimants of such diverse kinds as Archilochus, Xenophanes, Hecataeus and Pythagoras. Against all these, and in support of his...
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SOURCE: Malcolm Schofield, "Heraclitus' Theory of Soul and Its Antecedents," in Psychology, edited by Stephen Everson, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 13-34.
[In the essay below, Scholfield explores Heraclitus's conception of the soul and psychology, concluding that the philosopher held the soul to be, like the universe itself, "a physical substance subject to the unity of opposites and to opposite sequences of transformations."]
For souls it is death to become water, for water it is death to become earth; from earth water comesto-be, and from water, soul.
A dry soul is wisest and best.
A man when he is drunk is led by an unfledged boy, stumbling and not knowing where he goes, having his soul moist.
You would not find out the boundaries of soul, even by travelling along every path: so deep a measure does it have.
(KRS 229-32 (=nos. of Frr. in ), frr. 36, 118, 117, 45)
We have now given a general answer to the question, What is soul? It is substance in the sense which corresponds to the account of a thing. That means that it is what it is to be for a body of the character just assigned. Suppose that a tool, e.g. an axe, were a natural body, then being an axe would have been its essence, and so...
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Barnes, Jonathan. "The Natural Philosophy of Heraclitus." In his The Presocratic Philosophers, Vol. 1: Thaïes to Zeno, pp. 57-99. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
Concludes that Heraclitus's thought is firmly in the Ionian tradition and that he "offered a philosophy of science which exhibits an admirable articulation, and foreshadows one of the most influential of Aristotle's doctrines, the doctrine of real essence."
Burnet, John. "Herakleitos and Parmenides." In his Greek Philosophy, Part 1: Thaïes to Plato, pp. 57-68. London: Macmillan & Co., 1920.
Classic general account of early Greek philosophy that states that Heraclitus, "despite his prophetic tone and his use of religious languages, never broke through the secularism and pantheism of the Ionians."
Emlyn-Jones, C. J. "Heraclitus and the Identity of Opposites." Phronesis XXI, No. 2 (1976): 89-114.
Examination of the relationship between opposites in Heraclitus's thought and their relationship to other elements in his philosophy, maintaining that "the identity of opposites is presented as a mystery which has objective existence outside men and controls their lives, although it is only dimly grasped by most of them."
Guthrie, W. K. C. "Heraclitus."...
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