Heraclitus of Ephesus Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)
0111205858-Heraclitus.jpg Heraclitus of Ephesus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Heraclitus formulated one of the earliest and most comprehensive theories of the nature of the world, the cosmos, and the soul. His theory that the soul pervades all parts of the universe and its inhabitants stood in contrast to the ideas of his more mechanistic contemporaries.

Early Life

According to the third century biographer Diogenes Laërtius (whose biographies provide some of the only information about the Greek philosophers), Heraclitus was born in the city of Ephesus to an important family that had an ancient and respected reputation. Through his family, he inherited public office, but he resigned in favor of his brother. When his friend Hermodorus was expelled from Ephesus, Heraclitus protested publicly and subsequently withdrew from public life. Heraclitus was a man of great personal integrity whose main purpose in life was to find the truth and proclaim it for the benefit of humankind, irrespective of the consequences. He attacked the sacred festival of the Bacchanalia, condemned the worship of images of the gods, and spoke unkind words about Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Hecataeus, and Hesiod. His arrogance was legendary. Heraclitus insisted that he was the sole bearer of the truth. He thought that common people were too weak of wit to understand the truth, claiming that his work was meant for the few who were intelligent.

To complicate the difficulty presented by this posture, his writings (those that survived) present special problems. Aristotle and Theophrastus observed that his statements were sometimes ambiguous, incomplete, and contradictory. It is no wonder that his contemporaries named him the Riddler, the Obscure One, and the Dark One. Heraclitus was well aware of their criticism, but he was dedicated to his own high purposes.

Life’s Work

The major work of Heraclitus that has come down to us, of which only fragments remain, was titled Peri physeos. He dedicated the work to Artemis and left a scroll of it in her temple, an act that was not unusual in that culture. Heraclitus would not qualify as a scientist; his talent was more that of the mystic. He had the ability to see further into the nature of things than others did. He was the first to unify the natural and the spiritual worlds, while others saw only the discrete components of nature. Anaximander and Heraclitus were both impressed with the ceaseless change of the temporal world and formulated theories about the primal matter of the universe. Anaximander’s primal matter was colorless and tasteless, and otherwise had no characteristics. For Heraclitus, however, that which underlay the world of form and matter was not substance but process.

Heraclitus saw the world as a place where change, at every level and every phase of existence, was the most important phenomenon. The basic element of change, and at the heart of the process, was fire. The processes governing the world involved the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. According to Heraclitus, fire was the element from which the others devolved, and it was always in motion. It was fire in the form of body heat that kept animal forms in motion; it was also able to transform and consume the other basic elements. In essence, air was hot and wet, water was cold and wet, earth was cold and dry, and fire was hot and dry. Under certain circumstances, each of the four elements could be transformed into another (enough water could quench fire; a hot enough fire could reduce earth to ash, or water to steam). All the possible transformations were happening at any given time somewhere in the universe, such as in the cooking of a meal, the thawing of the winter ice, the volcanism of Mount Etna—and even in phenomena known to Heraclitus, such as the atmospheric disturbances of the sunspot cycle or the explosion of a supernova.

Heraclitus described two fundamental directions of this change. In the downward path, some of the fire thickens and becomes the ocean, while part of the ocean dies and becomes land. On the upward path, moist exhalations from the ocean and the land rise and become clouds; they then ignite (perhaps in the form of lightning) and return to fire (presumably the fiery ether, which was thought to dwell in the heights of the sky). If the fiery clouds from which the lightning comes are extinguished, however, then there is a whirlwind (a waterspout, perhaps), and once again the fire returns to the sea and the cycle is complete. All this transformation was not, however, simply random motion. There was a cosmic master plan, the Logos. Nothing in the English language translates Logos perfectly. As it stands in the beginning of the Gospel of John, it is usually translated as the Word, which is clearly inadequate in context and requires a definition. In Heraclitus’s time, Logos could mean reputation or high worth. This meaning devolved from another definition of Logos: narrative or story.

The flexibility of the word has been a source of considerable debate. The three most important meanings of the word are (1) general rule or general principle, (2) the carrying out of a general principle, and (3) that which belongs distinctly to the realm of humanness, the faculty of reasoning. First and foremost, the Logos is the universal law, or plan, or process, that animates the whole cosmos. The Logos is the cosmos; it inhabits the cosmos. It is also what makes the difference between the sleeping human and the awakened human. It is, in humans, the wisdom to perceive that the Logos (on the highest level of abstraction) is immanent in the cosmos, that it is the universe’s governing principle. That is the fountainhead of true knowledge in Heraclitus’s system. All humans have the Logos in common. What they specifically have in common is the realization or perception that they are a part of the whole, which is the Logos. Without that realization they are fundamentally asleep. Within the slumbering human, the Logos lies dormant. Even if humans are technically awake, however, they can still be subject to error if they follow their own private “truth,” that is, their own inclinations, and prefer their subjectivity more than they value the Logos. The self-dependence that one would call individuality could then be considered a violation of the Logos.

Though the physical senses are not attuned to the perception of the Logos, they are important in the process that leads to wisdom. For example, the ability to see is a prerequisite that may eventually lead to the perception that there is a plan to the universe. The senses are the mediators between that which is human and that which is cosmic. They are the windows that, during waking hours, connect the human with the portion of the Logos that can be perceived. During sleeping hours those channels are closed and the direct participation in the cosmos ceases. Respiration then becomes a channel by which the direct access can be maintained; the act of breathing maintains minimal contact. The Logos can be considered the soul of the universe. Each awakened human has a portion of higher enlightenment: the soul. Logos, Soul, and Cosmic Fire are eventually different aspects of the same abstraction—the everlasting truth that directs the universe and its conscious constituents. According to Heraclitus, the enlightened soul is hot and dry, like fire, which is why it tends upward, in...

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