Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3019
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.
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.
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 the direction of the fiery ether. Soul and ether are the same material.
Soul is linked to Logos, but its roots are in the human body that it inhabits. Soul is possibly the healing principle in the body: Heraclitus likened the soul to a spider that, when its web is torn, goes to the site of the injury. Soul is born from moisture and dies when it absorbs too much water. Drunkenness was to Heraclitus a truly bad habit: A moist soul had diminished faculties as its body was also diminished, in that its intellect was stunted and its physical strength lessened.
Though the body was subject to decomposition, some souls seem to have been exempted from physical death (becoming water). Certain situations, among them dying in battle, tune the soul to such a heightened state (with the soul unusually motivated and not weakened by illness and old age) that it merges directly with the world fire. After death, there seems to be no survival of personal identity, though it is likely that the soul-stuff is merged with the Logos and that the Logos is the source of souls that exist in the physical world. Evidently, soul material follows a cycling process of its own. Heraclitus saw that the world was a unity of many parts, but the unity was not immediately manifest. The oneness of the world was the result of an infinite multiplicity. Heraclitus thought that the key to understanding this multiplicity was to look upon the world in terms of the abstract concept of harmony.
Pythagoras had previously used musical harmony in explaining the attunement and orderliness that he saw in the universe. Heraclitus, however, used the concept of harmony in a different way. He believed that harmony existed only where and when there was opposition. A single note struck on a lyre has no harmony of itself. Any two notes struck together, however, form a tension or a contrast between the two sounds, creating a continuum of possible notes between the two notes that have been struck. In terms of a continuum of hot and cold temperatures, not only do the extremes exist, but so also does the continuum exist, bounded by the extremes. At every point between the extremes of hot and cold, there is an identifiable point that has a specific temperature that is a function of both extremes.
Similarly, every virtue has a corresponding vice. Neither extreme on this scale is especially significant in human behavior: Few people, if any, represent extremes of either virtue or vice; most live in the continuum between. Ethical considerations motivate good individuals to tend toward the good in a choice between good and evil, and the measure of one’s soul is where one stands on the continuum defined by good and evil. Heraclitus’s most controversial statement on the subject was that the opposites that define the continuum are identical. Hate and love, therefore, would have to be one and the same. The absence of either defining term destroys the continuum, and without the continuum the two extremes cannot relate to each other. They define a world in which the people are passionate haters and ardent lovers, with no real people in between. The harmony that Heraclitus discerned was dependent on the tension between two opposites. The cosmos was, for him, a carefully and beautifully balanced entity, poised between a great multiplicity of contrasting interests, engaged in continual strife. The sum total of all these contrasting interests, however, was the harmony that no one saw except the truly enlightened souls. Only the Logos, which was One, and which created and tuned the harmony, was exempt from the balancing of opposites.
Perhaps the best known of Heraclitus’s observations is that everything in the universe is constantly moving and changing. He considered all matter to be in a state of constant transformation from one form to a different form and, at the same time, from one set of physical qualities to another. Not only did he believe that the Logos bestowed life on all its parts, but he also believed that the forms of matter were intrinsically alive and that the flux was a function of the life within the matter. All life was caught up in the constant change: Everything was involved in processes of decomposition and in the reconstitution of new forms from the products of decay.
As the Greeks viewed the world, they saw only the portions of the movement that were available within the limits of their senses. Though they were not aware of the whole spectrum of movement, they were intelligent enough to extrapolate from what they could perceive. A continuous stream of water wearing away a stone was to them a good reminder of the fact that many processes of change were not perceptible in their time scale.
Heraclitus summed it up poetically in his famous analogy: “You cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh waters are flowing on.” From one second to the next, the flux of things changes the world; though the river is the same river, the flux of things has moved its waters downstream, and new water from upstream has replaced the old. According to Diogenes Laërtius and others, “The cosmos is born out of fire and again resolved into fire in alternate periods for ever.” One line of interpretation is that the world is periodically destroyed by a universal conflagration. More plausible, however, is the assumption that this is a restatement of Heraclitus’s doctrine that fire is the one primal element from which all others derive and into which all elements are eventually transmuted by the workings of the eternal flux. In support of this argument is a phrase from the remaining fragments of Heraclitus’s work: “From all things one, and from one all things.” In Heraclitus’s cosmology, however, there was the concept of a Great Year that occurred every 10,800 years, at which time the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies returned to a hypothetical starting place. These bodies, though they were not exempt from the principle of constant flux, were permanent in their forms and in their heavenly paths. Beyond the measured paths of their orbits was the fiery ether of the unmoving Logos.
Heraclitus was quite unlike his contemporaries, both in terms of his personality and in the nature and scope of his thoughts. Whereas the works of his contemporaries were more in the line of primitive scientific inquiry, the endeavors of Heraclitus were more closely akin to poesy and perhaps prophecy. His aim was not to discover the material world but to seek out the governing principles within and behind the physical forms. In this respect, he was the most mystical of the Greeks.
Though the body of Heraclitus’s work is faulted by time, by problems of interpretation, and by obscurity of the text (some of which was solely Heraclitus’s fault), it is clear that he believed he had provided a definitive view of the processes that govern the cosmos and the workings of the human soul. His ideas were novel and daring in their time. At the center of his cosmos is the concept of constant change, which masks the concept of unity: All things are in balance, yet all things are in motion and transition, with fire playing the central role, and the Logos disposing and directing the parts. The Logos also governs human actions, reaching into the deeper parts of the personality, with the Oversoul touching the soul material within, fire outside calling to the fire within to awake, to look, to learn, to become, and to unite.
Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. 1892. 4th ed. Reprint. London: A&C Black, 1975. Chapter 3 is devoted to Heraclitus and is probably the best of the nineteenth century English works that discuss Heraclitus. It has considerable insight and is readable without being dated.
Cohen, S. Mark, Patricia Curd, and C. D. C. Reeve, eds. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995. Good introduction to Greek philosophers and their writings. Heraclitus’s fragments are presented in straightforward English without commentary.
Dilcher, Roman. Studies in Heraclitus. New York: Olms, 1995. Intensive examination of Heraclitus. The first chapters examine the existing fragments as they relate to the conditions of human existence. The later chapters attempt to give coherence to his philosophy and resolve obscure or puzzling statements. Ends with a broad perspective of his work.
Kirk, G. S. Heraclitus, the Cosmic Fragments. 1954. Reprint. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. A deep and thorough analysis of some of the Heraclitian fragments, this volume focuses on the “cosmic” fragments—those that are relevant to the world as a whole, the Logos, the doctrine of opposites, and the action of fire.
Kirk, G. S., and J. E. Raven. The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts. 1957. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. One of the chapters provides a very good analysis of Heraclitus. The book itself is one of the very best on Greek thought and the individual Greek philosophers.
Mourelatos, Alexander. The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1974. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. A collection of critical essays covering the major contemporaries of Heraclitus. Included in the book are four fine essays on Heraclitus.
Robinson, T. M. Heraclitus: Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary. 1987. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Good first approach to Heraclitus. The introductory section examines his life and offers an overview of his work and contemporary testimony. Heraclitus’s fragments are presented with side-by-side Greek text and English translation followed by concise commentary. Study concludes with a summary of his philosophical thinking, short paragraphs on Heraclitus’s peers, and a detailed bibliography.
Schur, David. The Way of Oblivion: Heraclitus and Kafka. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Schur examines Heraclitus’s and Kafka’s work and finds similarities between the two.
Sweet, Dennis. Heraclitus: Translation and Analysis. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995. Opens with a brief look at Heraclitus’s life. The rest examines the fragments, detailing Greek text and English translation plus commentary on facing pages. The study concludes with an analysis of Heraclitus’s main themes that permeate the fragments.
Wheelwright, Philip. Heraclitus. 1959. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. An excellent and well-written volume, the text reads very well because footnotes and matter not relevant to main points are relegated to the end of the book. Includes a very good bibliography.
Wilcox, Joel. The Origins of Epistemology in Early Greek Thought: A Study of Psyche and Logos in Heraclitus. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1994. A critical evaluation of Heraclitus and his thought.
Bibliography updated by Terry Theodore